(Not) Lost in the Mall

© Petro Feketa |123RF.com

© Petro Feketa |123RF.com

Elizabeth Loftus became a pariah to the repressed memory movement in 1990s when she published her seminal study, “The Formation of False Memories,” famously known as the “Lost in the Mall” study. Simply put, Loftus and her graduate student were able to successfully plant a pseudo-memory in 6 of the 24 individuals in the study that they were lost in a mall at the age of five. Loftus said that if there were three words to describe memory, she would say it is suggestive, subjective, and malleable. Here is a brief YouTube video describing the experiment. Here is one that includes an interview with one of the study’s participants.

She concluded her study saying that people can be led to remember entire events that never happened; events that were “biologically or geographically impossible.” Without independent corroboration, Loftus said, we cannot reliably distinguish between real and false memories. The study has become well known enough, that the technique of memory implantation is referred to as the “lost in the mall” technique.

It led to ethics complaints filed against Loftus with the American Psychological Association (APA) by two individuals who had successfully won lawsuits against family members who sexually abused them. Loftus resigned from the APA before being informed of the ethics complaints, and no charges were brought against her. These two individuals published articles in the journal Ethics & Behavior, claiming that what Loftus had done in her study was a breach of ethics.

Loftus responded in the same volume of Ethics & Behavior, “Lost-in-the-Mall: Misrepresentations and misunderstandings.” The link is to her abstract. If you google the title, you will see a researchgate.net link to a pdf of her original response. Loftus systematically and methodically addressed a variety of their accusations, noting where they had misrepresented or misunderstood her research and claims. Some of the issues she addressed included: how she developed the idea of being “lost in a mall” for the experiment; how there were several other similar studies at the time investigating “the malleability of memory;” and showing where the two individuals charging her with a breach of ethics had falsely accused Loftus of misrepresenting the study’s results under oath.

There was even a response from Psychology Today that discussed the charges of misrepresentation against Loftus and her resignation from the APA. Jill Neimark commented on how Loftus has been violently hated by some women and psychotherapists (repressed memory specialists?), who seemed to be trying to destroy her reputation. Neimark noted how Loftus’ resignation from the APA was in response to a report she had been asked to complete for a special task force on recovered memory. “Its six psychologists had become so polarized–along exactly the same fault lines as the culture at large–that they produced two separate reports.”

The complaints [linked above], when studied, are baseless. Nobody would resign over them. What they seem to poignantly reveal is the sound and fury of women so enmeshed in pain and anger that, though both claim to have wonderful lives, they cannot turn swords into plowshares and walk away from a battle that gave their lives tremendous, if tormented, meaning.

Why take the time to rehash this? Because I want to introduce you to a TED talk by Elizabeth Loftus, who has continued to research and study false memories. In her talk she shared some compelling stories and statistics that raise important ethical questions on memory. She began with a story of a man who was wrongly identified as a rapist and convicted of the crime. The key evidence in his conviction was that he was identified, wrongly as it turned out, by the victim. Loftus noted a project with information on 300 individuals who were falsely convicted and imprisoned up to thirty years for crimes they didn’t commit. DNA testing proved they were actually innocent.  When these cases were analyzed for how they were wrongly convicted in the first place, it was discovered that 75% of them were due to faulty eyewitness memory.

“Many people believe that memory works like a recording device. . . . But decades of work in psychology has shown that this just isn’t true.” Memory is constructive and reconstructive. It’s a bit like a wikipedia page, said Loftus. You can go in there and change it, but so can other people. Loftus was recently part of a study with military personnel who were undergoing training to be prepared for what could happen if they were ever captured as prisoners of war.  “In some conditions more than half of the subjects exposed to a misleading photograph falsely identified a different individual as their interrogator after the interrogation was over.” When you feed someone suggestive (mis)information, you can distort, contaminate or change their memory.

She described how the 1990s raised the specter of repressed memories, sometimes, of horrific acts of ritualized sexual abuse. When she began to look at these “bizarre, unlikely” claims, Loftus noticed that many of them involved experiences with psychotherapy using techniques of imagination, dream interpretation, and hypnosis; sometimes exposure to false information. Her “Lost in the Mall” study came out of that context.

There have been other studies done that successfully implanted false memories besides those done by Loftus. A study in Tennessee planted a false memory of narrowly escaping from drowning as a child. A Canadian study successfully implanted a false childhood memory of a vicious attack by an animal—50% of the time. In Italy, they were able to successfully implant a false memory of witnessing demonic possession as a child.

Loftus then described newer studies she’s done that have shown where false memories can influence later behavior. False memories of sickness with certain foods resulted in less consumption of that food at a picnic; planting a “warm fuzzy” memory of a healthy food like asparagus, could motivate people to eat more asparagus. These studies have shown how false memories can effect later behavior long after the memories take told. So now there are new ethical questions being raised. When should we use this technique? Should we ban its use? She suggested that parents could use this technique to get their children to eat healthier foods; or to eat less. And again, Loftus was vilified.

If I’ve learned anything from these decades of working on these problems, it’s this. Just because somebody tells you something and they say it with confidence, just because they say it with lots of detail, just because they express emotion when they say it, it doesn’t mean that it really happened. We can’t reliably distinguish true memories from false memories. We need independent corroboration. . . . Memory like liberty, is a fragile thing.

Julia Shaw and Stephen Porter recently published a false memory study where they successfully planted a memory of committing a crime in the minds of 21 of 30 (70%) undergraduates. None of the participants had a criminal history. Within another group of 30 undergraduates in the same study, 23 of 30 (76%) believed they had experienced a traumatic event as a teenager.  “And they were able to do it within only three hours.”  In an article about this research, Susan Perry noted that neuroimaging studies have shown “that true and false memories trigger the same kind of brain activity patterns.” Again the researchers stressed the importance of independent corroboration to reliably tell the difference between true and false memories.

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