Psychobabble: Elizabeth Lofthus

By Keir Liddle

As it’s Ada Lovelace day I would like to write about a female scientist and psychologist who has inspired me as a psychologist and a skeptic.

Elizabeth Lofthus is, to my mind, one of the giants on whose shoulders psychologists researching memory stand and someone whose influence exceeds academia and extends into the courtroom and elsewhere.

She is famous for her work debunking false and repressed memories and has been  involved in the high-profile trials of Ted Bundy, O.J. Simpson and is a member of the Scientific and Professional Advisory Board of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation as well as a Fellow of the Committee of Skeptical Inquiry’s (CSICOP) Executive Council.

Possibly her most study involves showing how misinformation can alter memories and investigated whether or not an eye witness’s memory can be altered by information supplied to them after an event.  In this case participants were asked to guess how fast two cars contacting/smashing/colliding/bumping/hitting each other were going.  Loftus and Palmer found that the more intense the verb used in the question, the higher the estimate of speed. The actual results were: Smashed : 40.8 miles per hour, Collided : 39.3 miles per hour, Bumped: 38.1 miles per hour, Hit : 34.2 miles per hour,Contacted : 31.8 miles per hour. This study showed that the memories people have can be influenced and altered after the fact.

Lofhus also helped develop the “Lost in the Mall” technique to show how false memories could easily be generated. In the study participants were told four short stories describing childhood events, all supposedly provided by family members, and asked them to try to recall them. Unbeknownst to the participants, one of the stories, describing a time when the subject was lost in a mall when they were a child, was false. In the study, 25% of the participants reported to be able to remember this event even though it never actually occurred. Many people were able to provide embellishing details that were not supplied by the investigators. Loftus interpreted this to mean that the act of imagining the events led to the creation of false memories.

Lofthus is truly an innovative and inspirational psychologist and I will be very lucky indeed if I become one tenth of the Skeptic or scientist she has been throughout her career. She has inspired me to pursue a career in research, though not in memory, and to apply the tools of psychological enquiry to debunking extraordinary claims in my other life as a skeptic.

More info on Ada Lovelace day can be found here.

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