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Professor Elizabeth Loftus on distorted memory

Updated Friday 9th April 2010

Can our mind really play tricks on us? Leading Psychologist Elizabeth Loftus explains distorted memory.

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Professor Elizabeth Loftus, University of California
It’s great to be here in London and have a chance to talk with you about a subject that I’m fairly passionate about, the subject of memory, and especially memory distortion.  I go through life noticing memory problems everywhere, and last year one of them just happened to fall into my lap.  Our current Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, was running for the Democratic nomination for the Presidency and as you know I’m sure she lost that Election.  But while she was running and campaigning she talked about a trip that she’d taken to Bosnia, and here’s what she said about that trip.  She said, “I remember landing under sniper fire.  There was supposed to be some kind of greeting ceremony at the airport, but instead we just ran with our heads down to get into the vehicles to get to our base.”

So she describes this terrifying experience.  It turns out that arrival in Bosnia was filmed, and when the film was produced it didn’t look anything like her memory.  It was a peaceful greeting, there were children there.  She arrived with her daughter and a lot of other people, and so what is going on here?  Well the pundits had a whole lot of fun with this story.  One of them gave her four Pinocchios insinuating that she was a liar four times over because there was no cork screw landing, there was no sniper fire, there was no cancelled airport reception, and she was not the first lady to go into a war zone.  So how does this very intelligent, very well educated significant human being make this kind of mistake?

She had an explanation by the way, when confronted with the evidence she said, “I made a mistake.  I had a different memory.  I made a mistake, that happens, that proves that I’m human, which for some people is a revelation.”  And I think what’s so great about this example is that she probably wasn’t lying.  She is human.  She made a mistake, a really big mistake.  In the end it didn’t hurt anybody.  But it shows that having intelligence, having education, having experience, being in the public eye for a long time doesn’t protect you from having what we’re now calling very rich false memories.

So I want to tell you a little bit about my work on false memories and in doing so, it’s just my particular interest in this field, I tend to look to legal cases as an important application of the work.  Because it’s in these legal cases that very, very precise memory often matters.  And so, for example, one type of situation is a kind of, a typical armed robbery case or a rape case or maybe a murder, where there is an eye witness to the crime that actually happened.  We now know that there are a growing number of wrongful convictions in these types of cases, and I’m concerned about those.

How do we know?  You go to the website of the Emerson’s Project, where they’re cataloguing the cases that they’ve discovered where people have been convicted of crimes that they didn’t do.  They spent five years, ten years, fifteen years or more in prison for these crimes, and now DNA has proven that they were actually innocent.

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