Dec. 5, 2011

In this (Nov. 29) New York Times analysis of science’s ever-growing skepticism about eyewitness testimony I noticed a familiar name:

111205Loftus“One of the earliest and more famous experiments to demonstrate that memories are malleable was conducted by Elizabeth Loftus, a psychology professor at the University of California, Irvine, and an early pioneer of witness memory research.

“In a 1974 study published in The Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, (Loftus) asked participants to view films of fender-benders in which no car windows or headlights were broken. Later, the subjects who were asked how fast the cars were going when they ‘smashed’ into each other – as opposed to ‘hit’ – were more likely to report speeding and describe shattered glass they never actually saw.”

While researching a book on the Wenatchee, Washington, ritual sex abuse case (1994-95), Kathryn Lyon asked Loftus about the consequences when professionals contribute to and reinforce false memories in children.

“If you believe real child abuse has long-term deleterious consequences,” Loftus responded, “then what happens when you create a false memory of child abuse? Are you creating a victim who is also likely to have long-term troubles?

“Having a real and a pseudo memory are in many ways the same. If you create the memory, are you not creating child abuse?”

Lyon, a lawyer, spent a year in Wenatchee to write the thorough and chilling “Witch Hunt: A True Story of Social Hysteria and Abused Justice” (1998).