Can You Trust What You Remember?

January 2, 2017

Elizabeth Loftus can make you see people that never existed, remember events that never happened and vividly recall life changing experiences that never occurred.

She can persuade you of that time when you were a kid, terrified, lost in a shopping centre, or that unhappy memory of strawberry ice cream that put you off eating it ever again.

This, despite the fact you have never been lost while out shopping and love strawberry ice cream.

So convinced will you be, you‘ll swear — despite all evidence to the contrary — that your memory is entirely trustworthy.

She can take control of your brain. But she is not a conjurer, a hypnotist or a con artist. She is a university professor.

“I have spent 15 years distorting peoples’ memories,” Associate Professor Loftus tells “Either I, or other scientists, have implanted false memories of being attacked by animals, demonically possessed or even crimes committed so serious the police came.”

Prof Loftus, a psychological scientist at the University of California Irvine, will give a talk at the University of Sydney on Tuesday on the fallibility of memory and how easily what we recall can be manipulated.

“I don’t study what people forget. I study the opposite: when they remember things that didn’t happen or were different from the way they really were. I study false memory,” she said at a TED talk in 2013.

She will pose the question, could tinkering with our minds have positive outcomes or is it an “abuse of memory”.

Her curiosity in memory came about due to the case of Seattle restaurant manager Steve Titus who was wrongly convicted of rape in 1980.

The 31-year-old had been out for dinner with his fiance when the police pulled him over. A woman had recently been raped and Mr Titus’ car resembled the one described by the victim as having been driven by the perpetrator.

The police took a photo of Mr Titus and in a subsequent line up the victim said he was the most similar to the attacker. But by the time it came to trial the victim was convinced he was, without a shadow of the doubt, the man who raped her.

Mr Titus was jailed. However, the real attacker was later found and, anyhow, it was established it would have been physically impossible for Mr Titus to have committed the crime.

“How did that victim go from ‘that’s the closest’ to ‘I’m absolutely positive that’s the guy,” Prof Loftus said

To find out, she devised a series of experiments to see how easily peoples’ recollections of events could be clouded by suggestion.

One experiment involved subjects being shown footage of a car crash. Those that were then asked to estimate how fast the cars were going before they “hit” one another invariably thought they were travelling at a lower speed than those who were asked the speed when they “smashed” into one another.

Subjects who were asked questions about the more leading “smashed” cars also had a higher incidence of describing broken glass on the road — even though there was none in the images.

In another experiment, US soldiers were put through a mock interrogation.

Later, they were fed misinformation and when asked to describe the main perpetrator at the interrogation many pinpointed a bald man. When, in fact, the lead interrogator was a quite different man with curly hair.

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