Dr. Elizabeth Loftus, Controversial Expert on Human Memory

Published: 2003-11-01

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Professor Elizabeth Loftus holds the title of distinguished professor of psychology, social behavior, criminology, law and society at U.C. Irvine and has recently been nationally recognized for her findings in a study that proves memories could not only be distorted, but also completely reconstructed. Professor Loftus is considered an expert in the medium of memory research and is the author of nineteen books, has lectured all over the world, and has testified in over two hundred court cases in which she testified about her skepticism of the repressed memory theory. Loftus evokes intense criticism because she testifies on the side of the defense, and as a result there is a chance that she may be helping to free guilty perpetrators.

The study in which Dr. Loftus proved impossible memories could be constructed is known as the Bugs Bunny study. In this study the subjects were asked to examine three advertisements that had a pictures of Bugs Bunny standing next to the magic castle at Disneyland. They were then asked to recall any memories at Disneyland that included meeting Bugs Bunny. 36% of the subjects recalled meeting Bugs Bunny and some included specific sensory details such as shaking his hand and touching his fur. The 36% of subjects who say they do remember meeting Bugs Bunny prove Loftus’ theory that memories not only can be distorted, but completely made up. It is impossible to meet Bugs Bunny at Disneyland because Bugs is a Warner Bros. Character.

When asked what prompted her to do the Bugs Bunny study, Professor Loftus said, "We often get criticism that maybe what our techniques are doing are reviving a real memory instead of planting a false one. We had to come up with something impossible. […] We know that when our subjects are now telling us they remember Bugs, it’d have to be a false memory. […] For years I’ve been doing studies where we distort people’s memories in crimes and accidents and other simulated events that they witness, […] but in the 90’s we wanted to see whether we could plant wholly false memories. Not just a distorted memory here or there, but a complete false memory. […] And this newer study shows you that when you get a false memory going, people can be really detailed about it." When asked if it was the false advertisement that may have prompted the subjects to recall this false memory, Loftus said, "Yes, I think it was the visual presentation of the ad with Bugs at Disney. Essentially it was telling people that it was plausible. That Bugs could have been there. And that is the first step down the road to developing a false memory."

The results of this study show how unreliable a memory can be. The unreliability of memories can cause problems when they are relied upon during court cases in which people testify according to what they remember. When asked if eyewitness testimony, should not be used in a trial, Loftus says," I don’t think they’re useless because we have to rely on eyewitness testimony to catch guilty people. The problem is that eyewitness testimony of faulty memory is the major cause of wrongful conviction. So we just have to be more careful in how we evaluate it. And not just believe every single claim because it’s detailed."

One of the cases done by Professor Loftus is important not only for it’s research, but also because it may have been a primary factor in why she moved from the University of Washington to U.C. Irvine. The Jane Doe case was about a six-year-old girl who claimed to be sexually abused by her mother. Psychiatrist David Corwin interviewed Jane when she was six years old, and then again when she was seventeen. Eleven years later, Jane had trouble remembering the abuse she received when she was six years old. The fact that Jane did not fully recall her memories of abuse supported the views held by supporters of the repressed memory theory, who believe that traumatic memories can be buried deep inside the mind, and with the use of counseling and therapy these memories can be remembered. But Dr. Loftus disagreed. On the subject of memory repression she says, "The idea that you could be raped for ten years and be completely unaware of it, bury it in the unconscious, I say there’s no concrete evidence for it." Loftus learned the identity of Jane Doe and began work on an article regarding the case. In 1999 Doe complained to the University of Washington and claimed that her privacy was not being observed. As a result, the University of Washington placed a gag order on Dr. Loftus, restricted her from any continued contact with those in the case, and she was only allowed to publish the information she had gathered up to that time. About the restriction Loftus says, " After I got the UCI offer I said ‘you cut those strings or I’m leaving’ […] then they cut them but it was too late." After being a professor at the University of Washington for nearly 30 years, Dr. Loftus came to UC Irvine this past fall.

Dr. Loftus’ participation in trials on the side of the defense has raised criticism from those who believe that she is ignoring the repression that occurs in our minds. Her testimonials also raise concern that she is helping guilty perpetrators avoid conviction. However, Dr. Loftus’ purpose is to protect the falsely accused. When a confession is extracted from a suspect, police officers are known to lie and use force during the questioning of the suspect. It is this kind of conduct that Professor Loftus tries to protect the falsely accused from. She says, " Police do lie to people. And they’re allowed to. And they do it, they say, to extract a confession. […] I worry about that practice. Because when they lie to people and they say, ‘ by the way someone saw you do this,’ that’s a very strong suggestion and it can make people believe they did things they didn’t do. […] That’s one cause of most confessions, […] the bit about false confessions I’m really interested in is when they come to believe they really did it, […] People get very excited and worked up over the poor or the sick or the disabled, or whatever their cause is. But mine is the falsely accused. I just think it is horrible when it happens to people."

Dr. Loftus has had the bomb squad at her house and she has had armed guards accompany her to lectures. Her critics are so resolute in their opposition that on more than one occasion her safety has come into question. When asked what she is criticized about, Loftus says, " They don’t like my false memory work. They think it’s going to be put in the hands of pedophiles and they’ll use it to get off. […] Sometimes people fight dirty. If they want to fight it out intellectually that’s one thing but when they start with the threatening letters. […] I went to give a lecture at the University of Michigan and there were some threats that were made so the administration assigned a police officer to accompany me all day."

One critic of Dr. Loftus is Robert H. Countess, Ph.D. In chapter nine of her book, "Witness for the Defense: The Accused, the Eyewitness, and the Expert Who Puts Memory On Trial." Dr. Loftus writes about the John Demjanjuk trial, which occurred in 1987. During the Holocaust there was a death camp called Treblinka. At Treblinka there was a Ukrainian guard who was known as Ivan the Terrible who committed horrifying acts on the prisoners of the death camp. John Demjanjuk was identified by five survivors of Treblinka as Ivan the Terrible. Demjanjuk’s defense attorney, Mark O’Connor, pleaded with Dr. Loftus to testify in the trial on the side of the defense, saying, "We need your help. […] You’re […] the world’s expert on eyewitness memory, and without your testimony it’s conceivable that an innocent man will be sentenced to die." (Witness For the Defense: The Accused, the Eyewitness, and the Expert Who Puts Memory on Trial. Elizabeth Loftus, p. 211). John Demjanjuk was stripped of his U.S. citizenship, and was expatriated to Israel, where the trial was held in a converted theater. As Mark O’Connor is quoted in the chapter, "the U.S. government pasted Demjanjuk’s 1951 immigration picture on a sheet of cardboard along with photographs of sixteen other Ukrainians suspected of war crimes and sent the sheet of photographs to the Israeli government." (p. 213). Eugen Turowski, Abraham Goldfarb, Elijahu Rosenberg, Josef Czarny, Gustav Boraks, Pinchas Epstein, Sonia Levkowitch, Chil Meir Rajchman, and Abraham Lindwasser all identified John Demjanjuk as "Ivan the Terrible," but by the time of the trial, Turowski, Goldfarb, and Lindwasser passed away and Levkowitch withdrew her identification. Thus remained the five witnesses. There were discrepancies regarding Demjanjuk’s guilt/innocence such as several witnesses testifying after the war that Ivan the Terrible was killed in an uprising in Treblinka in August 1943. But on April 18, 1988, John Demjanjuk was found guilty, and on April 25, 1988, he received the death penalty.

Dr. Loftus refused to testify in the trial because, "If I take the case, […] I would turn my back on my Jewish heritage. If I don’t take the case, I would turn my back on everything I’ve worked for in the last fifteen years. […] I didn’t have the heart to take the case. Or perhaps I didn’t have the courage." (p. 232)

When asked why he criticizes Dr. Loftus for choosing not to testify, Robert Countess says:

"She with the Demjanjuk case was willing to let an innocent man be put to death and found guilty when her own expertise could have perhaps given this man life. And I say that she chose to collaborate with her own Ethnic religious brethren rather than use her considerable talent and skills in support of justice."

Countess also says that Dr. Loftus, "seemed to believe there was quite a bit of mistaken identity. And […] I think this chapter is included because she got criticism and she’s trying to justify her coming down on the side of her fellow Jews rather than helping this Ukrainian American who had been taken over there to Israel for this show trial." When asked what convinces him of Demjanjuk’s innocence, Countess said:

"I don’t think he’s guilty of anything, but on the other hand I’m willing to say he’s guilty of something if the evidence can show it."

Robert Countess also says:

"My criticism of her is not personal […] she may be fine, wonderful, true and good, decent mother, daughter, and wife […] but I’m saying professionally for her to be called distinguished professor raises enormous questions about the wisdom of the University of California system."

In response to Countess’s criticism, Dr. Loftus said:

"I did the best thing I could. […] I found a perfect expert."

On Dr. Lotus’ recommendation, Willem Wagenaar testified at the Demjanjuk trial as the expert on memory.

Additional information about this document
Property Value
Author(s): Caroline Song
Title: Dr. Elizabeth Loftus, Controversial Expert on Human Memory
Sources: The Revisionist 1(4) (2003), pp. 456-458
Published: 2003-11-01
First posted on CODOH: June 24, 2012, 7 p.m.
Last revision:
Comments: First published in "New University" newspaper, University of California, Irvine.
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