Elizabeth Loftus studies human memory. Her experiments reveal how memories can be changed by things that we are told. Facts, ideas, suggestions and other post-event information can modify our memories. The legal field, so reliant on memories, has been a significant application of the memory research.
Academic website: https://faculty.sites.uci.edu/eloftus/
Can you describe something that has recently amazed you. How did it make you feel?
It was back when I was trying to figure out a way to plant an entire memory into the minds of ordinary people so I could study the process by which this happens in the real world. Eventually I hit upon the idea of trying to plant a very specific memory of being lost in a shopping mall around age 5 or 6. About this time I was teaching a large university course in Cognitive Psychology where for years I had given an extra credit homework assignment. I asked the students to go out and try to create in someone’s mind a memory of an experience that never happened. Like convincing your roommate that she had pizza last Sunday instead of pasta. Or convincing a relative that they owed you money. But this particular year I added a new thought to the task. I was curious as to whether you could convince someone that they remembered being lost in a shopping mall if it hadn’t happened. A couple a students picked up on the challenge and planted a lost memory.
My feelings of amazement came when I listened to the audiotape of 14 year old Chris, who was convinced by his older brother that he had been lost in the University City shopping mall in Spokane and was rescued by an older man who had found the crying boy. Chris tried to remember bits and pieces over five days, and a few weeks later would say this on tape: “I went over to look at the toy store…got lost… I thought ‘Uh-oh, I’m in trouble now. I thought I was never going to see my family again. I was really scared. …then this old man, I think he was wearing a blue flannel, came up to me… he was kind of old. He was kind of bald on top…and he had glasses.” I listened to these words over and over, and shared them with professional colleagues. I knew we were onto something important.
Can you tell me how you go about implanting a memory? What role does the imagination play in this?
One possible criticism of the false memory work is the possibility that the event may have happened to the person and the suggestions retrieved a true memory rather than planting a false memory. This concern led psychologist Roddy Roediger and his student to devise a somewhat different procedure in which people sat at a table which was covered with familiar objects, and they performed some actions and imagined other actions. Later they tried to remember what they had actually performed. They found that if someone imagined a familiar action like “flip the coin” they would frequently later recall that they had actually done the act. My former graduate student, Ayanna Thomas, and I wondered if this would also happen with actions that were more bizarre. And so in a follow up study, our subjects sat at a table which had a lot of unusual objects on it. For some subjects who merely imaged an unusual act like “kiss the frog”, they would later remember that they had actually done so.
How do you view your own memories? Do they seem less concrete or reliable having researched false memories?
Having worked on memory distortion for so many decades, I’m well aware of the malleable nature of memory. My memories are no better or worse than other people, as far as I can tell. But what this work has done had make me more tolerant of the errors that people make. I don’t immediately assume that someone is deliberately lying when they say something that I know is wrong; they could have a honest-to-goodness false memory.
Are we in a new era of false memories with the implementation of ‘photoshopped’ images and deep fakes? What scares you the most about how malleable our memories are?
I gave a TED talk a few years ago about this work and cautioned the audience not to immediately assume that just because someone tells you something with confidence, detail, and emotion, that it must be true. False memories can be confident, detailed and emotional too. You need independent corroboration to know if you are dealing with an authentic memory or one that is a product of imagination, suggestion, or some other process. So what counts as corroboration.? I used to say photos or videos might. But with the explosion of photoshopped images and now deep fakes that can make it look as if anyone is saying or doing whatever the creator wants them to, we need to be careful about photos and videos too. [see Note 1. below]
We know a lot now about mind technology. We can plant memories and influence people’s thoughts, intentions and behaviors. What if this gets in the wrong hands, and people use this ability to hurt others?
Can you see fruitful overlap between your work in memory and a magician’s work in deceiving?
I recently attended a conference on the Science of Magic and got to watch some world class magicians perform some amazing tricks. I learned a bit about some of the diversion techniques that they use. They can make you look up while they perform something that is “down” that you fail to see. Or make you look right, and do something on the left. In my work on memory distortion, I too sometimes rely on diversion. So I might show someone an accident where the car goes through a yield sign and later get people to remember a stop sign. I accomplish this mind altering “trick” with a leading question like “Did another car pass the red Datsun when it was at the intersection with the stop sign?” The witness thinks it’s a question about what the other car was doing, and this diverts attention away from the “stop sign” information which I slip into memory. It invades the witness, like a Trojan horse, because he doesn’t even detect it coming. [see Note 2. below]
At the Science of Magic conference in Chicago we talked about Daniel Kahneman’s research into reducing painful memory experiences of medical operations. Flipping this around, what might you advise a performer to do to maximise the positive experience an audience takes away from a show?
Kahneman has talked about the experience a person has versus the memory a person has for that experience. In some clever work, he showed that if you add a bit of minor pain to the end of an otherwise painful experience, people will sometimes recall the entire experience as being LESS painful. The end point is an important aspect that influences the overall recollection. So one might speculate that you want to end a show with an extra dose of joy, or extra dose of wonder or awe, as that might lead to a more joyful awesome feeling about the entire show. But, like all hypotheses, that needs to be subjected to experimental testing. [see Note 3. and 4. below]
What do you want to be remembered for?
I hope to be remembered for doing creative, clever experiments that revealed a great deal about how malleable our memories can be. And to have applied this work in the service of justice, as in helping people who face false accusations based on someone’s faulty memory.
- A previous WoW interviewee and academic great-grandson, Robert Nash, has recently published a paper on manipulating memories of public events using doctored photos. See here.
- I can see this linguistic Trojan horse technique being of interest to magicians.
- You can read an excellent overview of Kahneman’s work including the colonoscopy experience studies in his book “Thinking, Fast and Slow”
- Again performers may want to give this some thought. The traditional view is to end a performance on the most impressive piece; on a bang! These memory/experience studies may suggest a softer end to a show if you want to create a better memory. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why performers like Lance Burton had so much success with his casual end to his show with the Torn and Restored newspaper and dove appearance.
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