How memory plays us: Elizabeth Loftus at TEDxOrangeCoast

I’m really here to tell you a little bit about a legal case I’d like to start this way anyhow a case that I worked on involving a man named Steve Titus so Titus was a restaurant manager in the Seattle Washington area he was engaged to be married to Gretchen the love of his life and one night the couple went out for a romantic restaurant meal and on the way home they were stopped by the police see Titus’s car sort of resembled a car that was driven by a man who earlier in the evening had raped a female hitchhiker and Titus himself sorta resembled that rapist so the police took a photograph of Titus they put it in a police lineup they showed it to the rape victim and when she looked at that photo she said well this one’s the closest the police persisted eventually Titus is tried but by the time the rape victim testifies she says I’m absolutely positive that’s the man I’ll never forget that face and Titus proclaiming his innocence he’s convicted well his family started screaming at the jury his fiance collapsed on the floor hysterical Titus is hauled off to jail he’s saying I’m innocent what would you do at this point he lost complete faith in the legal system but he did get the idea to call up the local newspaper he got the interest of a journalist who started investigating and actually found the real rapist and when this information was shown to the judge Titus was set free and that’s where this case should have ended it should have been a horrible nightmare of a year the accusation the trial but it was over it should have ended that way but it didn’t because Titus lost his job he couldn’t get it back lost his fiancee she couldn’t put up with his persistent anger lost his savings his reputation and so he decided to file a lawsuit against the police and others whom he thought were responsible for his suffering and that’s when I really started working on this case trying to figure out how did that victim go from that one’s the closest to I’m absolutely positive Titus was consumed with his civil case and just days before he was to have his day in court he woke up one morning went into a coma and died of a stress-related heart attack at the age of 35 well I was asked to work on Titus’s case because I’m a psychological scientist I study memory I’ve been studying memory for decades and if I meet somebody on an airplane and I tell them they ask what do you do I say I am a psychologist I study memory they often want to tell me about some problem they have they can’t remember names lately they they’ve got a relative with you know Alzheimer’s who keeps forgetting and I have to stop them and say I don’t study when people forget I study the opposite when they remember when they remember things that didn’t happen I study false memories unhappily Titus is not the only man or person to be convicted of a crime he didn’t do based on faulty memory in one project in the United States here over 300 individuals have been identified who’ve been convicted of crimes they didn’t do DNA testing has been done and now revealed they’re actually innocent these innocent convicted people spent 15 20 years in prison collectively over 4,000 years and when their cases have been analyzed 3/4 of them are due to faulty eyewitness memory based on somebody’s faulty memory these innocent and their extended family suffered greatly some of them were even freed from death row like the jurors who convicted these innocent people and convicted Titus many people believe that memory works kind of like a recording device you record an event in the mind and then you use that information when you need to identify images or answer questions you just replay it but decades of work and psychology has shown that it doesn’t work this way memory is something we actually recreate it works a little bit more like a Wikipedia page you can go in there and change it but so can other people in my studies that look at this malleable memory I started off by showing people films of crimes and accidents and then studying how they remembered these experiences in one of my early studies we showed people films of accidents and afterwards asked people about how fast the cars were going in the accident some of our witnesses were asked how fast were the cars going when they hit each other others were asked how fast were the cars going when they smashed into each other and we found that people’s said the cars were going faster if you use the leading question the word smashed moreover if we came back later on and said did you see any broken glass we found that if we had asked the smash question people were more likely to tell us they saw a broken glass when there was no broken glass at all in another early study we showed people a film of an accident where a car went through a stop sign and by asking a single leading question that insinuated it was a yield sign we got lots of people to believe and remember they saw a yield sign at the intersection not a stop sign now now you might be saying to yourself well you know these are filmed events they’re not particularly stressful maybe something what different would happen with real crimes and accidents but in a study that we published earlier this year we did expose people to a really stressful experience you see what these what was unusual about this study is that the subjects were members of our military who were undergoing survival school training they were learning what it’s going to be like if they’re ever captured as prisoners of war and as part of this survival training they experienced a very aggressive hostile physically abusive interrogation it lasts for 30 minutes afterwards some of these soldiers are exposed to suggestive information to try to distort their memory of the person who conducted that awful interrogation and we found that we could get lots and lots of these trained soldiers to misidentify the person who conducted that interrogation often identifying somebody who didn’t even remotely resemble the real perpetrator and so what these studies are showing is that misinformation that becomes available after some event is over can contaminate somebody’s memory and out there in the real world misinformation is everywhere we pick up misinformation not only when we are questioned in a suggestive manner but if we talk to other people about some event we might have both experienced or if we are exposed to media coverage about the event all of these provide the opportunity for misinformation to distort or contaminate somebody’s memory in the 1990s we began to see an altogether more extreme form of memory problem some people patients were going into therapy maybe they had one problem like anxiety or depression and they coming out of therapy with a different problem horrible memories of sexual abuse sometimes involving satanic rituals and utterly bizarre elements one woman remembered being forced into satanic rituals being impregnated having a baby cut from her belly although there was no physical evidence or any other evidence that would have confirmed her story and as I began looking in these men at these many many cases like this I asked myself you know where do these bizarre memories come from and one of the things I noticed is these individuals had often been frequently mostly been in psychotherapy and so maybe some of the procedures that were going on in some therapy offices were leading people to develop these memories like guided imagination or sexualized dream interpretation sometimes hypnosis sometimes just exposing people to false information were these leading these patients to create these utterly bizarre unconfirmed and often even contradicted memories and I and other researchers devised some experimental studies modeled after some of the procedures that were used in the therapy that we were worried about to see if we could plant these rich false memories now if you want to do this kind of research you do need to first appeal to a university research ethics committee there they’re not about to let you go out there and plant memories that Daddy you know satanically abused you and I wouldn’t want to do anything that would would harm these experimental volunteers so we needed an analogue something that would have been at least mildly traumatic if it actually had happened to the person when they were a child and eventually I came up with the idea why don’t we try to get people to believe and remember when they were five or six years old they were lost in a shopping mall they were frightened crying and ultimately rescued by an elderly person and reunited with the family and after a few suggestive interviews we convinced about a quarter of our subjects to develop a complete or partial false memory about being lost in the mall the critics complained about this study you know getting lost is so common can you can’t you show that you can do this with you know plant something that would be a little more unusual bizarre upsetting if it had happened well other researchers jumped into the to make their contributions and so in a study done in Tennessee researchers convinced people that when they were a kid they nearly drowned and had to be rescued by a lifeguard succeeding with about a third of their subjects and in a study done in Canada researchers convinced their subjects that something as awful as being attacked by a vicious animal had happened in their childhood succeeding with about half of their subjects and in a study done in Italy researchers planted a false memory that you witnessed demonic possession as a child and so these studies are showing that you can plant these very very rich false memories in the minds of people and I then began to publish scores of articles to speak out forcefully about this problem with suggestive psychotherapy and to my surprise this produced problems for me I started getting all kinds of you know hostile letters people wrote to the you know chair of my department the governor of a state trying to get me fired from my job but the worst was a woman I suspected a woman a mother was innocent of sexual abuse that was being claimed by her now grown daughter the daughter supposedly you know recovered repressed memory recovered her memory of her mother’s sexually abusing her I investigated this case because I got suspicious about it and it was being used to supposed proof of the new proof of repressed memory and when I investigated I became convinced of the mother’s innocence I published an expose about the case I never named the family but the daughter then filed a lawsuit against me for defamation and invasion of privacy and I went through five nearly five years of fighting this lawsuit finally the litigation ended I then could finally get back to my work but I did become in the process a part of a growing disturbing trend in the United States where scientists are being sued for speaking out about matters of great public controversy well I did get back to my work and the question I then asked is this if I plant a false memory in your mind does it have repercussions does it affect your later thoughts your later intentions your later behaviors the first study that we did planted a false memory that you got sick eating a particular food hard-boiled eggs or dill pickles strawberry ice cream and we found people then didn’t want to eat the foods as much at an outdoor picnic we could also do the opposite we could plan a warm fuzzy memory about a healthy food we did that with asparagus and we found people wanted to eat more asparagus and so what these studies are showing is that you can plant a false memory in the minds of people and it can influence their behavior behavior that occurs often long after the false memory has taken hold and with this ability to plant false memories and control people’s behaviors obviously comes a number of ethical dilemmas for first and foremost when should we use this mind technology and should we ever ban its use therapists can’t ethically plant false memories in the minds of their patients even when it would be for the patient’s own good would increase health or happiness but there’s nothing to stop a parent from trying out these techniques with their obese or overweight teenager or older child and when I suggested this publicly the critics were back again screaming that you know big bad person here now she’s advocating that parent’s lie to their children hello Santa Claus well another way to think about this is you know which would you rather have a kid with obesity diabetes shortened lifespan health problems all the things that go with that or a kid with a little extra bit of false memory I know what I would choose for a kid of mine but maybe I feel this way because my work has made me different from other people other people cherish their memories know that they represent who they are their identity where they came from where they’re going and I feel that way too but my maybe I’m less troubled by inserting health-promoting therapeutic falsehoods into memory because I know how much fiction is already there if I’ve learned anything from these decades of doing this scientific work it’s this just because somebody tells you something with confidence just because they tell it with a lot of detail just because they express it with a lot of emotion doesn’t mean that it really happened we can’t reliably discriminate true memories from false ones we need independent corroboration such a discovery has made me more tolerant of the everyday memory mistakes that my friends and family members are around me sometimes make such a discovery might have saved Steve Titus the man whose whole future was snatched away by a false memory and in the meantime I think that we as a society would do well to keep in mind something that Titus learned the hard way namely that memory like liberty is a fragile thing thank you thank you

Glenn Chapman


  1. Men need to demand due process. Sexism is alive and well and living on college campus, where men are presumed guilty of date rape and rape. Off campus, it's just as bad. Look at the Duke lacrosse phony rape accusations. They terminated the lacrosse program at Duke, a top four team in the nation! Four players were expelled, the coach was fired. The case was weak from the start and proved to be a lie finally. The DA was fired for grandstanding as a liberal Democrat hack, like Obama is.

  2. 3:34 That is needed now! Look at the false memories of children who testified to outrageous molestation in the McMartin, Friedman, and Ramona cases. Monstrous. I dated a girl who went to some hack shrink who said she must have been molested as a kid. She called her father and called him a pedophile. I asked if she remembered anything. She said no, it must have been repressed. Outrageous! Men are getting slandered by bogus hack theories from politically correct phonies.

  3. You are doing the Lord's work. The criminal defense bar could use you as an expert witness, as you know, for false witness ID cases, to prevent false convictions.

  4. It's always a little weird and pretty cool to see someone that you know in a forum like this…Dr. Loftus is a professor at my university and a very interesting woman, and although I've never met her personally, she's been involved in a program I'm in, and her research is all at once unsettling and fascinating.

  5. You should always listen to what people say but make up your own conclusions depending on how and what they've said.  We should watch TV, read newspapers, books, critically. Education prepares us for not taking everything at its face value and in certain situations to be skeptical.  People perceive experiences differently, even if they went through exactly the same thing.  The right questions have to be asked and we have to remember that what ever happened may contain flaws.  Dr. Loftus' work is essential and fascinating.  She is courageous to continue with it.  She questions and looks at things as a researcher.  Just hearing her here makes me wonder about all the perceptions I have of my childhood. She makes some enlightening points here. 

  6. Memory is created by the events that we experience in our life. Anything that happens to us whether dramatic or exciting is going to be a memory in our life. But sometimes we confuse this memory or link it to other events which may cause the false memory. For example, if something happens to then happens to your friend with a slight of similarity. Then you may create false memory. Also the words you use can create false memory and change the person's mind completely. It makes you question the vulnerability human mind

  7. Using this to attack the true memories of a childhood rape victim will be one of the worst uses of this manipulation. False memory is one thing, knowing one's memory and having it attacked by a zealot is another. Whom are the zealots of memory attack, I don't know, who are you?!

  8. Gives the Kavanugh case a whole different perspective… currently the USA is undergoing such upheaval with people and their memories…

  9. when i was younger a very traumatizing thing happened to me and my siblings i have 7 siblings, back then i only had 6, sibling 1 has no memory of it, sibling 2 wont talk about it and remembers very little, siblings 3 and 4 (the direct victims) defensively insist that nothing happened, me and sibling 5 have sisific memories from it but their opposite of each other, and sibling 6 (the oldest) claims that he has perfect memory of it… i don't know what to believe after seeing this video lmao

  10. I wouldn't listen to this if I were you. This woman decided to throw ethics out of the window and investigate a patient that had allegedly been abused by her mother. She didn't ask permission or even talk to the patient herself. She cobbled together various bits of information to find the patient, talked to several relatives and proceeded to heavily interpret statements so as to support her belief that the patient hadn't been abused. She did this because she was the flag holder for the part of psychology that believes memories can't be suppressed. In service of supporting her own claim, she ripped open a case she had nothing to do with, never asked permission and claimed that this is what journalists do every day. I would not believe anything this woman has to say about anything because her values are the exact opposite of the scientific method. She does not pursue truth or scientific discovery. She basically got a slap on the wrist (had to take an ethics class) for not asking permission and moved on to another university. The patient still struggles with not knowing whether or not she was abused. I think it's despicable to act like that because you want to get ahead in your field. Listen to This American Life: Here's Looking At You Kid, Act Two: Grownups Know Things for more information.

  11. Shame on you for having this woman speak. Her bogus research has been discredited numerous times. She had to leave the APA. This person has no ethics.

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