Of false memory

In an insightful talk, Elizabeth Loftus brings to fore how recollecting past could be fraught with fiction

May 25, 2017 10:50 pm | Updated 10:50 pm IST

“I remember clearly…” that statement always brought with it some assertion or truth. Elizabeth Loftus declares that it no longer does. What you remember may be different from what was.

“Most people cherish their memories, know that they represent their identity, who they are, where they came from...And I appreciate that. I feel that way too. But I know from my work how much fiction is already in there,” says Elizabeth Loftus, an American cognitive psychologist and expert on human memory.

“I study...when they (people) remember, when they remember things that didn't happen or remember things that were different from the way they really were. I study false memories,” says Elizabeth Loftus.

“...studies are showing that when you feed people misinformation about some experience that they may have had, you can distort or contaminate or change their memory...,” says Loftus, “… just because somebody tells you something and they say it with confidence, with lots of detail and emotion, it doesn't mean that it really happened. We can't reliably distinguish true memories from false memories. We need independent corroboration. Such a discovery has made me more tolerant of the everyday memory mistakes that my friends and family members make.”

Loftus begins her talk with the touching example of a man called Titus who had been accused of committing rape. In truth, he was innocent, he just happened to look somewhat like the rapist and Loftus says because the victim’s memory was actually unreliable, the wrong man got punished. He is not the only one, Loftus gives us statistics to show how many more there are who are punished only because of some one’s false memory.

Loftus says, “Many people believe that memory works like a recording device. You just record the information, then you call it up and play it back when you want to answer questions or identify images. But decades of work in psychology has shown that this just isn't true. Our memories are constructive. They're reconstructive. Memory works a little bit more like a Wikipedia page: You can go in there and change it, but so can other people.”

Influencing listeners

As the first example of that Loftus tells us how the suggestive words you use can actually influence the listener. For example if you asked if the cars “smashed” at the site of the accident, more people are likely to say there was broken glass, when there were actually none.

The other example Loftus gives is of the suggestions given to children when they are but five or six years old. If you tell them they liked asparagus or that they were nearly drowned, they build a false memory and actually lived and relived the experience developing all the related likes/dislikes and phobias.

Loftus comes to the crucial question on how ethical it is to plant memories. She avers that a psychologist can definitely not use it for his patients but a parent could, to help her child.

For, after all pleads Loftus, “...we should all keep in mind, we'd do well to, that memory, like liberty, is a fragile thing...”

Now, you were nice to me...were you not?


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