Elizabeth Loftus Theory Explained


What is the last pleasant memory you can recall right now?

For many people, memories are subjective. As time goes by, people tend to remember the best aspects of what happened to them and cast aside the worst aspects of life. We remember what we want to remember. The Elizabeth Loftus theory suggests that this process can be taken a step further.

What if a traumatic event could be suggested to a person while undergoing therapy and the individual could then think that this was a valid memory that they had repressed?

Memory and the Misinformation Effect

Beginning in 1973, Loftus began examining eyewitness testimony and how memory worked in real-world situations. One of her first studies involved how memory could be altered based on the questions that are being asked of an individual. Her idea was this: memories are not necessarily an accurate representation of a specific event, but a combination of a person’s past experiences, available information, and other potential manipulations.

Loftus discovered that the memories of an eyewitness could be altered after exposing that person to information that was incorrect about the event. This indicated to her that memory is open to suggestive behaviors and is highly malleable.

Over the next two decades, Loftus would apply her theories of misinformation in the legal realm, providing testimony in over 250 cases regarding the information she discovered.

It created an ongoing debate between therapists who believed that these memories should be treated as real and psychologists who tended to say that the memories being offered were false.

The misinformation effect was very real to those who felt like they had a legitimate memory and were seeking justice because of it. Many people up through 1990 felt like Loftus’ testimony had freed their abusers.

Instead of repression and recovery, Loftus looked toward how other components of memory could help to explain why certain events could not be recalled. Situations could result in dissociative amnesia, though for most people, events are not recalled because of what could be described as “motivated forgetting.”

Think back to something embarrassing that happened to you during high school. When was the last time you actually thought about that event in detail? There’s a good chance you don’t think about that event every day, especially if it happened more than 10 years ago. Yet, when prompted to think about it, you can recall the details with precision.

People don’t want to dwell on negative memories. We can remember them if asked about them, but stay away from them to focus on the positive memories instead.

That led Loftus to eventually ask an important question: what could happen if those negative memories could be manipulated in such a way that a completely false narrative could take their place?

Loftus and the Memory Wars of the 1990s

Beginning in the 1990s, Loftus began to shift the focus of her work. Instead of dealing with theories of misinformation, she began to look at the possibility of being able to plant a specific false memory for an entire event that never took place. She began to examine this potential theory because of a legal case she’d been asked to provide expert testimony.

In 1990, a man named George Franklin was accused of murder. The evidence against him came from his daughter, who claimed that he had murdered her childhood friend 20 years before. Franklin’s daughter suggested that she had repressed the memory of him committing such an act and her statements eventually led to her father’s conviction.

Recovered memories of trauma were increasingly common in the 1990s, so Loftus began probing the claims to see if they could be false memories created by suggestive techniques. Some therapist and even a few self-help books during that era promoted methods that lent to the possibility of false memories being created.

This led to the development of what became known as the “lost in the mall” technique. Loftus would work with subjects to determine if a false memory could be implanted for an event that did not take place. Once that memory was implanted, the goal of the research was to have the memory become a “real world” event that seemed real, but never was.

In her initial study, Loftus found that 1 out of every 4 of her subjects came to develop a memory about them being lost in a mall as a child. Through variations of this technique and extensions of it, Loftus found that about 1 in 3 people could become convinced that they experienced things in their childhood that never occurred.

Those false memories could even be highly traumatic events or circumstances that were impossible.

The goal of her theory was simple: to counter the practice of the courts at the time of relying on eyewitness testimony as credible evidence on its own. It would lead to stricter legal standards that allowed for recovered memories to be used as evidence, with some states in the US no longer even allowing such a prosecution to occur.

The Elizabeth Loftus Theory and the Jane Doe Case

In 1997, David Corwin and Erna Olafson published a case study that purported to show an example of a real-world example of an accurate repressed memory that had been recovered. Loftus was skeptical of the claims made in the case study and decided to investigate the circumstances.

They interviewed individuals connected to the Jane Doe in the case, uncovered information that had been excluded from the case study, and came to the conclusion that the memories of abuse being offered were false.

During the investigation, the Jane Doe in the case contacted the university where Loftus was working and claimed that Loftus was committing a breach of privacy. For 21 months, the university confiscated the files regarding the investigation, but allowed her to publish her findings in 2002.

After the findings were published, the Jane Doe in the case study sued Loftus and the university for 21 different counts and causes. Only 1 count was upheld as valid and was eventually settled for $7,500. Jane Doe was ordered to pay legal fees for all defendants in the case to a total of more than $450,000.

Because of the sensitivity of the memories that were “recovered,” often involving physical or sexual abuse, Loftus has found herself the focus of personal animosity and criticism over the years. From online threats to claims that she was engaging in Satanic ritual abuse to cover up previous crimes, the Elizabeth Loftus theory regarding misinformation has certainly had an impact on how people perceive memory.

Memory can be a funny thing. We might not think about something that happened for decades, but then a sight, smell, or circumstance can trigger the memory to fire and then that’s all we can think about. By recognizing this process, the Elizabeth Loftus theory helps to protect us from becoming victimized by false memories.