Professor Elizabeth Loftus discusses education, growing up, Do Justice and Let the Sky Fall, graduate school training, experimental and mathematical psychology, and a host of other topics. Here is part 1.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What is your current position at the University of California, Irvine?
Professor Elizabeth Loftus: My title is Distinguished Professor. My main appointments are in a couple departments. One is Psychology and Social Behaviour. Another is Criminology, Law, and Society. Then, I am also Professor of Law.
Jacobsen: Where did you grow up? What was youth like for you? What effect do you feel this had on your career path?
Loftus: I grew up in Los Angeles, not very far from UCLA.
I would say it was peppered with tragedies. My mother drowned when I was 14 and my brothers were 12 and 9. A few years later, our house burned down, and we had to live somewhere else while it was being rebuilt. Through all of this, I managed to keep studying and got into college.
Well, I feel a little like it contributed to my workaholic ways. You know, just keep working, working, working, and feeling a sense of accomplishment. Then, distract yourself from painful thoughts. Since I do not do psychotherapy that is just an armchair self-analysis.
Jacobsen: Where did you acquire your education?
Loftus: I went to college at UCLA. UCLA was close by to where I lived. UCLA was probably not the greatest idea since I lived about a half-mile away, and I ended up living at home. I graduated from UCLA and then ended up going to Stanford for Graduate School. I got my PhD in Psychology from Stanford.
Jacobsen: What was your original dream?
Loftus: At some point because I had a double major in mathematics and psychology, I thought I might teach mathematics. Something like high school or junior high, but that is not what I ended up doing. I don’t know if I had a dream. I just kept on with school, until I had a PhD and became an assistant professor.
Jacobsen: How did you gain an interest in Mathematical Psychology? In Chapter 3 of Do Justice and Let the Sky Fall, Dr. Geoffrey Loftus recounts your hemming skirts and keeping familial correspondence up to date during your Graduate School training at Stanford. When did you realize Experimental Psychology was the new dream for you?
Loftus: I did that because I was bored with mathematical psychology. I later happily discovered memory, ha! It’s what ultimately I would get a little more passionate about. I ended up going to Graduate School in mathematical psychology because I thought that combining my two majors in what would be a perfect field. I was not in the end taken by it. I did other things while listening to, in one ear, the talks, or presentations that were being made.
Jacobsen: You have published 22 books and over 500 articles. You continue to publish new research on an ongoing basis. What have been your major areas of research?
Loftus: Well, most generally it is human memory. More specifically, I studied eyewitness testimony for a long time. I studied people’s memory for crime and accidents, and other complex events that tend to be legally relevant. Even within that area, I studied how memories can change as a result of new information that we are exposed to. I did hundreds of experiments studying everything you would want to know about memory distortion in that kind of context. In the 1990s, when I started to get interested in what would be called ‘The Memory Wars,’ the debate about psychotherapy and whether some subset of psychotherapists were using highly suggestive procedures that were getting patients to create entirely false memories. I, with my collaborators and students, established a paradigm for studying the development of what we would later call, in a paper with Bernstein, Rich False Memories. Not just changing a detail here and there in memory, but actually applying people with suggestions so that they would develop these complete false memories.
Jacobsen: Your research did not have immediate acceptance among professionals. In fact, it attracted much anger, which spilt over to you. In particular, what research set the controversy? What became the controversy? How did this come to a resolution?
Loftus: I would take us back to around 1990, when I was confronted with an opportunity to consult on my very first repressed memory case. A case where someone was claiming repressed memory. It was a murder case where a man named George Franklin was being prosecuted for murdering a little girl twenty years earlier. The only evidence against him was the claim of his adult daughter that she had witnessed the murder when she was 8 years old and had repressed the memory for 20 years, and now the memory was back. It was in the context of that case that I began to scour the literature of what was the evidence for this kind of repression. She was claiming that she had repressed her memory of the murder. That she had repressed her memory for years of sexual abuse that the father had supposedly perpetrated on her. I could really find no credible scientific support for the idea that memory works this way. That you could take years of brutalization, banish it into the unconscious, and be completely unaware of it by some process that is beyond ordinary forgetting – and that you could remember these experiences completely accurately later on. And so I began to ask, “Well, if these memories aren’t real, (If there is no credible support for the idea that memory works this way) where could these memories have come from?” I began to dig through literature, and examples, ultimately court cases, and would discover that some of these memories were being created by highly suggestive psychotherapy procedures. When I began to speak out about this issue, then people began to get mad, and for those who got mad, this was something for whom repression was one of their treasured beliefs. The repressed memory therapists and the patients they influenced.
Early in my interest in memory distortion, I was thinking about legal cases. In fact, my earliest experiments were designed to map onto what happens when a witness sees an accident or a crime, and then is later exposed to some newer information about that experience, e.g. talks to other witnesses, is questioned in a leading or suggestive fashion, or sees media coverage about an event, my research modeled after that real-world situation.
Some things have happened in the law. In the eyewitness cases, because of many, many psychologists’ work, some jurisdictions have revised the way they handle eyewitness evidence in a case. Some courts have suggested that, and recognized the scientific work by devising new legal standards for handling eyewitness evidence. That’s been a change, and a fairly recent change. And then in the repressed memory cases, I think some jurisdictions have recognized now that this whole claim of massive repression is highly controversial at best. Some courts have ruled that it is too controversial for the cases to go forward. You know, one day we may prove that repression exists. It has not been proven. It is my opinion that we should not be throwing people in prison based on an unproven theory.
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