profile: Elizabeth Loftus - Thoughts & Language

30-Second Psychology: The 50 Most Thought-provoking Psychology Theories, Each Explained in Half a Minute - Christian Jarrett 2011

profile: Elizabeth Loftus
Thoughts & Language

Anyone who speaks on behalf of alleged rapists, child-killers and mass murderers is likely to make enemies. Yet this is what Elizabeth Loftus has done for much of her working life. As a result, she has been the target of public vilification, hate mail and even death threats. The reason for all this venom? Loftus is one of the prime proponents of false memory syndrome. As such, she has consulted on or appeared as an expert witness in trials as varied as those of Ted Bundy, O.J. Simpson, the Menendez brothers, Bosnian war criminals and Michael Jackson. In the process, she has spoken on behalf of people accused of unspeakable crimes — and saved many innocent people from wrongful conviction.

It all started simply enough. Pursuing her interest in memory and its links with semantics, Loftus applied for a grant from the US Department of Transport to study how people remembered car accidents. She found that changing a single word in a question (for example, ’hit’ and ’smashed’, or ’a’ and ’the’) could yield dramatically different accounts of an event — enough to convict or acquit an accused person. When applied to murder or rape trials, the results were even more significant. Her studies were published widely in a vast number of academic journals, and she was soon in demand as an expert on unreliable memory.

As if her own studies didn’t provide evidence enough, she received proof of her theories much closer to home. Thirty years after her mother drowned in a swimming pool, her uncle told her that she had been the first person to find her body. Revisiting the event in her mind, Loftus remembered everything in great detail, only to be told three days later her uncle had made a mistake and it was her aunt who had actually found her mother. Loftus had herself been susceptible to false memories.


Born Elizabeth Fishman, Los Angeles, California


M.A. in psychology from Stanford University


Marries Geoffrey Russell Loftus


Ph.D. in psychology from Stanford University


Assistant Professor, University of Washington


Professor of Psychology, University of Washington


Publishes The Myth of Repressed Memory


President of the Association for Psychological Science


Distinguished Professor, University of California, Irvine