Elizabeth Loftus - Cognitive Psychology - The Canon

Psychology: Essential Thinkers, Classic Theories, and How They Inform Your World - Andrea Bonior 2016

Elizabeth Loftus
Cognitive Psychology
The Canon


BORN 1944, Los Angeles, California


Educated at Stanford University and the University of California, Los Angeles



A specialist in memory, Elizabeth Loftus began her studies by looking at how semantic memory is structured (recall that semantic memory has to do with the storage and recollection of impersonal facts). While delving into the nuances of how such memories are stored, Loftus was struck by the need to better apply her findings to the world at large. And thus began her interest in eyewitness testimony.

Loftus completely overturned the way we think of eyewitness testimony. It was already understood that memories are reconstructed upon recall and are subject to various biases, but Loftus was able to show that being exposed to misinformation—especially in the form of leading questions—can alter and distort memories considerably. This misinformation effect, though admittedly disheartening, is arguably among the most important discoveries of cognitive psychology over the past several decades.

That false memories can be developed because of misinformation conveyed by someone else is something that hit home for Loftus personally. Her mother drowned in a swimming pool when Loftus was 14, and when Loftus was in her 40s, an uncle told her that she had been the one to find her mother’s body. Loftus had never had many specific memories of that experience, but she felt them coming back to her rather clearly over the days following her uncle’s revelation. Soon afterward, however, Loftus’s brother called to tell her that her uncle had been mistaken. Loftus was alarmed to see her work playing out so personally—she saw firsthand how a false memory of a traumatic event can apparently be implanted. (Note that false memories don’t involve inaccurately remembering certain events. Rather, they involve believing in the reality of events that never actually occurred. Someone falsely remembering an event can feel certain of its reality and quite earnest in his or her insistence that the event took place, regardless of all evidence to the contrary.)

Loftus’s various experiments have shown how even subtle changes in the way a question about an event is worded can lead to a false memory. For example, after someone has viewed a video of a car accident, the question “Did you see the broken headlight?” is far more likely to elicit memories of a broken headlight (even when there was no broken headlight in the video) than the question “Did you see a broken headlight?” Similarly, asking “How fast were the cars going when they smashed together?” will yield speed estimates significantly higher than “How fast were the cars going when they hit each other?” And the “smashed together” phrase will even yield false memories of broken glass, which is not in the video at all.


Even though some memories of abuse, for example, may be false, real cases of abuse, of course, do exist. In fact, one can realistically surmise that an inordinate number of abuse cases go unreported and even unspoken, and that they may greatly outnumber falsely recovered memories. But the sensitivity of these subjects has imbued Loftus’s work with a great deal of controversy, as she has also testified at some high-profile cases, including those involving Ted Bundy, the Menéndez Brothers, the Hillside Strangler, and the Oklahoma City bombers. Victims’ advocates and survivors of abuse have sometimes vilified Loftus because they believe that she is invalidating their experiences. But let’s be clear: The fact that Loftus has identified the potential, under certain circumstances, for false memories to be generated does not negate the true stories of abuse survivors, nor does her work imply that those who have reported what have turned out to be false memories were actively and purposefully lying. What Loftus’s work highlights, perhaps more than anything else, is just how unreliable the most emotional and traumatic memories can be.


Elizabeth Loftus’s work has had an immense impact outside academia, most specifically on how eyewitness testimony is viewed in criminal cases. A great many convictions that were later overturned because of DNA evidence have involved eyewitness testimony. Loftus’s work has led to a new level of scrutiny in cases involving recovered memories, and it has inspired further research into the fragility and fallibility of human memory.


Think back to your earliest memory. Were you 2? 5? 10? What is it, exactly, that you recall? Let’s say it was a birthday party, a broken arm, or a disappointing Christmas. Maybe it was your parents’ divorce, or a trip to Walt Disney World. When you visualize this experience, can you be sure of what you are remembering?

Perhaps you are remembering not the experience itself but someone else’s repeated version of events. Maybe your family has always regaled everyone with this story. Maybe you yourself have repeated it to dozens of others. Maybe, for you, it’s become such a part of your personal narrative that what you’re really remembering is the remembering of the story, not the story itself. And, what is perhaps most relevant to our modern age, maybe you’re just remembering a picture of it.

A particularly interesting question for all of us, when it comes to how we remember what we remember, is what has become the norm in terms of documentation of our lives. Blogging, texting, posting to Facebook and Instagram, filling our phones with pictures—all these activities are creating digital narratives and records that go beyond the wildest dreams of people from even a generation ago. If, as Loftus has shown, our memories are particularly susceptible to being falsely influenced by others’ suggestions, then won’t we, more and more, be remembering not so much the major events of our lives as someone’s digital retelling of them? The pictures that we are bombarded with on a daily basis now cover even the most mundane aspects of our lives. Experiences and events that would never have been deemed filmworthy a generation or two ago now clog our photo collections. And when we post those pictures on a blog or other online platform, we essentially add a new layer of distortion with respect to the original experience.

Loftus’s work has shown us, without a doubt, that memory is subject to serious flaws, not just when it comes to mundane events or single moments but even when it comes to whether events have occurred at all. As our documentation of our lives increases exponentially, we might well wonder where we will even begin to find the real memories beneath it all.