Saturday, 25 February 2012

False memories

Elizabeth Loftus
The work of American psychologist professor Elizabeth Loftus has been controversial but enlightening. Her work on the misinformation effect and false memories is what she is famous for, particularly her uncovering of false memories of child-abuse implanted by so-called therapists.

This has been an extremely controversial area as anyone may soon discover by following the above links, yet her work fits very well with Skinner's behavioural psychology. Our memories are fragile as Sam Vega observed in a comment on an earlier post.

Maybe we see a car pass by while walking down the street, a trivial event we may soon forget, but if it is suggested to us that the car was blue, then we are likely to remember it as blue, even if it was actually white. Of course this is less likely if there was some reason to take note of the car, such as it being unusual in some way.

Memories are not fixed records, but aspects of an overall picture which will be modified as we adjust the new circumstances. It may well be that memories are supposed to be mutable, their mutability being a key element of social cohesion. In part, it's how we reach agreement.

One of Elizabeth Loftus' most famous cases was that of George Franklin who in 1990 was suddenly accused by his daughter Eileen of raping and murdering her best friend twenty years earlier. Loftus was brought by the defence to testify on Franklin's behalf, specifically on the unreliability of so-called repressed memories reported by his daughter.

However, the jury didn't accept Franklin's defence and he was convicted of rape and murder and sentenced to life imprisonment. Fortunately for Franklin the verdict was overturned on appeal.

The booklet experiment.
This experience led Loftus to design experiments where she would implant false memories under controlled conditions. She recruited twenty four subjects and with the help of each subject's family members designed a small journal with four written accounts of past incidents in family life, one of which was false.

The subjects were then given their own family journal and asked to elaborate on the four incidents from their own memories. If they had no memory of the incident, they were instructed to write I don't remember this.

What Loftus found was that the false incidents were "remembered" with remarkable clarity and in great detail, subjects going on to elaborate them far beyond what was written in the jounal. One subject (shown in the above clip) "remembered" being lost in a shopping mall as a small child and wrote out details such as how scared he was and how an old man with glasses had come up to him in the mall.

But none of this ever happened. It was implanted via the journal and the three family incidents which were true. They authenticated the false incident and a repertoire of other memories supplied the detail.


Sam Vega said...

It reminds me of some research that was conducted into the moral panic surrounding "video nasties" in the 1990s. Children and teenagers were adamant that they had seen videos on a list supplied by the researchers. Trouble is, the names were made up and there were no such videos.

A K Haart said...

SV - I wonder how people remember their false memories after being shown why they are false?

Sam Vega said...

Good question!

My guess is that the same part of their mind that fabricated the false memory would then deny the fact of the fabrication, or see it in a radically different light.

Demetrius said...

Politician's autobiographies?

James Higham said...

particularly her uncovering of false memories of child-abuse implanted by so-called therapists

Government shill. When there were questions which could no longer be covered up, they trotted out this sort of person and pseudo-psychology.

When Alisha Owen refused to recant and Paul Bonacci, there were 80 attested cases and of those many were shown to be quite probable.

Hell, it's not even a mystery after Estabrooks and Cameron. This has not been answered by FMS at all - it's simply been counter-asserted.

James Higham said...

Further to this, be very careful with these people [FMS]:


FMSF founder Ralph Underwager, director of the Institute
of Psychological Therapies in Minnesota, was forced to resign in
1993. Underwager (a former Lutheran pastor) and his wife Hollida
Wakefield publish a journal, Issues in Child Abuse Allegations,
written by and for child abuse "skeptics." His departure from the
False Memory Syndrome Foundation was hastened by a remark in an
interview, appearing in an Amsterdam journal for pedophiles, that
it was "God's Will" adults engage in sex with children. (His wife
Hollida remained on the Foundation's board after he left.) As it
happens, holy dispensation for pedophiles is the exact credo of
the Children of God cult. It was fitting, then, when Underwager
filed an affidavit on behalf of cult members tried in France in
1992, insisting that the accused were positively "not guilty of
abuse upon children." In the interview, he prevailed upon
pedophiles everywhere to shed stigmatization as "wicked and
reprehensible" users of children.
In keeping with the Foundation's creative use of
statistics, Dr. Underwager told a group of British reporters in
1994 that "scientific evidence" proved 60% of all women molested
as children believed the experience was "good for them."

The FMS thing has a lot of form in many places.

A K Haart said...

D - politicians have a special memory all their own.

JH - I have been careful to offer no view on the outcome of the Franklin case itself (note the words “Fortunately for Franklin”) only using it to introduce Loftus and her work, which is certainly controversial.

Even so, her experimental work shows that memories can be implanted by suggestion which is the subject of this post - not child abuse or the Franklin case itself.

James Higham said...

I'm not referring to the Franklin case, AKH. I'm referring to the charlatan organization FMSA, which is a bit like the IPCC and their hockey stick. Everyone believed it at first because these were celebrated scientists, were they not?

Loftus does not come out of it as criminal but she surely knew the uses her "research" was being put to and who by.

It's just that I've followed many of the leads and links in their various activities and the interconnections with other organizations are eye-opening.

I urge people to at least be circumspect until the other side of it is laid on the table.

Roger said...

Yes, it is my experience that long-term memories are unreliable and even short-term memories can be implanted.

A K Haart said...

Roger - that's right and it can be difficult to deal with if we ever find out.