Elizabeth Loftus and the studies of memory: can false memories be created?
When we start thinking about how memory works, it is very easy to fall into the temptation of thinking that the brain works like a computer. Thus, the most intuitive is to believe that memories are actually information stored in the past that remains isolated from the rest of mental processes until we have to remember those experiences, knowledge or skills. However, we also know that memories often offer a distorted picture of the past.
Now ... memories are imperfect because they deteriorate with the simple passage of time, or is it that what we experience after having "memorized" that information modifies our memories? In other words, are our memories isolated from the rest of the metal processes that occur in our brain, or do they mix with them to the point of change?
Which brings us to a third more disturbing question: can false memories be created? An American psychologist named Elizabeth Loftus has dedicated several years of her life to researching this topic .
Elizabeth Loftus and cognitive psychology
When Elizabeth Loftus began her career in research, cognitive psychology was beginning to reveal new aspects of the functioning of mental processes. Among them, of course, memory, one of the topics that generated the most interest, being the basis for learning and even the identity of people .
However, in the judicial field there was another, more pragmatic, reason why it was very convenient to investigate the study of memory: it had to be determined to what extent the information given by the witnesses attending the trials was reliable, or for the victims themselves of crimes. Loftus focused on studying the possibility not only that the memories of these people could be false or totally modified , but it was other people who introduced false memories in them, even if it was intentional.
The car experiment
In one of his most famous experiments, Loftus recruited a series of volunteers and showed them recordings in which vehicles could be seen colliding with each other. After this stage of the investigation, the psychologist found something very curious.
When the volunteers were asked to remember the content of the recordings, some very specific phrases were used to tell them that they had to evoke what they had seen. In the case of some people, the phrase they used contained the word "contacted", while in others this word was changed to the term "hit", "collided" or "smashed". The rest of the sentence was always the same for all people, and only changed the word with which the action of colliding was described. What the volunteers were asked to do was to give their opinion about the speed at which the vehicles they had seen were going.
Although all the volunteers had seen the same thing, Elizabet Loftus noticed that the way in which they were asked to remember what appeared in the videos altered their memories . The people who had been given the instructions containing the words "contacted" and "hit" said that the vehicles were going at a lower speed, whereas this was significantly higher if the people with whom they were asked were asked. the terms "collided" and "smashed" had been used.
That is, the memories of people varied according to the degree of shock intensity suggested by the words used by members of the research team. A single word could make the volunteers evoke slightly different scenes about what they had seen .
At the mall
With the experiment of car videos colliding, Elizabeth Loftus provided evidence about how information given in the present can alter memories. But nevertheless, his discoveries went further by showing that it is possible to "introduce" false memories into memory through suggestion .
This investigation was somewhat more complicated, since in order to carry it out it was necessary to have information about the life of the volunteers. That is why Loftus got involved with friends or relatives of each one of them.
In the first phase of the investigation, the volunteers were told, one by one, four anecdotes about the childhood of each one of them. Three of these memories were real, and the explanations about these experiences had been constructed thanks to the information that the relatives of the volunteers had given to Loftus, but one was false, totally invented. Specific, this fictional anecdote was about how the participants had lost themselves in a mall when they were little .
A few days later, the volunteers were interviewed again and asked if they remembered anything about the four stories that had been explained to them in the first part of the study. One in four people said they remembered something about what happened when they got lost in the mall. But, in addition, when they were told that one of the four stories was false and asked to guess which of them was pure fiction, five of the 24 people who participated failed to give the correct answer. With minimal effort on the part of Elizabeth Loftus, a false memory had settled in his memory
The implications of these studies
The discoveries carried out by Elizabeth Loftus they were a violent shock to judicial systems around the world , essentially because they pointed out that memories can be distorted without us noticing and that, therefore, the first-hand information given by witnesses and victims does not have to be reliable. This caused that the resource of sustaining versions of what happened with material evidence was considered as very necessary.