The memory manipulators

Photo by Flickr user Andrew Mason. Click for sourceSlate has just finished an awesome eight-part special on how memory can be manipulated, shaped and reshaped even when we’re completely unaware of it.

The series is really a retrospective on the life and work of Elizabeth Loftus, one of the most important and influential researchers in the area of false and flexible memories.

The first part is description of an online memory experiment completed by the website. If you’re new to the area it’s worth checking out, but if you’re aware of how easy it is for people to say they’ve genuinely remembered false events, it may be worth skipping to part two where the series really kicks off.

The articles weave together Loftus’ life and scientific work, describing how her own experiences have shaped her interest in false memory and how she has applied her interest in the flexibility of memory to a remarkably wide range of fields.

She is probably best known for her research which countered much of the ‘recovered memories of abuse’ hysteria which arose in the 90s. Loftus demonstrated it was very easy for therapists to encourage false memories in their clients.

This is a wonderfully vivid passage that describes how she developed her early experiments that ‘implanted’ nondescript false memories (such as the experience of being lost in the mall) to more unusual scenarios:

So Loftus ran bolder experiments with more subjects, more trauma, and greater implausibility. She convinced people that they had nearly choked, had caught their parents having sex, or had seen a wounded animal after a bombing. Other researchers planted memories of nearly drowning, being hospitalized overnight, and being attacked by an animal. In one study, Loftus and her collaborators persuaded 18 percent of people that they had probably witnessed demonic possession.

Critics protested that Loftus still hadn’t proved the memories were fake. So she raised the ante. She persuaded 16 percent of a study population that they had met Bugs Bunny at Disneyland. In a follow-up experiment, researchers sold the same memory to 36 percent of subjects. This was impossible, since Bugs belonged to Warner Bros., not Disney. When critics complained that the Bugs memory wasn’t abusive, Loftus obliged them again. Her team convinced 30 percent of another group of subjects that on a visit to Disneyland, a drug-addled Pluto character had licked their ears.

The ‘recovered memories of abuse’ hysteria reached its peak with recovered memories of ‘satanic ritual abuse’ or SRA in which both the law and professionals got caught up in despite the fact that no reliable evidence was ever found for its existence.

It is now a matter of embarrassment not least due to several high profile cases, such as the Orkney scandal, where children were removed from their families owing to leading interviews and over-zealous social workers.

However, the ‘ritual abuse’ movement is not completely dead. In fact, only last year London’s John Bowlby Centre ran a conference on ‘Ritual Abuse and Mind Control’ (programme: pdf) which featured Valerie Sinason, author of the book ‘Treating Survivors of Satanist Abuse’, which was partly responsible for fuelling the panic.

The Slate series covers some of the most important research to show how people could come to believe they were involved in such incidents and has many extras and links to other resources and the original research.

Link to Slate’s false memory series.

Full disclosure: I’m an occasional writer for Slate

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