Established and respected cognitive psychologist, Elizabeth Loftus, spoke to a packed Lory Student Center Theater Thursday evening about a topic she has devoted decades of her life to: memory.
Author and contributor to over 10 books and leader in countless experiments, Loftus provided an interactive presentation that explained to audience members that memory is not quite as concrete as we think.
Loftus explained that when presented with untrue information, the brain is able to accept it as true, fully believe it and recognize it as a memory.
“When exposed to misinformation, many people accept it and take it as their own information,” Loftus said.
Loftus explained this by addressing research she conducted. In one experiment, she talked with the parents or older siblings of the subjects, and found out about a few events that happened in the participant’s childhood. Upon meeting with the participant, Loftus asked the participant to confirm whether or not the childhood events she mentioned happened to them. She would proceed to describe three true events. After the third event she shared a fourth made up event about getting lost in a mall and being rescued by an elderly person.
“We asked about three true experiences, things the mother told us really did happen, and then a completely made up experience about being lost in the mall,” Loftus said. “We got about a quarter of our subjects to fall swayed to the suggestion and remember all or part of this negative experience of being lost in the mall.”
Loftus also discussed the power of a story and its ability to unintentionally become a false memory.
“If you just get people to make up a story about themselves, have them make up a story how they rescued a cat from a tree as a child, then many people will later start to believe that they had this experience of rescuing a cat,” Loftus said. “Even though it starts as a story, it starts as an instruction to be convincing (and) it ends up having this effect on consequent memory.”
Loftus also discussed the 1984 rape case of Jennifer Thompson and Ronald Cotton. As a 22-year-old college student in North Carolina, an attacker broke into her house and raped her. Thompson survived and took the case to court. With the help of authorities she identified Cotton as the perpetrator after seeing a photograph of him as well as seeing him in person. Cotton was sent to jail, but he was not the same man that broke into Thompson’s house. Speculations rose following the trail about another possible suspect, Bobby Poole, and Thompson was once again asked to identify her attacker. When presented with Poole and Cotton, she chose Cotton.
Loftus used this exemplify that not only memories can be fuzzy, but to also build off the idea that eyewitness accounts can present unintended accuracy issues, especially for stressed and sleep deprived witnesses.
At the end of her presentation, Loftus received a standing ovation, and students left the students with one of her famous quotes.
“Memory, like liberty, is a fragile thing,” Loftus said.
Students said they found her work both intriguing and applicable.
“I thought her studies were very interesting,” said Dartanyan Broeker, junior psychology major. “(The studies) had a lot of real world application that a lot of people don’t really think about. For instance, eye witness accounts aren’t (always) accurate and she can prove why they’re not.”
Psychology major Sierra Thompkins said the keynote speech related to class content.
“It’s crazy to me that your mind can play tricks on you like it does,” Thompkins said. “It’s really interesting that she has discovered that and proved it through multiple methods. She proved that our memory isn’t definite like we think it is, and that’s really cool.”
Collegian reporter Nicole Towne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.