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The majority of individuals will learn about famous psychologists at some point in his or her life. The field of psychology is constantly developing and new information is being discovered. A more recent psychologist that has gained fame for their work is Elizabeth Loftus. Loftus has become well-known for her beliefs on memory and legislation. Loftus has been studying the concept of memory for over forty years now (American Psychologist, 2003). She had devoted the majority of her life to psychology upon realizing that she had the ability to produce a hypothesis, pilot experiments, and find correlations in data. Haggbloom et al. (2002) included Loftus in the most notable psychologists in the 20th century. Furthermore, she has received the Distinguished Contribution Award from the American Academy of Forensic Psychology and was awarded the William James Award from the American Psychological Society (Berton, 2009). It is important to note why Loftus has received these awards and recognitions.
Elizabeth Loftus began her work looking at eyewitness testimony in the laboratory environment (American Psychologist, 2003). She questioned the validity and accuracy of memories. Loftus has scientifically revealed that individuals do not have the ability to recall all aspects of a memory. One of the early experiments she conducted showed that something as simple as changing the wording of a question could change participants responses. These results revealed the vulnerability of memories and that memories can easily be altered. The experiments in the lab and instructing students at a university was a learning experience, but she was still searching for more. Loftus chose to look at eyewitness testimony in a more naturalistic context by consulting in court cases. The first court case that Loftus consulted in was a murder case. She was able to teach the defendant’s lawyer about the biases in spectators’ memories, which helped in exonerating the suspect. Loftus became increasingly recognized for her work upon winning the case. She has been asked to employ her knowledge of eyewitness testimony in more recognized cases such as “the trial of officers accused in the Rodney King beating, the Menendez brothers, the Michael Jackson case” and more (American Psychologist, 2003, p. 865). Elizabeth Loftus’ controversial view that memories are not adequate evidence to acquit an individual of a crime has created both followers and critics.
Neimark (1996) interviewed Loftus to learn more about her personal experiences. It is evident that Loftus has developed opponents in her work as she questions the validity of memory in cases of rape, murder, and assault. Loftus advocates that memories are not legitimate proof, therefore more evidence than testimony is required to properly judge a case. There have been countless scenarios in which people have displayed physical and verbal aggression against Loftus. The plaintiffs of a lawsuit and family members typically condemn Loftus, while defendants acclaim her for assisting in the case. Elizabeth Loftus has experienced the fragility and repression of memory firsthand (Neimark, 1996). She was questioned about the death of her mom during the interview. Loftus disclosed that she was unable to remember the details of her mother’s death for nearly thirty years. Berton (2009) conducted a project where the participants had been in contact with Loftus at some point. The results from the study showed that subjects in support of Loftus readily wanted to participate in the study, but critics typically denied the invitation. It was additionally found that the two individuals who experienced abuse declined the invitation to participate. The critics in the study disclosed their feelings on the inconsistencies in Loftus’ work, such as the differences in normal and traumatic events and personal bias. Despite the number of followers and critics she has accrued, she continues to meaningfully contribute to memory. Elizabeth Loftus became famous for eyewitness testimony, but she has continued to study different concepts of memory throughout her career.
Loftus and Burns (1982) conducted an experiment that tested participants ability to retain information from a traumatic event. The purpose of this experiment was to see if violent incidents were connected to retrograde amnesia. The researchers defined retrograde amnesia as “the loss of memory of events that occur prior to some critical incident” (Loftus & Burns, 1982, p. 318). It was hypothesized that viewing a disturbing event would cause participants to forget some of the details. Loftus and Burns (1982) used a between-subjects design where participants either watched a violent or nonviolent video of a bank robbery. The researchers found that the subjects who watched the violent video where a child was shot had a drastically harder time recalling the details. The participants in the violent video condition had trouble recalling what happened before and during the event. It is essential to note that there may be more reasons than one for the differences in results.
The majority of people compare memory to a camera or a videorecorder (Clifasefi, Garry, & Loftus, 2007). Most individuals believe that memories are the purest form of truth and that a memory should not be questioned, but this is not accurate. Although memory is an essential part of humans’ lives, the susceptibility of memories should be considered. Loftus has researched the coping mechanism of repression. Clifasefi et al. (2007) defined repression as the “idea that we banish traumatic memories from conscious awareness to protect our mind from psychological damage” (p. 14). The concept of repression has been studied for decades as Sigmund Freud was the first psychologist to introduce it. An example of repression is a person who is raped forgetting the memory because it is easier than facing the circumstance. Humans may repress memories consciously or unconsciously, but it is possible to recover the memory through therapy. During the 1980s and 1990s, an increasing number of women believed that they had uncovered repressed memories of abuse. It was important to differentiate the women who were telling truthful stories from false ones so that people were not being incorrectly accused and punished. The majority of court cases were accepting the uncovered memories of women to be valid without additional proof. The verdict in the cases caused researchers, therapists, lawyers, and abusers/victims to have conflicting thoughts on repressed memories.
Leavitt (2002) reevaluated the ideas that Elizabeth Loftus shared in a 1993 article titled “The reality of repressed memories”. Loftus questioned the truthfulness behind repressed memories that had been recovered. She believes that information can be added or lost while recovering the memory, which would diminish the memories validity. Loftus’ journal “conveyed the impression that classic repression was the sole theory for understanding amnesia for traumatic events” (Leavitt, 2002 p. 22). The journal addressed that Loftus should have included additional reasons for repression such as disassociation. While the particular article Leavitt referred to may have focused on repressed memories, Loftus has also studied false memories and memory distortions.
The idea of false memories is an occurrence that Loftus has tested in both clinical and real cases. False memories are a concept that show that humans have the tendency to believe an event happened even if it did not (American Psychologist, 2003). There was not an extensive amount of research in the 1990’s about if someone could implant a memory into an individual’s psyche that had never occurred before. Loftus and Pickrell (1995) conducted an experiment where family members of the subjects were asked to disclose three events that had happened to the participant. The researchers asked the relatives to include a story of “a plausible shopping trip to a mall or large department store … where the subject could conceivably have gotten lost” (Loftus & Pickrell, 1995, p. 721). It was found that 29 percent of the participants recalled the fake event occurring. The reason that some of the participants believed the event was real may be related to suggestions from others, confounds with real memories, and the brain misconstruing something similar. The results from this experiment revealed that false memories can occur through implantation and imagination. Memory distortions are similar to false memories, but the alterations occur to actual memories. The distortions are characterized by adding objects or events to a memory that did not occur originally (Clifasefi, Garry, & Loftus, 2012). An example of a memory distortion would be a person saying that they saw someone in a red suit while witnessing a store robbery, but the recording did not show anyone with this description. Loftus has found that the memory distortions can change depending on who conveys the misreport and demographics. It is not difficult to realize that there is a lot to consider when examining memories.
Elizabeth Loftus has significantly contributed to the field of psychology and law in a number of ways. She has experimented in the clinical setting in addition to helping in the courtroom. Loftus has researched eyewitness testimony, repressed memories, false memories, and memory distortions. She has lent her knowledge to more than 200 cases (Berton, 2009). Although some may not agree with her opinions, it cannot be discredited that she has contributed the majority of her life to one subject. The topic of memory has become increasingly prevalent due to Elizabeth Loftus.
- American Psychologist. (2003). Elizabeth F Loftus: Award for Distinguished Scientific Applications of Psychology. American Psychologist, 58(11), 864–873. https://doi-org.libproxy.clemson.edu/10.1037/0003-066X.58.11.864
- Berton, J. D. (2009). Elizabeth F Loftus: A Life History. Dissertation Abstracts International Section A: Humanities and Social Sciences (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from ProQuest Dissertations and Thesis. http://libproxy.clemson.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true &db=psyh&AN=2010-99230-129
- Clifasefi, S. L., Garry, M., & Loftus, E. (2007). Setting the record (or video camera) straight on memory: The video camera model of memory and other memory myths. In S. Della Sala (Ed.), Tall tales about the mind & brain: Separating fact from fiction. (pp. 60–75). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
- Haggbloom, S. J., Warnick, R., Warnick, J.E., Jones, V.K., Yarbrough, G.I., Russell, T.M ….McGahey, R., (2002). The 100 most eminent psychologists of the 20th century. Review of General Psychology, 6(2), 139-152. doi:10.1037/e413802005-787
- Leavitt, Frank. 2002. “‘The Reality of Repressed Memories’ Revisited and Principles of Science.” Journal of Trauma & Dissociation 3 (1): 19–35. doi:10.1300/J229v03n01pass:[_]03.
- Loftus, E. F., & Burns, T. E. (1982). Mental shock can produce retrograde amnesia. Memory & Cognition, 10(4), 318–323. https://doi-org.libproxy.clemson.edu/10.3758/BF03202423
- Loftus, E. F., & Pickrell, J. E. (1995). The formation of false memories. Psychiatric Annals, 25(12), 720–725. https://doi-org.libproxy.clemson.edu/10.3928/0048-5713-19951201-07
- Neimark, J. (1996, January). The diva of disclosure, memory researcher Elizabeth Loftus. Psychology Today, 29(1), 48. Retrieved from https://staff.washington.edu/eloftus/Articles/psytoday.htm
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