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From kissing frogs to demonic possession, people are led to believe they experienced the improbable


Pioneer in false memory research presents latest findings at AAAS Symposium

During a recent study of memory recall and the use of suggestive interviewing, UC Irvine cognitive psychologist Elizabeth Loftus successfully planted false memories in volunteers of several study groups -- memories that included such unlikely events as kissing frogs, shaking hands with Bugs Bunny at Disneyland, and witnessing a demonic possession.

Her success at planting these memories challenge the argument that suggestive interviewing may reliably prompt real memories instead of planting false ones. A pioneer in false memory research and Distinguished Professor of Social Ecology at UCI, Loftus will present her latest research at the American Association for the Advancement of Science Annual Meeting in Denver at the "Remembering Traumatic Experiences in Childhood: Reliability and Limitations of Memory" symposium beginning at 2:30 p.m. MST Sunday, Feb. 16.

Loftus conducted her study by having volunteers conduct a set of actions that mixed the common place (flipping a coin) with the unusual and even bizarre (crushing a Hershey’s kiss with a dental floss container). Later, her research team asked volunteers to imagine additional actions they performed that day, such as kissing a frog. At a future time, participants were asked to recall their actions on that specific day[j1]. Ayanna Thomas, a doctoral student in Loftus’ research group, found that 15 percent of the study’s volunteers claimed they had actually performed some of the actions they had only imagined.

In another study, Loftus showed how false memories can be planted with a visual. Loftus and her colleagues exposed volunteers to a fake print advertisement describing a visit to Disneyland where they would meet Bugs Bunny. Later, 33 percent of these volunteers claimed they knew or remembered the event happening to them. (Bugs Bunny is a Warner Bros. character and has never appeared at Disneyland.) The false memory rate was boosted when people were given multiple exposures to the fake advertisement. In one study, 36 percent of those given three exposures said they met Bugs Bunny, compared to only 9 percent in a control condition. Loftus’ collaborators on this study included Kathryn Braun-LaTour, Melissa Grinley and Jacquie Pickrell.

These studies continue three decades of research by Loftus proving that memory is highly susceptible to distortion and contamination. Her past work has shown that people can be led to remember rather familiar or common experiences, even when these experiences likely had not occurred. Much of Loftus’s work has focused on false claims of repressed memories of sexual abuse. She also has shown that eyewitness accounts, notably those given in court, often are inaccurate. Loftus has served as an expert witness or consultant on some of the nation’s most high-profile trials, including the McMartin Pre-school molestation case, the "Hillside Strangler" case, the police officers involved in the Rodney King beating and the Bosnian War Trials.

Ranked among the 25 psychologists most frequently cited in introductory psychology textbooks, Loftus is the author of "Eyewitness Testimony," which won a National Media Award, and co-author of the widely cited book, "The Myth of Repressed Memory."

Lori Brandt | EurekAlert!
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