Friday, November 14, 2008

A Brief History of the False Memory Research of Elizabeth Loftus

A Brief History of the False Memory Research of Elizabeth Loftus

Lynn Crook, M.Ed.

The lost- in- a-shopping-mall study (Loftus and Pickrell, 1995) provided initial scientific support for the claim that child sexual abuse accusations are false memories planted by therapists. However, the mall study researchers faced a problem early on—the participants could tell the difference between the true and false memories.

1989 – Washington State became the first to allow adults who recovered long-buried memories of child sexual abuse to file lawsuits to recover damages.

Dr. Elizabeth Loftus, a psychology professor at the University of Washington who testified as an expert on eyewitness testimony, described the challenge these lawsuits presented for psychologists. “The challenge,” she said, was to show that “an entirely false, traumatic memory” could be planted in someone’s mind. (See: )

1992 - James Coan, a student of Loftus’, was assigned as chief co-investigator for the mall study. The subjects’ family members were asked to provide Coan with three true childhood stories about the subjects, and to describe a typical family shopping trip. Based on the shopping trip descriptions, a false story was created for each subject about getting lost as a child during a shopping trip. (See: )
The subjects were informed that their family members said the events “had happened.” (See: ) The participants were asked to repeat the stories and to try to remember more details. Finally, the subjects were told one of the memories was false, and asked to choose the false memory (Loftus and Pickrell, p. 722).

1993 – The first indication the study might not live up to the challenge became public in 1993. Coan reported in his honors thesis that six subjects had completed the study, and “all subjects were able to correctly identify the false memory.” (Coan, 1993, p. 16.) Coan was assigned to another professor, and Loftus appointed Jacqueline Pickrell, Maryanne Garry and Chuck Manning to conduct the study. In a January 24, 1994, deposition for Crook v. Murphy, attorney Barbara Jo Levy asked Loftus, “If you are asked to testify about your experiments of implanting false memories, would you use those first six?” Loftus replied, “No, I don’t think I will use the first six” (Transcript, p. 61).

1994 – The mall study was completed in 1994. Loftus reported the results at a conference: “About 10 percent of adults [2 of the 24 subjects] will come up with a specific elaborated memory.” (See: Loftus also reported the 2-subject finding in a status report to the University of Washington Human Subjects Committee dated June 1, 1994: “24 subjects have been run. About “8-9% [2] have formed false positive memories.”
NOTE: The 2-subject finding may not be accurate. The two subjects are mentioned on page 723 of the mall study. The first subject is described as “convinced.” However, according to Loftus, Feldman and Dashiell (1995), this subject recounted to the researchers what appears to be an actual experience of getting lost at K-Mart, and then went on to correct the false memory she was told. (See: Although Loftus et al.(1995) say the subject “embraced much of the information, and expanded upon it,” this does not appear to be the case. The second subject is described as “misled.” Yet when she was asked to choose the false memory, she chose the mall memory (Loftus and Pickrell, p. 723). Thus, it appears that no false memories were planted in the mall study. (Crook, 2008, United Nations Conference).

1995 – In June, evidence of possible research misconduct in an earlier study was reported in a journal of the American Psychological Association. Koss, Tromp and Tharan (1995, p. 120) demonstrated that the data in Loftus and Burns (1982, p. 320) did not support the authors’ claim that “those who saw the mentally shocking version showed poorer retention of the details of the films” (Loftus and Burns, p. 318). Instead, the data indicated poorer retention for one unimportant detail. (See: )

In December, two women filed ethics complaints against Loftus with the American Psychological Association claiming she had misrepresented their successful recalled memory lawsuits to the media. (See: )

In December, the mall study was published. The 2-subject findings reported in 1994 became five subjects in the published study. Loftus and Pickrell (1995, p. 723) reported: “Of the 24 total, 19 subjects correctly chose the getting-lost memory as the false one, while the remaining five incorrectly thought that one of the true events was the false one.” The authors concluded, “These findings reveal that people can be led to believe that entire events happened to them after suggestions to that effect” (Loftus and Pickrell, p. 723). (See: ) Loftus reports the 5-subject finding in her expert witness testimony.

1996 – In 1996, Loftus began criticizing the character, rather than the ideas, of those who questioned her ideas.

In January, Loftus resigned from the American Psychological Association. As a result, the Association did not investigate the two ethics complaints.

In April, Barbara Jo Levy and others (unnamed by the News) said in their response to Loftus’ article in the Washington State Bar News: “These studies [we cited] demonstrate time and time again that a personally experienced traumatic event may result in partial or total memory less of the traumatic event. Loftus herself was victim to such a traumatic memory loss, as she describes it on page 149 of her book, Witness for the Defense.” Loftus replied to Levy and the others: “The lack of common decency shown by Levy et al. in raising the subject of my own experience at age 6 of sexual abuse by a baby-sitter is beyond measure. Why Levy chose to mislead readers by distorting the description of my experience would only be speculation” (Loftus, 1996).

In June, at a NATO conference, Loftus told a colleague to stop defending one of the women who filed an ethics complaint against her. (See:

In July, testifying as an expert in Turner v. Honker, Loftus commented on Charles Whitfield (“he makes stuff up,” p. 84), Karen Olio (she’s a therapist who has been harassing me for years,” p. 142) and Bessel van der Kolk (“acted nice to me and then said some, unfair and nasty things…he misbehaved,” p. 153). (Transcript)

Loftus commented on the ethics of Ken Pope in Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice. A year later, the journal published a correction and an apology for Loftus’ “false statement disparaging Dr. Pope’s ethics.” (Correction notice and apology, 1997)

1997 - The raw data from the mall study were subpoenaed by the defense in Burgus v. Braun et al. Loftus obtained a gag order for data. The case settled on October 31, 1997, and the data were returned to Loftus.

Pezdek, Finger, Hodge (1997) planted false memories of getting lost in a mall in three subjects, and failed to convince subjects they had an enema as a child. This study is often cited as a replication of the mall study, even though the participants were interviewed by family members, not researchers. The findings provide evidence to suggest that a family member may be able to plant a false memory of child sexual abuse in another family member if the incident is perceived as only mildly frightening, and the incident is combined with a familiar event (such as a typical family shopping trip).

In May, David Corwin and Erna Olafson published a case study of a videotaped, spontaneously-recovered memory of child sexual abuse (Corwin and Olafson, 1997). The videotape provided evidence to suggest that a repressed memory of childhood abuse could be recalled. (See Loftus hired Shapiro Investigations to assist in the investigation, and travelled to California to interview Doe’s family members, allegedly introducing herself as the supervisor of David Corwin whom Jane Doe knew and trusted. In 1999, Jane Doe filed an ethics complaint against Loftus with the University of Washington. In July 2001, the University completed a 20-month investigation during which Loftus was not allowed to discuss the case. The University required Loftus to complete an ethics course and to restrict her relationship with Jane Doe’s mother. In June 2002, Loftus was hired by the University of California at Irvine as a Distinguished Professor. In 2002, Loftus and Melvin Guyer published “Who Abused Jane Doe?” in the Skeptical Inquirer. (See: In February 2003, Nicole Taus (Jane Doe) filed a lawsuit against Elizabeth Loftus, Melvin Guyer, Carol Tavris, Shapiro Investigations, Skeptical Inquirer, Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP), and the University of Washington charging invasion of privacy, defamation libel per se, and slander per se, negligent and intentional infliction of emotional distress and damages. In February 2007, the California Supreme Court dismissed all but the invasion of privacy charge. (See: )

In August 2007, ten years after Corwin and Olafson’s article was published, Loftus accepted Taus’ settlement offer. Taus was 29-years-old at the time. While numerous publications have reported Loftus’ viewpoint of the lawsuit, no publication has reported Navy Lieutenant Taus’ view of her experience. .

1998 – In an article for American Psychologist, Loftus commented on the work of Laura Brown: “The extent to which my ideas were repeatedly and grossly misrepresented makes it difficult to conclude that some accident or misunderstanding occurred” (Loftus, 1998). Brown responded, “Readers who carefully check the original published sources will find that in my article I quoted Loftus accurately and in context.” (Brown, 1998).

1999 - Crook and Dean (1999) provided evidence to suggest that Loftus had misrepresented the published mall study findings as six subjects, not five, in expert witness testimony. (See: )
In her response, Loftus (1999, p. 51) questioned the competence of Crook and Dean and the journal’s peer review process. (See:

2001 – In June, during an award acceptance speech at an American Psychological Society conference, Loftus described the University of Washington’s ethics investigators:
I am gagged at the moment and may not give you any details. But to me, that itself is the problem. Who, after all, benefits from my silence? Who benefits from keeping such investigations in the dark? My inquisitors. The only people who operate in the dark are thieves, assassins, and cowards. (See: )

2002 - In a September newspaper interview, Loftus claimed that people like Neil Brick are a “menace to society.” (See

A reply to the above newspaper article is at

2003 - The American Psychological Association released Psychologists Defying the Crowd in which Loftus (2003, p. 109) commented on Judith Herman, Diana Russell, Lenore Walker and Mary Harvey who had critiqued her work. She stated, “It was quite another thing when the attacks came from individuals who were supposed to be respectable professionals” (p. 109). (See:

In April, a reporter for the UC Irvine student newspaper stated, incorrectly, “Loftus also said that Crook has been harassing her for the past several years and has even gone to such extreme measures such as to registering herself under a false name in one of Loftus’ classes to monitor her.” (See:

In August, the American Psychological Association named Loftus for its Distinguished Scientific Contribution for the Applications of Psychology Award.

2005 - In June, Loftus was asked to submit a Clarification for a statement she made in an interview for the APS Observer. She wrote, “So ‘Making Memories’ got things mostly right, but ended up giving the impression that Alan developed a rich false memory, when in fact he did not.” (See:

In October, testifying as a defense expert in the murder trial of Missouri v. Ferguson, Loftus described how the false memories were created for the mall study: “The relatives feed the information to us, then we do the suggestive interviewing” (Transcript, p. 2021).

2006 - In October, United States Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald cross-examined Loftus in US v. Libby (Transcript, p. 65-66). He asked her about two apparent inconsistencies in Schmechel, O’Toole, Easterly, and Loftus (2006). In this study, Schmechel et al. claimed their survey results “demonstrate that jurors misunderstand how memory generally works” (p. 177). However, the survey results reported in the appendix of the article (pp. 206-214) demonstrate that jurors understand how memory generally works (See:

2007 - In a January 4 deposition for Liano v. Diocese of Phoenix, attorney Richard Treon asked Loftus about the inconsistency between the subjects’ responses in Loftus and Burns (p. 320) and the authors’ conclusion that “those who saw the mentally shocking version showed poorer retention of the details of the films” (p. 318). Loftus replied, “Well the data are all presented there and they speak for themselves, so if people wanted to have a different conclusion, they can try to do that” (Transcript, p. 180).

Loftus was also asked if it is more accurate to say that only two participants fully accepted the false lost in a mall memory. She replied, “We wouldn’t have reported 25 if—I don’t know what you mean by fully, and I would have to go back and read the paper because it’s 12 years ago.” After a similar question, she replied, “First of all, numerous other researchers have gone on to adopt this methodology and they get much higher rates of subjects falling for the suggestion, so I don’t have to defend the 25 percent rate when other people, I mean, are getting three percent or 50 percent false memory rate in these studies” (Transcript, p. 212).

Summary: Given that (1) the mall study researchers collaborated with participants’ relatives to create a false memory, (2) the researchers told participants that their relative corroborated the false memory, (3) no replication of the mall study has been published, (4) the 5-subject finding did not hold up under examination in Liano v. Diocese of Phoenix and (5) the 2-subject finding appears doubtful—the mall study (Loftus and Pickrell, 1995) appears to indicate that planting a false memory of a child sexual abuse may be much more difficult than has been previously suggested.


The apparent inconsistencies in Loftus and Burns (1982), Loftus and Pickrell (1995) and Schmechel, O’Toole, Easterly and Loftus (2006) suggest that journal editors may need to assume a larger role in creating and enforcing policies that encourage ethical publication practices.

The character-disparaging comments that have appeared in media reports and scientific journals suggest that reporters and journal editors may need to assume a larger role in presenting such comments as one side of a two-sided debate.


Brown, L. S. (1998). Sacred space, not sacred cows, or it’s never fun being prophetic. American Psychologist, 53, 488-490.

Coan, J. (1993, August 18). “Creating False Memories.” Senior Paper, Psychology Honors Program, p. 16.

Correction notice and apology. (1997, Fall). Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 4(3).

Corwin, D., and Olafson, E. (1997). Videotaped discovery of a reportedly unrecallable memory of child sexual abuse: Comparison with a childhood interview videotaped 11 years before.” Child Maltreatment 2(2), 91-112. Online at:

Crook, L. (2008, March 4). “The Community Costs of Child Molesters.” Presentation at the United Nations Conference on the Status of Women, New York

Lost in a shopping mall—A breach of professional ethics. Ethics & Behavior, 9(1), 39-50, and Crook, L.S., & Dean, M. (1999); Logical fallacies and ethical breaches, 9(1), 61-68. Online at:

Koss, M. Tromp, S. and Tharan, M. (1995, June). Traumatic memories: Empirical foundations, forensic and clinical implications. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 2(2), 111-132.

Loftus, E. (1996). Repressed Memory Litigation: Court cases and scientific findings on illusory memory, Washington State Bar News, 50, 15-25. (Letter in the following issue.)

Loftus, E. (1998). The private practice of misleading deflection. American Psychologist, 53, 484-485.

Loftus, E. (1999). Lost in the mall: Misrepresentations and misunderstandings. Ethics & Behavior, 9(1), 51-60.
Online at:

Loftus, E. (2002). Memory Faults and Fixes. Science and Technology. Online at:

Loftus, E. (2003). The Dangers of Memory. In R.J. Sternberg (Ed.), Psychologists Defying the Crowd, Washington D.C. American Psychological Association Press, p. 109. Online at:

Loftus, E. and Burns, T. (1982). Mental shock can produce retrograde amnesia. Memory and Cognition, 10, 3i8-323. Online at:

Loftus E., Feldman, J., and Dashiell, R. (1995). The reality of illusory memories. Memory Distortion, p. 63. Online at:

Loftus E. and Pickrell, J. (1995). The formation of false memories. Psychiatric Annals, 25, pp. 720-725. Online at:

Pezdek, K., Finger, K., and Hodge, D. (1997). Planting false childhood memories: The role of event plausibility. Psychological Science, 8(6), 437-441.

Schmechel, R.S., O’Toole, T. P., Easterly, C. & Loftus, E.F. (2006). Beyond the Ken: Testing Juror’s Understanding of Eyewitness Reliability Evidence. Jurimetrics Journal, 46, 177-214. Online at:

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