Memory manipulation and the trouble with eyewitness testimony

Photo courtesy of Steve Rhodes/Flickr

Photo courtesy of Steve Rhodes/Flickr

By Rachel Zamzow

SAN JOSE — In the wake of his recent infamy, NBC anchor Brian Williams has at least one ally. University of California Irvine professor and leading memory expert Elizabeth Loftus has come to his defense, saying that Williams’ story is a teachable moment on the fallibility of memory.

What we hold dear as our own recollections can be manipulated by false information, according to Loftus. And she thinks Williams is just as susceptible as the rest of us to the faulty nature of our memories.

“Misinformation is everywhere,” Loftus said Friday during a symposium on the science of memory at the 2015 annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Memory for an event can later be unconsciously rewritten by conversations with others or by misleading media coverage, said Loftus. This may have been what happened to Williams, who was suspended this week over controversy surrounding his claims to have been in a helicopter that was attacked in Iraq in 2003.

In her body of research over four decades, Loftus has shown how false memories for events that never happened are not only possible but also relatively easy to induce. She has made research subjects “remember” that they were lost in a mall when they were children simply by feeding them misleading information and using strong suggestion.

By placing a false memory of getting sick after eating hard-boiled eggs or dill pickles, she has even convinced people to avoid these foods at a later time.

“We can plant false memories in the minds of people, and it does affect their subsequent behavior,” Loftus said. It seems all people are susceptible to memory manipulation, even those who are studied by psychologists for their highly superior memories. And states like sleep deprivation can make this susceptibility worse.

While an unfounded aversion to hard-boiled eggs is innocuous, the malleability of memory can lead to major issues, especially when it comes to the criminal justice system. Three quarters of later-overturned wrongful convictions have been attributed to eyewitnesses misremembering information, Loftus said.

Until Loftus’ pioneering work revealed the large influence false memories can have on eyewitness testimony, juries were instructed to judge the credibility of a witness by their body language and the sincerity of their story. But last year, a report published by the National Academy of Sciences encouraged courts to apply new standards when it comes to the weight placed on eyewitness accounts. For example, the report recommends that judges allow experts on eyewitness memory to testify in court.

“Without independent corroboration, we can’t know whether it’s a genuine memory, or whether it’s a product of some other process,” Loftus said. Greater awareness of wrongful convictions due to false memories may help the public better understand the imperfections of memory, she said.

Loftus’ support of Williams has led to her own bit of backlash. She recently received an angry voicemail in which someone berated her for defending him. But her work continues to inspire her to acknowledge the flawed memories of public figures like Williams and Hillary Clinton. Just because a person tells you something with a lot of confidence doesn’t mean it actually happened, she said.

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One thought on “Memory manipulation and the trouble with eyewitness testimony

  1. Pingback: This year’s crew of science writers takes on #AAAS | Unearthed

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