Courtoom POI

Professor Elizabeth Loftus on False Memories

February 20, 2020

Can our memories be trusted if they are easily manipulated by suggestions? Where is the line between repressed memories that bubble up to the surface and false memories that never existed?

In this week’s episode, Jim Underdown speaks to Professor Elizabeth Loftus on what happens in the courtroom when a person’s memory of events are a result of suggestion or coercion. Loftus recounts various legal cases she’s been involved with where wrongful convictions resulted from false memories implanted in the mind of a witness by family members, prosecutors, or persons of authority. Work done by Harvard professor, Richard McNally has looked into the likelihood for someone to truly have a repressed or recovered memory in relation to past traumas.

Loftus is a professor of psychology and law at the University of California, Irvine. She has given a TED talk on the manipulation of memories, has published numerous articles and books, and has served as an expert witness or consultant in hundreds of cases including the McMartin preschool molestation case and the trial of Oliver North.

The Music From This Week’s Show

“Stage 1 Level 24” by Monplaisir / CC0 1.0

“Wahre” by Blue Dot Sessions / CC BY-NC 4.0

“Idle Ways” by Blue Dot Sessions / CC BY-NC 4.0

How good is your memory? I mean, not just what you had for breakfast this morning. I had some granola with yogurt in it, I think. 

But I’m talking about stuff that happened a while back, a year ago, five years ago, 10, 20 years ago, 40 years ago. If you’re old enough to have memories that long ago or more. 

Do you trust your memory? Whenever I hear someone talking about memory, I think of the late, great Chris Farley interviewing Paul McCartney about the Beatles, asking a very pointed question. 

Remember, when you hear the Beatles and you do that album, Abbey Road. And at the very end of the song, a song goes. And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make. You remember that? 

Yes. Is that true? 

This episode, I go down to Irvine, California, to the University of California at Irvine and speak to Professor Elizabeth Loftus. Beth Loftis is one of the top memory experts in the United States today. She’s written books about this subject and has appeared in court many times to address the idea of witness memory reliability. She’s worked on many famous cases, including the McMartin preschool case, in which the operators of a preschool were accused of all sorts of horrible crimes. But there was some question about the reliability of the testimony of the kids in that case, because it turns out it’s possible to implant a memory either on purpose or by accident and to somebodies mind. And this, of course, doesn’t just apply to children, but anybody can have a memory implanted in their heads, something that patently did not happen. Most of us are pretty confident of what they think they remember. But it turns out memory is a pretty malleable thing. It can actually change over time. And the long and short of it is you shouldn’t be too all fired, confident in your own memory. Professor Loftus, his research bears this out and is well worth keeping in mind the next time you feel absolutely positive about something you remember or think you remember. 

So here’s my conversation with Elizabeth Loftus down in Irvine. I hope you enjoy it. 

Welcome to another edition of Point of Inquiry were here, a University of California, Irvine, with Elizabeth Loftus. And before we say anything, I got to tell you, you’re one of the great heroes of the skeptical world. I hope you know that. Well, thank you. If you ever needed a drink in a bar or a place to stay, just wave your skeptic flag and someone will come running. 

I don’t. OK. Thank you so much. 

I guess the first thing I wanted to talk about was where does your interest in working on memory begin? 

Well, I went to UCLA as an undergraduate. I was majoring in mathematics. When I started and then I took a psychology class as an elective and absolutely loved it. And so I took more psychology, ended up with a double major mathematics and psychology, ended up going to graduate school in mathematical psychology at Stanford and discovered that I really wasn’t very turned on by mathematical psychology. So it was there that I began to do some work with a professor who was interested in memory issues. And I studied a very different kind of memory with him. It’s called semantic memory. It’s memory for words and concepts. Your knowledge of the world. And so it was really only after I got my P.H. D that I, I realized that I wanted to do work that had more obvious practical relevance. And that’s when I started to study eyewitness testimony. 

Memory for crimes, accidents and other legally relevant events, which has turned out to be quite a large thing for I mean, you are the go to person in that world right now and written books about this and all sorts of. 

Oh, yeah. I mean, because I’ve been working on eyewitness testimony for now many decades and and not only done the scientific work and published in the scientific journals, but also made a concerted effort to get ideas into publications that have a wider audience than just, you know, the other scientists who might be interested. 

Well, I mean, anybody who’s watched a court case knows how important eyewitness testimony can be. It’s given a lot of weight in court cases, right? I mean, people still think the testimony of someone who was there and said, I saw this is quite powerful. 

It’s it’s powerful testimony. And especially when somebody gives their version reports on their experience and they do it with a lot of detail or a lot of confidence or even emotion. People are swayed by it. It’s it’s hard to resist it. And and so. 

It’s easy to use this kind of testimony to convict guilty people, but also to convict innocent ones. 

And it always makes me wonder about the judges and the lawyers and the prosecutors who see this all the time, because people I would assume and you must have seen this in the course of your work and court. They try to people who have pretty radically different versions of the same event, they’re both eyewitnesses or they’re all eyewitness, doesn’t even have to be just two versions. It could be multiple versions, right? Yes. So people are passionately. I always say it just in love with their own version of what happens. And they have no obvious motivation to lie about it. They might be just simple bystanders like they’re not somebodies friend or relative or something, and they all come up with these different versions. So, I mean, what do the are the prosecutors just rolling their eyes at this? They must know that what you work on as validity because of these different versions. 

Well, but I tend to see out there is it that many prosecutors, they don’t want to hear about faulty eyewitness testimony. They know they don’t want to hear about the science of it. 

They they. 

Need the eyewitness testimony. They can can convince themselves that the scientific experiments are just artificial. And don’t tell us about the real world, that they can find some way to dismiss the science and and cling to their particular version of of what they think the truth is and that this defendant is guilty and that these witnesses are accurate. And what’s interesting nowadays is that in many jurisdictions, their convictions have been the prosecutors get a conviction in a criminal case. But it then gets overturned by a higher court because the judge didn’t let the defense have a memory expert. To contest the validity of any eyewitness tried to talk about the factors that might have led to a mistake or the suggestive activities on the part of the police or someone else that could have influenced the testimony. And and so we’re now seeing greater acceptance of the idea that people in general and jurors in particular need to be educated about memory, that they have misconceptions, they have myths about memory, and that some form of education doesn’t have to be expert testimony. And that can be expensive. Could be Jr. judicial instructions offered by the judge, but some form of education will put them in a better position to decide in this specific case. Do I think it’s a genuine memory or do I think this story is a product of some other process? 

Well, I would think, especially in the cases where a sole witness has the power to put someone in jail maybe for the rest of their life. 

Well, that certainly can’t happen and does happen. Yes. 

Yeah. You see, these cases were 25 years later. The witness recants and sometimes they’re lying. I wonder what the percentages of in these cases where people are let off, how many of them are saying, I’m sorry, I lied and said this, or no one actually goes back and says I misremembered something? Do they? 

Well, now what? I don’t know if you’re talking about the exonerations, people who get convicted. Well, you know, one of the leading databases for wrongful convictions is the Innocence Project in New York. And there they’ve gathered information on more than 350 wrongful convictions where DNA testing was subsequently done and shown that the person was actually innocent. And when these cases have been analyzed. Of course, there are lots of reasons why somebody gets wrongly convicted. But the major reason in responsible and more than 70 percent of the cases is faulty eyewitness testimony. So I know people are usually coming forward and saying, yeah, I lied. That sometimes happens. But it’s it’s much more common that witnesses are led through some processes to give mistaken testimony that implicated an innocent person who maybe after 10, 15, 20 years in prison got a chance with a DNA test and is now free. 

Well, let’s talk about the processes a little bit. That may be responsible for a prosecutor changing or influencing someone’s testimony. So paint a picture. A prosecutor gets a witness. Are there cases where in the process of. Early discovery or early interviewing those witnesses where the prosecutors actually changed the original story, even on purpose or not? 

Well, I mean, let’s start with the police, because the police are the ones that are investigating and interviewing the witnesses before it even gets to a prosecutor. And there are many things that the police can do, even inadvertently, that can tamper with the witnesses memory. So I had one case I testified. In fact, it was in the L.A. area where the. Officer shows the witness six photographs. It’s called a six pack. And witnesses, really, I don’t I don’t recognize the bad guy. And the officer said, wait, I saw your eyes drifting down to number six. Let’s talk about that. Well, pretty soon this witness is deciding, OK. Number six, there is an example of suggestive influence that potentially tampered with this witness, his memory. 

So that may not even be on purpose, but the the officer is. Even unintentionally leading someone. 

Right. The officered knows who the suspect is in the six pack or in the lineup and can sometimes influence the witness. Now, the thing that happens and you can see why this happens is somebody makes an identification. Maybe they’re not all that sure. They said, you know, I kind of think it’s number three. 

What is an officer say? Some of them give feedback. 

Good job. That’s our suspect. Yeah, or that’s the one that somebody else picked or that’s the one who we think we have a fingerprint match. When you give that kind of feedback to a witness, what does it do? It bolsters their confidence. Now they’re saying, oh, yeah, I know it was number three. And that’s a problem because that makes that witness more impressive at trial. More impervious to cross-examination. More influential. More likely to get a conviction whether the defendant is guilty or innocent. So I’m wonder, are are police even educated ever about the sort of double blinding that ought to happen in those case now that it now you’re you’re keying in on one of the chief recommendations that these these tests, these memory tests should be done in a double blind way, just like the medical testing on a new drug. The doctor doesn’t know whether the patient is getting the drug or the placebo. They’re kept blind to that condition that the patient is in. Not because we don’t trust doctors, but but in a way we don’t. That they could inadvertently act differently if they know the patient has the drug versus the placebo. And likewise, why shouldn’t we be doing blind testing with these eye witnesses where the investigator doesn’t know who the suspect is? Yeah, we suspect. 

Right. You don’t want the questioner or the tester to have something to gain by one of the answers. 

Right. Because they can influence at the time, like I see your eyes drifting down to number six or they can provide feedback. But if you do blind testing, if you have somebody do the test who has no idea who the suspect is, then these these things aren’t going to happen. And that’s a better situation at the very least. 

And I don’t know what the rules are about this now, but it seems obvious that every single interrogation in the United States should be videotapes now. So at least someone like you or anyone else who has a bone to pick with the technique can go back and say, look what just happened here. This is this is compromising the testimony. 

Well, it certainly wouldn’t hurt to have that information to be able to analyze later and that that kind of recommendation has been made very strongly and over and over for cases where suspects are being interviewed so that you can can get a better handle on whether the suspect is being coerced into confessing and maybe confessing to something he didn’t do. 

This reminds me a little bit about maybe you’ve heard about this idea of facilitated communication for people who can’t communicate either because of some disease or something, and they have someone else type for them or, you know, essentially move the Weegee ball. 

Yes. No, I know all about that. And that there were a couple of wonderful TV expos, EHS, about facilitated communication that really drove home the truth, that it was the interviewer who was it was it was beautiful work, because when if the interviewer didn’t know or was given some misimpression, it got revealed. It was wonderful. Yeah. But we don’t have anything that is quite that dramatic to to show the power of suggestive interviewing. 

Let’s shift gears for a second here. Do do we know we humanity know how memories, the physical process of how memories are written into the brain? 

I would leave that to the neuroscientists. They study the chemical electrical connections to the brain. But I’m I’m I study behavior. So I study what people think, what they report, what they do in response to having an experience or having a memory of that experience. 

What comes out on the other end of what’s ever happening in the brain? Right. Yeah. Because, I mean, you see these people who are you know, they can remember what they had breakfast on a Tuesday in 1972. And it’s. 

Have you seen them on TV? They’re they’re studied by up by my colleagues here at UC Irvine in the neurobiologists who are they’re incredible. They can seemingly remember just about everything they did every day of their adult life. It’s pretty rare, but they’re they’ve sembler a decent sized number of them. 

So, yeah. So there is something and in a rare number of people that is happening were there. So would you say these people’s memories are quite reliable? 

Well, as a matter of fact, the graduate students in my lab and the graduate students in the neurobiology lab got together and we collaborated on a study to see to ask what would happen if you took these people with these super memories and put them in some false memory experiments. What would they do? Would they resist the suggestion? Would they succumb to the suggestion? The beauty of this study is it didn’t matter how it came out. It was going to be interesting to people. And what we found and reported just a few years ago in the literature is that these super memory people were just as susceptible to contamination as their age, gender matched controls. So. It kind of hints to the idea that this malleable memory may be something that plagues all of us or helps all of us, depending on whether you’re looking at the costs or the benefits. 

Talk about some of the experiments that were done that established this idea of brain malleability and being able to implant memories into people. 

So when I started doing this work, I would show people films of accidents or films of crimes. And then I would deliberately try to distort their memory for the details of what they saw. I’d try to make them believe that the car went through a stop sign instead of a yield sign, or that the the bad guy had a was wearing a brown jacket instead of a green jacket. And it was pretty easy to distort people’s memories for the details of these events. 

You could do it by just allowing them to overhear. Another witness mentioned something wrong. They could be interrogated by a biased investigator who asked a leading question that mentioned the erroneous detail. 

And these are things that they had just seen, right? 

I mean, yeah, it could be that they just saw 10 minutes ago or sometimes a week ago. But, yeah, fairly recently. So. So we showed that in many experiments and we and others that you could alter people’s memories by supplying post event misinformation. And this became known as the misinformation effect. And that’s what you can read about it in most textbooks, in memory or textbooks, in cognitive psychology or even textbooks in introductory psychology. After I had been doing that for a couple of decades, probably I started to get interested in just how far can you go with people? 

Could you plant an entire memory into the mind of someone for something that didn’t happen? And we in our first experiment, we did exactly that. 

So if you were my subject, let’s say you’re my subject, I’d say, well, Jim. You know, we’ve had a conversation with your mother and we found out some things that happened to you when you were five or six years old, and we’re doing a study on on memory. We just want to see whether you remember these experiences your mother told us about. And if you remember them similarly or differently than the way she does. So, let me ask you about these things then. I would present you with three true things. Things your mother told me really did happen when you were five or six years old. And then a completely made up story about how well you, little Jim, when you were five or six, were lost in a shopping mall. You were frightened and crying and you were ultimately rescued by an elderly person reunited with the family. 

And through several suggestive interviews, we got about a quarter of our ordinary, healthy people to believe. And remember in this made up experience, that was the first study that showed that you could plant an entire memory into the minds of healthy people and deduce. 

Do you start with those true memories to gain their confidence and lock in that time that you’re being straight with them early and give it a little more credibility? 

Well, that was that was our thinking anyhow. And and since then, other investigators have have picked up this methodology and have planted false memories using a similar technique. We’ve talked to your parents. We found out some things that happened to you. And they’ve planted false memories that you nearly drowned and had to be rescued by a lifeguard, that you had an accident at a family wedding, that you were attacked by a vicious animal as a child, that you committed a crime as a teenager. That was serious enough that the police actually came to investigate. All of these have been planted into the minds of. Research participants and now constitute a growing literature on on this issue of of how far can you go in and and can you plant entire events into people’s memories? 

And and as you mentioned, those all those examples in my mind, my own train mine, those are major traumatic things that people ought to be. You would think you would remember almost drowning or some horrendous thing that happened to you like that. So if the big giant things like that can be written falsely into your memory, oh, that has big consequences. Like with the McMartin preschool. 

Well, you’re mentioning a famous case, the McMartin case, that involved young children who I mean, we’re talking maybe three, four years old, five years old in a preschool who were led to believe that they had all kinds of horrible things happen to them. And it turned out that basically these ideas were planted through suggestive interviewing, partly by a troubled parent, partly by biased and and and highly suggestive interviewing of interrogators and. It led to lots of misery for the McMartin family, that five years of litigation. One of the most expensive criminal trials in the history of California. But then other jurisdictions had their own little McMartin. To me, those were what we sometimes call the kiddy cases because the kids were still kids when they were led to tell these stories and innocent people were sometimes convicted. Not the McMartin. But but in other places they were. I think it’s even more remarkable when you can plant something in the mind of a 30 year old than planting it in the mind of a three year old. 

But these hold. Is this the beginning of the term repressed memory? Does that come about around this time around? 

Hasn’t been enough. Well, the McMartin case, Ray Buckey with one of the lead defendants, was arrested, I think, in in 83 or so. So back in the 80s, mostly people were talking about the child cases, the kiddy cases, the daycare cases. 

This idea of repressed memory that people were harboring. 

Repressed memories of horrific brutalization. And it was in the unconscious somewhere walled off from the rest of mental life. I mean, that began to be sort of fashionable in the late 80s and then entered the popular culture with the case of George Franklin, a murder case that was based only on a claim of repressed and recovered memory by one person. By one person. Yes. She said that she witnessed the her father commit this murder when she was eight years old, a killing her little eight year old best friend, that she would say that she witnessed him do other murders and that she had years of sexual abuse. All she allegedly repressed into the unconscious until things happened. And she became aware of these experiences, but that that case got a lot of publicity, a lot of public attention. You know, appearances on Oprah and other public places, lots written about it. And then there were more repressed memory cases in the news. And it took off. 

Is is it even possible for such memories to be repressed? 

Well, what is possible is that people can not think about. Things that happen to them for a long time and then be reminded of them. And they can even not think about unpleasant, awful things that happened to them and be reminded of them. 

And you just have to go to a high school reunion and you can experience that for yourself. But what’s being claimed in these cases is something that’s too extreme to be explained by ordinary forgetting and remembering. 

And for that, this notion of massive repression, there is no credible scientific support. And that’s why Dr. Richard McNally at Harvard, Harvard psychology professor, has called it just folklore. 

Yes, especially because virtually all the time we’re talking about in these high stakes cases. It is something with huge gravity to it. It’s not. I went to Dairy Queen and ordered an ice cream. It’s it’s something massive, like rape or beatings or murders or those types of things. 

One case I worked on, she claimed that she was raped between the ages of five and 16, forced into sex acts with the family dog all allegedly repressed into her unconscious until she was about 18 and went into therapy. And, you know, basically, I’d just say, look. I don’t see any evidence for memory working like this. And until we get scientific evidence for it, I don’t think we should be locking people up. 

And as skeptics, there is this element of plausibility. 

We were just looking at my family and I were looking through some old pictures from, you know, the last 80 years of family pictures. And I’m looking at some of these pictures and I have little memory of the day or whatever, but the plausibility that I was there and that I was a part of this event was very high. But now, when you come in and start talking about my dad murdered my eight year old best friend, the skeptics red flag should be flying right away. 

Well well, the little girl was. 

Did disappear in September of that year. Her body was found in December. 


Was clear from the physical evidence that Iraq had crushed her skull. She was hit twice with a rock. 

Was that part of the girl’s testimony? Or that her father killed her that way? 

Well, the but that it was all over the news. This is and she was all over the news. It was. It was, you know, front page newspaper all over the TV news in the San Francisco area near there where where this crime had happened. The case was never solved. So there were. 

The daughter’s testimony was very detailed and contained some details that were part of the public domain. But these were things she could have learned from the public information, not from not not necessarily from actually witnessing it. 

Right. So this sounds like another thing that the and I think the police are aware of releasing too many details, but maybe they let too much out in this case because you don’t want to. For instance, maybe you don’t want to say how the person died. The other thing, they get her all these nuts who come in and confess to crimes that they didn’t do. 

Well, that’s a whole nother phenomena in the whole the whole interesting area of false confessions. And course people you talk about, not some of them are nuts and sometimes. And some of them want to connect to a high publicity case. You know, I kidnap JonBenet Ramsey, some of them. 

Some of them are threatened with. 

A more serious punishment, unless they confess to something that seems less serious. 

So if they see this as the lesser of two evils and some get plied with suggestive information and start to believe they did it, though, false confession, there is a whole other group of of scientists who study false confessions. 

Fatigue, intimidation, all sorts of other things play into it. 

Yes. Sleep deprivation, things like that. Yes. Then there’s an overlap with what what I do. But but they’re real experts out there that you can interview on false confessions. 

Let’s talk about your big lawsuit. 

There was a psychiatrist who published an article in which he claimed to have the new kind of you might not have worded it exactly like this, but this is the way people were talking about it, the new proof of repressed memory. 

He had been involved in a custody divorce dispute, interviewed a little five and six year old girl. She claimed her mother molested her many times. The. And he believed the abuse story and the mother lost custody and visitation of her little girl. And then time goes on. And years and years later, he now interviews the grown up girl. He’s calling her Jane Doe and writes that he videotapes her while he interviews her. And right there on videotape. She doesn’t remember the sexual abuse that she had accused her mother of. And then she does. So he thinks he’s captured this recovered memory right there on video. He’s showing these tapes at meetings. He’s talking about this case. People are talking about it. And I was really, really suspicious of it. I was I was just so suspicious. But he wrote Jane Doe, John Doe, Mom’s town. Dad’s town. How might. Maybe there were 280 million people in America. Then how am I going to find the DOE family? And then one summer, I decided to search for them. And I did crack the anonymity. Got into the divorce file because it wasn’t sealed. And I’ve found documents that convinced me that this mother was innocent or probably innocent. Well, Jane Doe got wind of the idea that I was looking into this case. She complained to my former university producer, still calling her Jane Doe at the time. Yes, well, I. I hadn’t even written anything yet. When she complained. So there was. Yeah. I wasn’t using her. I knew her name, but I was certainly wasn’t using it. And what my former university did is they start to investigate whether I had done something wrong. And while I was being investigated, I was not allowed to talk about the case. I was supposedly not allowed to communicate with the. But I thought the falsely accused mother. It was a terrible time, but I was exonerated from any wrongdoing. And immediately thereafter, published in The Skeptical Inquire, the exposé, which I have to say I was very proud of. It was big two part article and the skeptical inquire called Who Abused Jane Doe in which I did. You know, I didn’t hit people over the head with a hammer, but I guided people to a probable in interpretation that it was the biological father and stepmother who had made this suggestion to the little girl in order to eliminate the biological mother from their lives. And the story was blessed by the psychiatrist who who believed it and advocated for it. 

The one who had once thought differently. 

No, no, no. The one who did was promoting this case as a real, genuine case. You know what happened after that exposed a. Even though we still use the same names he used Jane Doe, John Doe, mom’s town, dad’s town. She sued us all. She sued me and my coauthor. She sued the Skeptical Inquirer, the organization. She sued my dear friend and fellow skeptic, Carol Tavaris. We thanked in a footnote for help with the article. And so we went through about four and a half years of litigation over this article. And interestingly, she sued under her own name. So everyone knows her name now. 

That’s the crazy thing. I remember thinking that at first that no one knew who you were until you sued and made it a public case, right? 

Exactly. And so. You know that that was a pretty unpleasant experience. But, you know, I was very, very grateful. Something I didn’t have during the university investigation where I had to pay my own legal expenses. But what I did have, because the Skeptical Inquirer was sued, the magazine’s insurance was covering the costs of the litigation. And people of all people always say, who will? Who won, who won? And it was so complicated. What eventually happened is I was dismissed out of the case for a nuisance settlement that the insurance company paid. And then the other defendants, including the magazine, went after the accuser for their share of the attorney’s fees and they were awarded by the judge. Two hundred and fifty thousand dollars. And Jane Doe then declared bankruptcy. So that’s it. So who won? Who won? The only people who really won were the attorneys who got compensated for all their time and working on the case for all those years. 

Yeah, it seemed on the face of it, kind of a nutty thing to do. And if you were really concerned about your anonymity being destroyed, who would have kept your mouth shut or contacted you directly and dealt with it like that? 

Well, you and what. What puzzles me is that in recent years, I mean, this this litigation ended and she declared bankruptcy in 2009. But in the last couple of years, a couple of prominent publications have taken an interest in her in her story. And so there was a big article in The Guardian in London. NPR did a story and a Canadian publication did a story. And they’re big pictures of her. She’s not hiding her identity. 

So is she now. Is she sticking to her story about being molested by the mother? 

Well, another thing she told one of the publications is that sometimes she’s not sure. So I don’t know whether she vacillates or or what where she is today. 

I don’t know. 

I mean, that, you know, it was not a great experience for for her either. 

Yeah, I’m sure it should be noted that the the nuisance case that was settled was under ten thousand dollar seventy five hundred dollars seventy five hundred dollars. 

And then they ended up having to pay all these court fees, which were in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. So the court sort of made it clear who was climbing up the wrong barking up the wrong tree there. 

Well, I think that know, the people that was a realization in the legal system that. Scientists have a right to speak out on matters of great public controversy and then to sue somebody for doing that violates their constitutional right. 

Well, yeah, and this wasn’t something that you just. We decided after having coffee one morning, you looked into the case quite deeply, very deeply. 

Yes. Yes. I actually went to the courthouse, went through probably a couple of thousand pages of documents that were in the divorce and custody files in that particular city where this most of the litigation happened. 

What was it in the in that search that made you convinced that this didn’t happen? 

Oh, I found one of the documents that was particularly now that now basing this on memory and all memory. Now I look at it before the. Before the little girl got evaluated by the psychiatrist who was promoting her case, she was evaluated by another mental health professional in the context of the divorce custody issues. And he wrote that she sounds mechanical, rehearsed, not spontaneous. He clearly didn’t believe it. And that was not a good outcome for the biological father in that jurisdiction. So what the father did is he reopened the case in a new jurisdiction. Now, he got the help of this. The psychiatrist got involved blessing the abuse story and the father got a different outcome and he got the custody. So it was those kinds of documents that that. Other affidavits that were written by other family members about the family members. But that was one of probably one of the most compelling. 

But there was some fallout for you personally. You left the University of Washington over this? 

Well. Yeah, I left it at that because of that investigation that they dragged on for almost two years before exonerating me. I got I was kind of mad at them. So in the midst, nine months after I was cleared of any wrongdoing at UC Irvine came along with a fantastic job offer, a distinguished professor title of 50 percent salary increase that build me a lab. And it was just such a great offer, but it was still hard because I was in my late 50s. I’m moved by myself. I left. Decades of friendships and a comfortable life, but it turned out it was a fantastic move. 

I wanted to talk about the notion of hypocrisy. I say this because we have elections coming up in the primary. Presidential primaries are coming up. And every time it’s it’s funny. Especially now because there is so much recording of everything that happens now. You really have to be. And I’m sure this is going to blow up in my face someday. But. Everything you say can be brought back to haunt you. So I look at these politicians and I’m going to talk about who, who, what side says what. Because I think there’s some fault, at least on both sides. But you look at people who are so adamantly against something today that, you know, five years ago, 10 years ago, they were completely four and happy to talk about. And it just occurred to me that one’s own memory can be your worst enemy. If you’re going to come out against something or for something and have it, you’ve risked it blown up in your face. 

I have seen the clips of people, you know, for example, or what they said during the time of the Clinton impeachment and what they’re saying during the time of the Trump impeachment. And it looks like they’re saying completely different things because of party preference. I mean, or put some kind of political preference. And one of the things that I can tell you is because we’ve looked at this a little bit. People are more likely to develop a false memory if it makes someone they don’t, like look bad. If it fits with their ideology. And so that’s just one of the. One of the memory consequences of having a strong party affiliation. So, for example, in one study that I collaborated on, the conservative Republicans were far more likely to fall for a fake news story that made Obama look bad. And conversely, you know, the liberals were somewhat more likely to fall for a fake news story that made. Former President Bush look bad. And we’ve done similar kinds of studies with the the. The Clinton Hillary Clinton this time are Trump election, same kind of thing. So it’s a powerful motivating force and it it affects so much what people think and say and do a lot of confirmation bias going on there as well. 

One of the things that was a little disheartening to me, as you know, week, we think, you know, with our investigations of wacky and paranormal claims, we think all we really have to do is find out what the truth is and try it out there and someone will read it and they’ll change their mind. But really, what happens a lot of times is. They can confirm this if if I’m saying is right. You can, you can. A well done refutation could actually have the reverse effect that you can refute something. And the headline that someone will remember is not that I was wrong. It’s that they were right. 

Well, I’m I don’t know about that, about refutations and when they boomerang or something like that. But what what does seem seem to happen and I’ve seen it in my world where I where I put my skeptical hat on, is that people are very, very quick to dismiss or disregard or find the flaws or find immagine flaws with studies that go against their cherished beliefs. And, you know, it’s something that happens with scientists, too. I think I probably spend more time picking over and trying to kind of look a little bit, you know, tear apart a study that reaches a conclusion that I don’t like. It’s kind of human nature. 

What are you working on now? 

By the way, a couple of projects. One of the projects has to after people participate in some of these false memory studies. What happens to them? What happens to them down the road? Of course, they get debriefed at the end of the study. But what what happens to them after debriefing? And so we’re at we’re exploring that that issue in that work. I have a collaboration with an Irish psychological scientist, a couple of them and and with some collaborators here. We’ve been studying false memories and fake news in conjunction with a referendum on abortion that took place in Ireland in 2018. And it’s another study that shows that people are more likely to accept fake news if it makes their kind of opposition look bad. And we’re just trying to sort through how and why that works. I’m I’ve got another student who’s working on a project on what we’re calling confidence inflation, how it is that people go from being. I think so, too. I’m absolutely certain what creates that inflation in their confidence and how does that work? 

What’s your message to the average person about his or her own memory and just sort of backing off your certainty about your own memory? 

I’ve got one. And when I did a TED talk a few years ago at Ted Global, I ended with the take home message, the one message that I want to leave people with, which is just because somebody tells you something and they say it with a lot of detail and they express it with a lot of confidence and they maybe even cry or show emotion when they tell you it doesn’t mean it actually happened. That false memories have these same characteristics. They can be confident, detailed, emotional. So you need independent corroboration to know whether you’re dealing with a genuine memory or something. That’s a product of some other process. 

Beth Loftis, thank you for your work. Skeptic world loves you. Thank you. 

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Jim Underdown

Jim Underdown

Jim Underdown is executive director of Center for Inquiry–Los Angeles, and the founder of the Independent Investigations Group.