On Human memory: The misinformation effect and false memories

A few years ago I attended a public lecture presented by the cognitive psychologist and researcher, Professor Elizabeth Loftus. Much of her work is focused on human memory and how our memories are not always as truthful as we would like it to be.

In the legal field, her research about eyewitness memory and the misinformation effect has been influential in various high profile cases in America. The misinformation effect occurs when participants' recall of an event they witnessed is altered by introducing misleading post event information. This means that our memories can be altered, or interfered with when presented with misleading information. Eyewitness memory is therefore according to her studies not always accurate.

Probably the most controversial research involves the idea of "false memories". Loftus and her team explored the notion that it is possible to create memories of events which did not even occur. In order to comply with ethical research methodology, Loftus designed the "lost in the mall technique" which involves attempting to implant a false memory of being lost in a shopping mall as a child and then testing whether discussing a false event could produce a "memory" despite never happening.

A staggering 25% of subjects developed a “memory” for the suggested event which had never actually taken place. Further studies that suggested highly traumatic and even impossible memory events found that approximately a third of the study participants could become convinced that they experienced things in childhood that had never really occurred. This work was used to oppose recovered memory evidence provided in court and resulted in stricter requirements for the use of recovered memories being used in trials whilst requiring a greater body of corroborating evidence.

The implication of suggestibility in the psychotherapeutic setting is of great importance. Ethical practice demands the responsible use of therapeutic tools, especially those that involve re-experiencing past events. Psychologists, and anyone in a position of influence over others, carry an enormous responsibility to be mindful of the power of suggestibility. Our aim should always be to bring about healing, restoration and reconciliation when and wherever possible. Great wisdom is often found in surprising places, so I end this article with the profound quote from the Spiderman movie . . . "with great power comes great responsibility”. May this be an adage for all of us to live by! 

For more detailed articles by Professor Elizabeth Loftus, visit the following site:

Written By Dr. Ingrid Artus