Science TED Talks

Want to know more about the unreliable nature of memory? Read this

Posted by: Elizabeth Jacobs

TEDGlobal 2013 in Edinburgh, Scotland. June 12-15, 2013. Photo: Ryan Lash

Elizabeth Loftus studies false memories. As she describes in her TED Talk, The fiction of memory, she has implanted erroneous memories of childhood trauma into adult study subjects as part of her work. She has pinpointed failures in eyewitness testimonies. She’s found that misinformation can reshape taste preferences. And, she’s found that people in stressful situations might not recall their experience as reliably as they might think.

Elizabeth Loftus: The fiction of memoryElizabeth Loftus: The fiction of memoryLoftus’s research is provocative, challenging and as she acknowledges, raises deep ethical questions about when it might actually be right to implant false memories (for instance, what if you want your kids to like asparagus and turn their noses up at fatty foods? Could you, should you embed false memories in their small minds?) She obviously couldn’t compress her 40-plus years of research into an 18-minute talk; here are just some of the recent studies she’s been working on that shed more light on this difficult topic:

“Queasy does it”: False alcohol beliefs and memories lead to diminished alcohol preferences by Seema L. Clifasefi, Daniel M. Bernstein, Antonia Mantonakis, Elizabeth F. Loftus, Acta Psychologica, 2013
This study suggests that specific alcohol preferences can be minimized if subjects are falsely informed that drinking rum or vodka made them sick. It works toward deepening our understanding of how false memories might influence actions of the present and future, and it might hold implications for the development of future alcohol interventions.

False memories of fabricated political events, by Steven J. Frenda, Eric D. Knowles, William Saletan, Elizabeth F. Loftus, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 2013
In the largest study of false memory to date, 5,269 participants were asked about their memories of a series of true and false political events. About half of the participants falsely remembered that the fake events had occurred — fascinatingly, there was a strong correlation between political orientation and the formation of false memories. Liberals remembered unfavorable (false) events involving George Bush; conservatives constructed false memories about Barack Obama. This study illustrates that implanted memories “stick” better when they tally with someone’s preexisting thoughts and beliefs.

Individual differences in false memory from misinformation: Personality characteristics and their interactions with cognitive abilities by Bi Zhu, Chuangsheng Chen, Elizabeth Loftus et al., Personality and Individual Differences, 2010
In this investigation, Loftus and her team examined the association between personality characteristics, cognitive abilities and memory falsification. They discovered an interesting phenomenon: those who typically take the lead are more prone to fall victim to false memories. Conversely, those experiencing depression or a fear of negative evaluation were less susceptible to memory modification.

The Consequences of False Memories for Food Preferences and Choices, by Daniel M. Bernstein and Elizabeth F. Loftus, Perspectives on Psychological Science, 2009
As she mentioned in her talk, Loftus successfully manipulated food preferences in subjects by suggesting that a certain food made them ill as a child. This study and two others, Asparagus, a Love Story (2008) and False memories about food can lead to food avoidance (2005) shed further light on her work in this area. The authors describe how they succeeded in creating both food avoidance and food fondness by suggesting positive experiences with asparagus and negative experiences with pickles and eggs.