Have you ever wished, while you were polishing off a pint of triple-chocolate gelato in the middle of the night, that an early childhood trauma had made you hate ice cream? Or that your mother had rewarded you for good behavior with spears of asparagus, thus making the consumption of green vegetables a positive experience associated with maternal affection and approval?
According to internationally-renowned psychologist Elizabeth Loftus, all hope is not lost: Loftus’s latest research, which she spoke about last week at the University of Haifa, demonstrates that your memories of how certain foods have affected you in the past can actually be altered to influence your current eating habits.
Over the past three decades, Loftus – a distinguished professor at the University of California at Irvine – has performed extensive research that has made scientists, lawyers, and the general public aware of the malleable nature of human memory. Last week, she arrived in Israel to receive an honorary doctorate from the University of Haifa in recognition of her achievements.
Loftus’s new study, she told The Jerusalem Post, consisted of two experiments in which participants demonstrated that false memories could be implanted in unsuspecting people and, subsequently, influence both their beliefs about past memories and their future behavior.
Using false feedback supposedly procured from a computer analysis of questionnaires they filled out, Loftus and her team of researchers were able, she said, “to convince people that, as children, they had become sick after eating hard-boiled eggs or pickles.”
Furthermore, a quarter of the participants in the study answered subsequent questions in a manner that showed that, based on the false memories that had been implanted in them, they would avoid these foods in the future. The findings could potentially serve to help people alter unhealthy eating habits.
This latest experiment builds on over 30 years of research on memory distortion that Loftus began conducting by initially studying what she calls the “misinformation effect.” These studies, she argued, showed that “when people who witness an event are later exposed to new and misleading information about it, their recollections often become distorted.”
Over the years, Loftus’s research has focused on human memory, eyewitness testimony, and courtroom procedure, and she has served as an expert witness or consultant in hundreds of trials.
“This specialized area,” she said in a lecture she gave at the University of Haifa, “has put me in contact with an unusual class of people – those accused of crimes they did not commit.” Such people, she said, “discovered an important psychological truth the hard way.”
They learned that, while people are impressed by confident eyewitness testimony, “eyewitnesses can be confident, detailed and emotional, and be dead wrong.” In the mid-80s, Loftus’s research coincided unexpectedly with the explosion of hundreds of child-abuse cases based on so-called “recovered memories.”
As a result of her work, Loftus has received thank you letters from death row inmates, angry assaults from some adults who believe they have undergone abuse in childhood, and pleas from others to help them determine whether their symptoms could indeed be indicative of past sexual assaults.
The pivotal point at which her personal life and her career suddenly collided in an unexpected way, occurred in the late l980s, Loftus recounted during her talk.
Loftus was approached by the lawyer for John Demjanjuk who he was about to go on trial in Israel for crimes against humanity. Demjanjuk’s lawyer asked her to testify in court that the prosecution was depending on memories that could not be believed.
Sitting on her sofa listening to the lawyer’s request, she said, “I felt as if I were being torn apart. On the outside, assessing the facts, taking notes, asking detailed questions, was Dr. Elizabeth Loftus, professor of psychology. She wanted to say, ‘Yes, of course, I’ll take the case.’ The Israeli police interrogation practices were, indeed questionable, and the prosecution was depending on memories that were 35 years old.
“Inside,” she continued, “like one of those Russian folk toys that pull apart to reveal a slightly smaller version of the same figure, was [me as a child] Beth Fishman, granddaughter of four Jewish immigrants from Russia and Romania. Beth Fishman – who at age five cried bitterly when the boy next door made fun of her last name. Beth Fishman, who, as an adolescent, was told that her boyfriend broke up with her because she was Jewish, and who instructed her best friend to take him a message: ‘Tell him I’m only half Jewish.'”
At once extremely cerebral and incredibly affable and down-to-earth, the blond, petite Loftus is known for being prone to moments of uncontrollable emotion.
“Even today,” she said, bursting into tears during her speech, “this lie makes me feel terrible. Which of my parents did I deny then? Which half of me did I throw away for such a cheap price?”
Stopping momentarily in mid-sentence to wipe away her tears, she announced in a choked voice: “Elizabeth Loftus will be back in just a moment.”
Eventually, she told her audience, she decided that she could not take on the case, and referred Demjanjuk’s lawyer to one of her colleagues.
Loftus herself, as she recounts in one of her books, experienced the power of suggestion in instilling false memories when an uncle told her on her 44th birthday that she was the one who had discovered the body of her mother, who died when she was 14. After days in which vivid memories of the event surfaced into her consciousness, her bother called to say her uncle realized he had made a mistake – it was her aunt who had found the body.
Discussing her latest research on false memory and food aversions, Loftus said that at present, the results she has published can only be achieved when the subjects of the experiment are unaware of the false nature of the data they are being given about their “memories”. They are debriefed at the end of the experiment. Such methods, therefore, remain ethically impossible to use to influence people’s food preferences for medical and dietary purposes.
Nevertheless, she said, it was still possible that further research will come up with an effective way to implement her findings to help people control what they eat.
It is just possible, then, that at some point in the future – as you grope around in your dark kitchen – what you’ll be looking for will be not a cardboard tub of ice cream, but a plate of steamed asparagus.
June 9, 2005