Memories fail, and innocents can go to jail

Elizabeth Loftus has studied the minds of scores of people, and learned that things aren’t always as they appear.

Especially memories.

The California college professor has spent a quarter-century studying how easily memories can be planted and molded.

“It’s something that happens to us all the time,” Loftus said. “Little false memories don’t matter that much, but when it implicates a person in a crime, it becomes a problem. One of the major reasons people get convicted of crimes they didn’t do is faulty memory.”

The renowned expert in memory and eyewitness testimony will be speaking at UAB next week, where she will receive the 2006 Ireland Distinguished Visiting Scholar Prize. She will give her free open lecture, “Illusions of Memory,” at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Alys Stephens Center’s Jemison Concert Hall.

False Memory Syndrome

“Recovered Memory Therapy”is considered by many to be a misnomer, as the “recovered memories”usually turn out to be false.

False memories are therapy-induced fantasies masquerading as memories that seem very real to the person being treated. They often involves accusations and allegations of incest, Satanic Ritual Abuse, or cult involvement.

Loftus, recently named one of the 100 most eminent psychologists of the 20th century, is a professor at the University of California-Irvine. She has testified or been a consultant in a number of high-profile cases, including those involving Martha Stewart, Oliver North, Michael Jackson, Ted Bundy and O.J. Simpson. She also has worked on cases involving allegations of sexual abuse based on memories recovered in therapy.

Loftus says people’s memories can be changed by what they are told.

That’s what happened last year in Missouri, she said, when 21-year-old student Ryan Ferguson was convicted of murder. One of his friends, Charles Erickson, implicated him in the 2001 slaying of a newspaper sports editor.

“Basically he said, ‘I had a dream and this happened, and I think Ryan did it with me,” Loftus said.

Erickson claimed he had repressed his memory of the killing for two years until news accounts triggered his recollections and snapshot images of the crime began to haunt him. Erickson talked to other people about his “memories” and eventually was arrested.

Loftus said police interviews with Erickson on the day of his arrest showed detectives offering information about the slaying that she believes was later adopted into Erickson’s memory.

She testified as an expert witness in the case, but “it wasn’t enough to overcome the power of this confessor,” she said.


Loftus will talk about some of her many studies, including one in which she and other researchers were able to persuade study subjects they had been lost in a shopping mall as children.

With help of their relatives, Loftus talked with them about real events that had happened in their childhood, then talked with them about being lost. At the end of the two-week study period, 20 percent had accepted the false memories as their own.

“I think understanding the nature of memory and the way we’re all prone to memory distortions is important for us to know,” she said. “Just because somebody says something, it doesn’t mean it really happened. That is the bottom line, take-home message of my work.”

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
The Birmingham News, USA
Apr. 1, 2006
Carol Robinson

Religion News Blog posted this on Thursday April 6, 2006.
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