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In the mid-1960s, when she was a graduate student in Stanford University’s psychology program, Elizabeth Loftus’ classmates informally voted her the least likely among them to succeed. Forty years later, the Review of General Psychology named her the most influential female psychologist of the 20th century. The trajectory surprised even Loftus herself, who once thought she would teach math and never expected to become one of the most important and controversial figures in the study of memory.
After graduating from the University of California, Los Angeles with majors in mathematics and psychology and obtaining her Ph.D. in psychology from Stanford, Loftus undertook extensive studies of what makes memories change. Her experiments revealed a phenomenon known as the “misinformation effect” given the right questions, insinuations or exposure to new information, a person’s memories can lie.
Applying her findings to the memories of real-life witnesses, Loftus became a sought-after legal consultant. She has advised or testified in the trials of Ted Bundy, Timothy McVeigh, Oliver North, Martha Stewart and Michael Jackson, among many others.
Elizabeth Loftus was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 2004. She is currently a distinguished professor in the Department of Psychology and Social Behavior and the Department of Criminology, Law, and Society at the University of California, Irvine.
A bemused Loftus recalls writing letters and sewing during mathematical psychology lectures activities that did not inspire confidence in her classmates. But her interest comes alive when a professor who dabbles in memory studies suggests Loftus work on a series of experiments during her final year of graduate school. The experiments deal with “semantic memory”, a person’s memory for words and concepts, and involve asking questions and timing the answers.
Fascinated by her findings in the lab, Loftus decides she needs a close-up view of real witnesses and their memories. In 1974, she volunteers her services to a local public defender, exchanging her expertise for the opportunity to watch him deal with witnesses in a murder case. Loftus later writes an article about the case and the pitfalls of eyewitness testimony for Psychology Today, then widely read by lawyers and judges as well as psychologists.
The article turns Loftus into a kind of scholar-celebrity; she begins to get constant requests to give talks and work on cases and these, in turn, fuel her continuing memory research. She finds herself involved in high-profile cases, like the Oklahoma City bombing and Oliver North trials, but says the cases she feels closest to are the ones in which she helped innocent “unknowns” convicted of crimes they didn’t commit.
Loftus makes new enemies with her staunch and outspoken skepticism about repressed memories of abuse. These enemies file ethical complaints and lawsuits against her, she says, and bring her to a standstill while she waits to be exonerated. She confesses to using television and, in particular, Lifetime movies about women in jeopardy to cope with the worst of her distress, and laments the time she wasted on the tube.
Last Updated: 10-12-2009
The audio files linked above are part of the National Academy of Sciences InterViews series. Opinions and statements included in these audio files are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Academy of Sciences.