Elizabeth Loftus is an American psychologist and author who specializes in the fields of human cognition and memory. She is best known for her research on the misinformation effect and its impact on eyewitness testimony. Loftus’ work has led to her serving as a trial consultant for many high profile legal cases in the United States. In 2002, the Review of General Psychology recognized Loftus as the 58th most eminent psychologist of the 20th century.
Elizabeth Loftus Childhood
Elizabeth Loftus, formerly known as Elizabeth Fishman, was born on October 16, 1944 in Bel Air, California. Her parents were Sidney and Rebecca Fishman, both of whom were of Jewish descent. Loftus’ father was a United States Army doctor. Her mother worked as a librarian.
Loftus had a very challenging childhood that was marked by abuse, loss, and grief. When she was six years old, she was molested by a male babysitter. Loftus chose not to tell her parents about the incident. Although she never forgot what happened, she was able to put the experience behind her and move forward.
As a young girl, Loftus enjoyed reading books and watching television shows about true and fictionalized crime. She also had a passion for mathematics, perhaps because her father was also proficient at solving math problems. Loftus had a difficult time communicating with her father and noted that math was “the one thing we had in common to talk about.” Most of their interactions were centered around Loftus’ math homework.
Loftus did not have a very close relationship with her mother either. When her mother became sick and wanted to spend time with her, Loftus would often respond that she was too busy. When her mother came into her room, they would eventually start arguing because her mother didn’t seem as if she ever wanted to leave.
Loftus kept a diary during her teenage years. However, she was afraid that someone else might get their hands on it and read it. To address this, Loftus wrote her most private thoughts on separate pieces of paper and clipped them to her diary. If her boyfriend asked to read her diary, she was able to unclip her “removable truths” before handing the diary to him.
When Loftus was fourteen years old, her mother drowned in a swimming pool. Although reports claimed her mother’s death was an accident, Loftus’ father suspected that it was suicide. In her grief, Loftus determined that God was not real as he did not intervene to save her mother. She later wrote in her diary that her biggest regret in life was not spending more time with her mother when she had the chance.
Two years after her mother died, Loftus’ home burned down. She lost many of her possessions, but was most anxious about not finding her diaries right away. She was relieved when she finally got them back. Loftus was not concerned that her diaries may have burned up in the fire. Rather, she was afraid someone else would find and read them.
Despite the trauma she experienced during her youth, Loftus continued to press on with her life. She became a workaholic in high school and devoted herself to her studies.
After graduating from high school, Loftus enrolled at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) to study mathematics. Her goal at the time was to pursue a career as a math teacher. However, Loftus soon developed an interest in psychology during her time at UCLA. She says, “At some point I took a psychology class as an elective, and I just enjoyed the material so much that I kept taking more psych classes.” She graduated from UCLA in 1966 with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and psychology.
Loftus pursued graduate studies in mathematical psychology at Stanford University. Interestingly, she was the only female admitted to the program that year. Not only were all her classmates males, so were all her professors. Loftus’ classmates voted her the least likely to succeed as a psychologist and placed bets on when she would quit the program. Undaunted by their claims, she earned her masters degree in mathematical psychology one year later in 1967.
During her second year at Stanford, Loftus was assigned to mentor a new student named Geoffrey Loftus. They got married on June 30, 1968. In the final year of her PhD program, Loftus began studying the retrieval of information from long term semantic memory. She earned her PhD in mathematical psychology from Stanford in 1970.
Loftus accepted her first job offer in 1970 from the New School for Social Research in New York City. Her work there was centered on the study of semantic memory. However, Loftus began to lose the excitement she once had for this type of research and yearned to work on a project with more social relevance. The turning point came when she shared some of her findings with a colleague who proceeded to question the value of the work she was currently doing.
Loftus moved to the University of Washington in 1973 after she accepted a position as an assistant professor. In 1974, the U.S. Department of Transportation gave her a grant to study memory distortion. Loftus believed this new line of memory research could benefit society as it involved eyewitness testimony. Her research eventually led to the development of the misinformation effect paradigm.
After Loftus published her research findings, many legal experts took notice and began contacting her. Before long, Loftus was speaking at groups and seminars for civil attorneys, defense attorneys, and law enforcement. In June 1975 she was allowed to give the first ever expert testimony on eyewitness identification in Washington state. Loftus has since consulted and testified in hundreds of cases in the United States.
In the 1990s, Loftus began new research on false memories. In 2001, She moved to the University of California, Irvine to continue her work.
What is the Misinformation Effect?
The misinformation effect occurs when misleading information presented after an event interferes with one’s memory of that event. The effect was first demonstrated by Loftus and her colleagues in the 1970’s. In one study, the researchers showed participants a series of slides, one of which depicted a car at a “stop” sign. After a delay, some of the participants were presented with misleading information suggesting that the car had stopped at a “yield” sign instead (e.g., “Did another car pass the red Datsun while it was stopped at the yield sign?”). Participants were then tested on what they saw. Of the participants who received misleading information, a large proportion (57%) reported seeing a “yield” sign in the original slide, demonstrating how easily people’s memories for details can be transformed by suggestion.
Another study by Loftus and Stephen Palmer showed how post-event information (PEI) can distort not only what people think they saw but also the conclusions they draw about the event. Participants in that study were shown video footage of a car crash and were then asked to estimate the speed at which the cars had been travelling. Some participants were asked, “How fast were the cars going when they hit each other?” Others were asked, “ How fast were the cars going when they smashed into each other?” Although both groups saw the same clip, those who heard the word “smashed” estimated that the cars were going at a faster speed on average than those who heard the word “hit” (41mph versus 34mph).
One week later, participants in that study were asked if there was any broken glass at the scene of the crash. Although there was no broken glass in the original video clip, thirty-two percent of those in the “smash” condition reported seeing broken glass; only 14% of those in the “hit” condition did so. These results show that even non-existent details can be implanted into people’s memories of events.
Why Does It Occur?
According to Loftus, the misinformation effect occurs because misleading PEI permanently replaces, or interferes with, the original memories that are formed when an event is witnessed.
Other researchers, however, have proposed different explanations. For example, some contend that original details may not have been properly stored or encoded in memory at the time the event was witnessed. According to this view, misleading information does not replace or impair previously stored information; it simply fills a gap in the person’s memory. If participants in Loftus’ study did not encode the “stop” sign in their memory, exposure to the misinformation would not contradict any existing belief, and would therefore be easily accepted.
A third explanation is that of faulty source monitoring. Proponents of this view suggest that both the original information and the misinformation coexist in memory but during recall, individuals have difficulty remembering the origin (or source) of each memory trace. They may therefore wrongly conclude that the misleading information was part of the witnessed event.
Factors That Influence the Misinformation Effect
Loftus and others have identified several factors that influence people’s susceptibility to the misinformation effect. These include:
- Age - Younger children are more susceptible to the effect than older children, and elderly adults are more susceptible than younger adults.
- Time - Memories generally fade with time, causing people to become increasingly susceptible to misleading PEI. Additionally, the longer the amount of time that passes, the more opportunities there will be for people to be exposed to, and influenced by, misinformation.
- Credibility of source - Misleading information from credible sources results in more errors than similar information from non-credible sources.
- Type of details - Memories of peripheral details are more likely to be influenced by misinformation than memories of central details.
- Nature of discrepancies - The subtler the discrepancies between the original event and the PEI, the more likely it is for the misinformation effect to occur. Blatant discrepancies are more easily recognized and rejected.
- Plausibility - People are more likely to accept misleading information if it seems plausible. For example, in Loftus’ study, a car stopping at a “yield” sign was just as plausible as one stopping at a “stop” sign, prompting frequent errors among participants.
- Repetition - Repeated exposure to misleading information increases the likelihood of people attributing that information to the original event.
False Memories: The Lost-in-the-Mall Study
Loftus was also interested in finding out whether it is possible to implant false memories for entire experiences into a person’s mind. To investigate this possibility, Loftus and Jacquie Pickrell (1995) asked participants about several childhood events, three of which were true, along with a false event of having been lost in a mall. Participants were told that according to their parents, they had gotten lost in a mall when they were five years old.
You can learn more about false memories on my page specifically about it where I talk about the mandala effect and other issues in memory consolidation.
Later, when participants were asked to report what they could about each event, 25% reported partial or complete memories of the fictitious event. These results were taken by Loftus to indicate that entirely false memories can in fact be created and implanted into people’s minds. Later studies by Loftus and others showed that even subtle suggestions can induce people to believe that they had childhood experiences that did not really occur.
Applications of Loftus’ Theory
Eyewitness Testimony - Loftus’ research shows how easily memories of events can be distorted by PEI. Even when there is no deliberate attempt to mislead an individual, exposure to PEI can significantly alter an individual’s memory of an event. Such exposure can occur in several ways, for example when discussing the event with other eyewitnesses, when being questioned by police officers, when reading or watching media reports about the event, and when being prepared by a lawyer to testify in court.
Given the serious implications of eyewitness testimony, it is important that law enforcement officials and others involved in the justice system remember the malleability of eyewitness memories and the fact that such memories are not always reliable.
Loftus and Pickrell’s study also shows how it is possible for highly suggestive interrogation techniques to lead innocent, but vulnerable people to confess to a crime they did not commit. In order to reduce the risk of false confessions, police officers and lawyers should give careful thought to their manner of questioning and choice of words during legal proceedings.
Recovered Memories - During therapy, clients sometimes report memories of traumatic childhood events that they were not aware of before. Loftus’ “lost-in-the-mall” study raises questions about the authenticity of these recovered memories by showing that people can be led to “recall” events that are completely false. Although the topic is still being debated, the possibility exists that some recovered memories may be inadvertently implanted by the therapist through suggestive questioning, extensive probing, and other techniques such as guided imagery, hypnosis, and dream work.
Since there is a possibility, however small, of implanting false memories, therapists should ensure that they choose their techniques and words carefully to minimize the risk of this occurring. Lawyers, judges, and jurors should also exercise caution when evaluating allegations based on recovered memories in order to avoid false convictions.
Behavior Change - Preliminary research by Loftus and her colleagues suggests that false memories may be effective in promoting behavior change. The researchers were particularly interested in modifying eating and drinking behavior. They investigated whether false memories about food and alcohol could influence people’s attitudes and behavior toward them.
Although the researchers were not very successful in implanting false memories for all the foods studied, the results suggest that people’s eating and drinking behavior can be shaped through the power of false suggestion. False pleasant memories resulted in more positive attitudes and behaviors toward the food or drink being studied; false unpleasant memories resulted in more negative attitudes and behavior. However, the researchers were keen to note that further research is needed in this area.
Criticisms of Loftus’ Theory
Loftus’s critics have often questioned the generalizability of her findings to real world settings. According to some, the participants involved in Loftus’ studies differ in significant ways from the people who are most likely to experience memory issues in real life, such as those seeking therapy for emotional disturbances. Participants in Loftus’ studies are typically exposed to less traumatic events and usually have no personal investment in the events to be recalled. Participants are also given the opportunity to witness an entire event from the sidelines, which rarely happens in real life. Eyewitnesses are often directly involved in the event or happen to witness just a small part of it.
As it relates to Loftus’ lost-in-the-mall study, critics argue that participants were susceptible to developing false memories because the experience of getting lost is fairly common in childhood and therefore highly plausible. Studies suggest that people are much less susceptible to efforts to implant a more complex and less common false experience, such as the type of traumatic experiences typically recovered in therapy.
Elizabeth Loftus Books, Awards, and Accomplishments
Loftus is a prolific researcher and writer. Some of the most well-known works that she authored or co-authored include:
- Learning, 1973
- Human Memory: The Processing of Information, 1976
- Cognitive Processes, 1979
- Eyewitness Testimony, 1979
- Memory, 1980
- Psychology, 1981
- Essence of Statistics, 1982
- Mind at Play, 1983
- Eyewitness Testimony—Psychological perspectives, 1984
- Psychology (2nd ed.), 1985
- Cognitive Processes, 1986
- Eyewitness Testimony: Civil and Criminal, 1987
- Statistics, 1988
- Psychology (3rd ed.), 1988
- Witness for the Defense; The Accused, the Eyewitness, and the Expert Who Puts Memory on Trial, 1991
- Psychology (4th ed.), 1992
- Eyewitness Testimony – Civil and Criminal, 1992
- The Myth of Repressed Memory, 1994
- Eyewitness testimony: Civil & Criminal, 3rd edition, 1997
- Psychology (5th edition), 1999
- Eyewitness testimony: Civil & Criminal, 4th edition, 2008
- Elizabeth Loftus has received honorary degrees from a number of respected institutions such as:
- Miami University, 1982
- Leiden University, 1990
- John Jay College of Criminal Justice, 1994
- University of Portsmouth, 1998
- University of Haifa, 2005
- University of Oslo, 2008
- Goldsmiths, University of London, 2015
Some of her other awards and accomplishments include:
- National Media Award for Distinguished Contribution from the American Psychological Foundation, 1980
- Member of the Governing Board of the Psychonomic Society, 1990-1995
- Honorary Fellow of the British Psychological Society, 1991
- In Praise of Reason Award from the Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, 1994
- Distinguished Contribution to Forensic Psychology Award from the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, 1995
- Distinguished Contribution to Basic and Applied Scientific Psychology Award from the American Association of Applied and Preventative Psychology, 1996
- James McKeen Cattell Fellow Award from the Association for Psychological Science, 1997
- William James Fellow Award from the Association for Psychological Science, 2001
- Contributions to Sexual Science Award from the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality, 2002
- Quad-L Award from the University of New Mexico, 2002
- Distinguished Scientific Applications of Psychology Award from the American Psychological Association; delivered award address at 2003 APA's convention, 2003
- Elected Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 2003
- Elected Thorsten Sellin Fellow of the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences, 2003
- Elected to a Member of the National Academy of Sciences, 2004
- Distinguished Member of Psi Chi, 2005
- Elected Corresponding Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh (FRSE), 2005
- Grawemeyer Award in Psychology from the University of Louisville, 2005
- Lauds & Laurels Faculty Achievement Award from University of California, Irvine, 2005
- Elected to the American Philosophical Society, 2006
- Elected Humanist Laureate by the International Academy of Humanism, 2007
- Distinguished Contributions to Psychology and Law Award from the American Psychology-Law Society, 2009
- Howard Crosby Warren Medal from the Society of Experimental Psychologists, 2010
- Scientific Freedom and Responsibility Award from the American Association for the Advancement of Science, 2010
- William T. Rossiter Award from the Forensic Mental Health Association of California, 2012
- Isaac Asimov Award from the American Humanist Association, 2016
- John Maddox Prize awarded jointly by Nature, the Kohn Foundation, and Sense About Science, 2016
- Western Psychological Association Lifetime Achievement Award, 2018
Loftus’ work in eyewitness testimony had led to her attracting much media attention throughout her career. Over the years, her expertise has been sought for a number of high profile legal cases involving Bosnian war criminals, Timothy McVeigh (the Oklahoma City bomber), the Menendez brothers, Michael Jackson, Martha Stewart, George Franklin, serial killer Ted Bundy, and many others. Loftus has also appeared on a number of television shows such as Oprah and 60 minutes. While she has received much praise for her research, she has also been subjected to increased scrutiny and anger from the general public.
George and Elizabeth Loftus divorced in 1991. They had no children together. Although George and Elizabeth are no longer married they still remain friends to this day.
American Psychological Association. (2002). Eminent psychologists of the 20th century. Monitor on Psychology, 33 (7) 29. Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/monitor/julaug02/eminent
Association for Psychological Science. (2011, August 25). From lab to court: Memory and the law. Retrieved from https://www.psychologicalscience.org/news/full-frontal-psychology/from-lab-to-court-memory-and-the-law.html
Bernstein, D. M., Pernat, N. L. M., & Loftus, E. F. (2011). The false memory diet: False memories alter food preferences. Retrieved from
Draucker, C. B., & Martsolf, D. (2006). Counselling survivors of childhood sexual abuse (3rd ed.). London: Sage Publications.
False memories. (2008). In B. L. Cutler’s (Ed.), Encyclopedia of psychology and law (Vol. 1). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
Gerrie, M. P., Garry, M., & Loftus, E. F. (2005). False memories. In N. Brewer & K. D. Williams (Eds.), Psychology and law: An empirical perspective (pp. 222-253). New York: The Guilford Press.
Goldstein, E. B. (2008). Cognitive psychology: Connecting mind, research, and everyday experience (2nd ed.). Belmont, CA: Thomson Higher Education
Kellogg, R. T. (2007). Fundamentals of cognitive psychology. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
Porter, S., Peace, K. A., Douglas, R. L., & Doucette, N. L. (2012). In D. Faust (Ed.), Coping with psychiatric and psychological testimony: Based on the original work by Jay Ziskin (6th ed.) (pp.668-684). England: Oxford University Press.
Saletan, W. (2010, June 4). The memory doctor. Slate Magazine. Retrieved from http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/the_memory_doctor/2010/06/the_memory_doctor.single.html
Zagorski, N. (2005, September 27). Profile of Elizabeth F. Loftus. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Retrieved from https://www.pnas.org/content/102/39/13721