Dr. Elizabeth Loftus: Cognitive Scientist and Law Professor

By Summer Wong

Dr. Elizabeth Loftus, currently a cognitive science and law professor at the University of California Irvine, is a leading psychologist studying human memory. She recently won the 2016 Maddox Prize for Standing Up to Science, sponsored by one of the most prestigious scientific journals in the world, Nature Magazine.

The Maddox Prize honors those who face extreme hostility and challenges in their pursuit of the truth.  In an evening ceremony in London on Nov. 17, 2016, Professor Loftus, among 72 nominations from 17 different countries, was awarded the 2016 Maddox Prize for her courage to continue her research on memory distortion despite numerous death threats, personal abuse, complaints, lawsuits and investigations.

Credited for her extensive, unprecedented work on the “misinformation effect,” which describes the alteration of an eyewitness’s memory of events, she studies the formation and the essence of false memories.

Working on major cases involving Martha Stewart, Michael Jackson, the Oklahoma bomber and Bill Cosby,  Dr. Loftus  has acted as an expert consultant and witness to help lawyers understand the memory involved in eyewitness testimonies.

“I want people to appreciate truth about memory, that it is malleable, and that our human memory works as a reconstructive process. It’s not a human recording,” said Dr. Loftus. “It’s like a Wikipedia page, and people can go in and edit at any time. I don’t want people uncritically accepting a memory report without any further investigation, and we can convict fewer innocent people if more people are aware of this fact.”

After several published articles claiming the unreliability of eyewitness testimonies, Dr. Loftus found herself as the leading psychologist entangled in the 1990 “memory wars”  debate between practicing therapists and research psychologists. She challenged the work of psychotherapists and ignited controversy that  initiated  threats against her.

Patients often go into therapy for common psychological challenges, but come out believing they have recovered traumatic events repressed from their childhood. During the “memory wars,” Dr. Loftus claimed that some psychotherapists who practice therapy and hypnosis encourage their patients’ creation of false memories. Therapists can easily make patients believe they’ve suffered childhood abuse when they really have not, Dr. Loftus argued.

“I was challenging some of the cherished beliefs of some of these psychotherapists, and they didn’t like it. Since then, I’ve had harassment, insults and people trying to get me fired. I got complaints, investigations and was sued for an exposé,” said Dr. Loftus.

Psychotherapists believed that their patients’ recovered memories were indeed true. However, Dr. Loftus continues to find the lack of scientific evidence extremely troubling. No current studies  measure  how common it is for traumatized individuals to repress memories or if these memories are even accurate.

“Women are accusing their parents and suing for millions of dollars. Innocent people — the patients’ neighbors, teachers, doctors and dentists — were being prosecuted and sued,” claimed Dr. Loftus. “This is tearing relationships and families apart, because these patients have lost touch with reality. And the lawyers involved want to pursue these alleged ‘abusers’ for financial gain. When we move from the privacy of the therapy session, in which the client’s reality may be the only reality that is important, into the courtroom, in which there can be but a single reality, then we as citizens in a democratic society are entitled to more solid evidence.”

In a world where fear of the unknown, fear of other’s opinions, or fear of one’s personal safety rules our hearts, it is challenging to stick by what one knows is right. However, Dr. Loftus refuses to let this world of fear and threats be the world she lives in. Winning the Maddox Prize demonstrated the importance of audacity and determination required to challenge people’s perceptions, and to introduce novel change.