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Elizabeth Loftus

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Elizabeth Loftus
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Elizabeth F. Loftus (née Fishman; born 1944) is an American skeptic, psychologist and professor of psychology and law at UC Irvine known for her seminal work on human memory, specifically confabulation and ways in which memory can fail. She was listed as the 58th most influential psychologist of the 20th century in the Review of General Psychology.[1]

Misinformation effect[edit]

See the main article on this topic: Confabulation

The misinformation effect is a general term used to describe any instance where misinformation fed to a person can distort an existing memory or create a false memory. Loftus' first influential work was done in the early 1970s, making use of leading questions that led subjects to misreport filmed car crashes they had been shown earlier. Loftus found that even changing one word (e.g., "collided" to "smashed") could greatly change how subjects reported their memory of the film, even adding things like broken glass into their reports that never appeared on the tapes.[2]

The "lost-in-the-mall paradigm" refers to research beginning with Loftus' use of subjects' family members as confederates to implant false memories of being lost in a mall as a young child.[3] Experiments using similar methodology are often referred to as using the "lost-in-the-mall technique" as a result even if the specific memory to be implanted is different. Loftus picked the mall scenario due to its plausibility, but this led to criticism that the experience was common enough that it was impossible to prove that these memories were false. She and a number of other researchers set out to replicate these findings using methods that would ensure the memory could not have happened. The most famous of these was her use of faked Disneyworld pictures with Bugs Bunny edited into them. After viewing these pictures, a quarter of the subjects reported vivid memories of meeting Bugs in Disneyworld as children.[4] Due to her courtroom experience, Loftus has taken up the mantle of a legal scholar as well, writing about the implications of her research on criminal cases. She has made numerous contributions to legal, psychological, statistical, and research methods texts and journals as well as skeptical publications.

Loftus' mother died when Elizabeth was fourteen and she believed for many years that her aunt had found her mother drowned in the pool. One day, she received a call from her uncle who told her that it was in fact she who had found the body. Loftus came to believe her uncle's story and said she recalled the events rather vividly. Soon after, her uncle told her he had made a mistake and that she was correct to begin with. Loftus claims this incident as an inspiration for her work.

Legal career and ethical issues[edit]

Loftus became a regular witness in legal trials starting in the 1980s due to her research. She has testified at numerous high profile trials, including those of Ted Bundy, O.J. Simpson, and Scooter Libby. Loftus has become a controversial figure since her testimony at the daycare panic child abuse trials, including the McMartin trials, with a variety of groups developing massive hate-ons due to her crossing their agendas.

The more frothing-at-the-mouth members of the religious right decried her for covering up the ritual abuse of the vast Satanist conspiracy. Despite the charges being dropped in the McMartin cases with the help of Loftus, the school was demolished and the foundations dug up due to testimony by some of the children that there was a clandestine network of tunnels and catacombs that the Satanic rituals took place in.[5] Child abuse advocates and recovered memory proponents have accused her of entering the legal arena because of sympathy for pedophiles. Some of the more out there conspiracy theories claim that she's secretly bankrolled by NAMBLA. Feminist opinion of Loftus is also divided, with many praising her scientific achievement while others accusing her of "betraying" the feminist cause (many trials she testified at involved young women who accused their fathers of molestation after recovered memory therapy, an idea some feminists had built pet theories around).


Loftus became the target of a more concentrated smear campaign by ex-therapist and internet kook Diana Napolis (going by the handle Karen Curio Jones). Napolis believed that Loftus was helping to cover up a vast Satanist conspiracy and harassed her on-line in addition to filing a federal lawsuit against her, which was dropped. Napolis launched a number of lawsuits during this period which have been dropped and spent time in and out of jail for stalking celebrities such as Steven Spielberg and Jennifer Love Hewitt.[6]

The "Jane Doe case" was an incident in which Loftus and colleague Mel Guyer did research on a case study by psychiatrist David Corwin who claimed that he had discovered a repressed memory of sexual abuse in patient Nicole Taus, or "Jane Doe" during the case. Loftus and Guyer found that Corwin had omitted a report from another psychiatrist and previous documentation claiming that there was no evidence Taus had been abused. Taus launched a number of suits against Loftus, Guyer, and theWikipedia Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (some of the research had been published in the Skeptical Inquirer magazine). Loftus was also subject to an investigation by academic ethics committees. She was cleared of any ethical violations and the charges against her except for one were dropped (she had misrepresented herself as a colleague of Corwin in an interview with Taus' mother-in-law).[7][8] That last claim would eventually be settled in August 2007, when Taus agreed to withdraw the last remaining claim while Loftus's insurance company paid a nuisance settlement of $7,500 to Taus,[8] while still having to pay the cost of the legal fees ($241,872) of the defendants;[9][8] if not for the settlement, costs could have reached $450,578.50 for five years of litigation.[8][9]

Scientific criticism[edit]

While most of the charges surrounding Loftus have been bullshit, there have been criticisms on the legitimate side of things in "the memory wars." Her lost-in-the-mall experiment was criticized for being a breach of ethics for possibly causing trauma.[10] Loftus replied that her work had been misrepresented and that she hadn't received any complaints about the experiment.[11] This ethical concern, however, is dated as institutional review boards would later approve memory experiments involving implantation of more traumatic memories such as animal attacks (and, of course, the subjects are required to be informed that the memory was fabricated after the experiment).

Loftus sits on the advisory board of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation (FMSF) and her research has been misconstrued by some of her detractors as well as some of her followers. Many recovered memory proponents have framed the debate as false memory vs. recovered memory. Some of the FMSF hard-liners have played into this by going into pseudoscience territory, hand-waving corroborated instances of recovered memory, and presenting FMS as a firmly established mental disorder. Loftus' position, however, is similar to the American Psychiatric Association's current stance: That the vast majority of children remember instances of abuse, but there may be instances where memory is "recovered." However, this is explained by established psychological theory and recovered memory therapy is pseudoscientific. Loftus also describes FMS as less of a strictly mental phenomenon and more of a cultural one which happened to be spurred in the '80s and '90s by media hype surrounding the Satanic panic, recovered memory therapy proponents, and other quacks (similar to the phenomenon of the sudden "outbreak" of Morgellons).

While the existence of confabulation has been firmly established, there is still debate over the prevalence of false memories, especially with relation to psychological therapy and child abuse cases. Some psychologists have criticized Loftus and the work building on her research for overstating the prevalence or ease of which false memories may be implanted in therapeutic contexts.[12]

Atheism and skepticism[edit]

Loftus has also been a promoter of skepticism, atheism, and humanism. In addition to her published articles in Skeptical Inquirer she has made appearances at James Randi's Amazing Meeting and the Beyond Belief Symposium.[13]

External links[edit]


  • Loftus, Elizabeth. Memory. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1980.
  • Loftus, Elizabeth and Katherine Ketcham. Witness for the Defense. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1991.
  • Loftus, Elizabeth and Katherine Ketcham. The Myth of Repressed Memory. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994.


  1. 100 Most Eminent Psychologists of the 20th century
  2. Loftus, E.F. & Palmer, J.C. (1974). Reconstruction of automobile destruction. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behaviour, 13, 585-589.
  3. Loftus, E.F.; Pickrell JE (1995). The formation of false memories. Psychiatric Annals25: 720–725.
  4. Loftus, E.F. (2003) Our changeable memories: legal and practical implications. Nature, 4, 231-234.
  5. McMartin Ritual Abuse Cases, Religious Tolerance
  6. See for example the Napolis Watch blog.
  7. Loftus, Elizabeth and Melvin Guyer. Who Abused Jane Doe? Skeptical Inquirer 2002, 26, #3, pp 24-32.
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 8.3 Whatever Happened to Jane Doe?, Committee for Skeptical Inquiry
  9. 9.0 9.1 Elizabeth F. Loftus, "Perils of provocative scholarship", Observer, May 2008, at 13.
  10. Crook, L.S., & Dean, M. (1999). "Lost in a shopping mall"--A breach of professional ethics. Ethics & Behavior, 9(1), 39-50
  11. Loftus, E.F. Lost in the mall: Misrepresentations and misunderstandings. Ethics and Behavior, 9(1), 51-60.
  12. Pezdek, Kathy and Iris Blandon-Gitlin. Planting False Memories for Childhood Sexual Abuse Only Happens to Emotionally Disturbed People...Not Me or My Friends. Appl. Cognit. Psychol. (2008)
  13. Loftus at Beyond Belief 2006