Elizabeth Loftus

(1944 - )

Compiled by Colleen Born


Time Line

The most horrifying idea is that what we believe with all our hearts is not necessarily the truth.(Loftus, 1996, AU:Neimark)
Dr. Elizabeth F. Loftus, a professor of psychology and expert researcher on the malleability and reliability of repressed memories, is an instrumental figure in cognitive psychology. Loftus' work has made a huge contribution to psychology and opened a unique and controversial aspect of psychology and memory.

Loftus was born in Los Angeles, California on October 16, 1944, to Sidney and Rebecca Fishman. Though planning to become a math teacher, she discovered psychology at UCLA where she received her BA in 1966 in math and psychology. In 1968, she married Geoffrey Loftus and applied to graduate school at Stanford. While at Stanford, she became interested in long term memory. Loftus went on to receive her M.A. in 1967 and her Ph.D in 1970, from Stanford. In 1973, Loftus was offered a position as assistant professor at the University of Washington in Seattle, where her husband was currently employed. She is still presently a psychology professor at the University of Washington. She began her research with investigations of how the mind classifies and remembers information. In the 1970's, she began to reevaluate the direction of her research. In "Diva of Disclosure" published in Psychology Today, she stated "I wanted my work to make a difference in people's lives." Thus, she began her research on traumatically repressed memories and eyewitness accounts. Loftus suddenly found herself in the midst of sexual abuse stories and defending accused offenders. In 1974, her research thrust her into the courtroom to testify in over 200 trials as an expert witness on the unreliability of eyewitness testimonies based on false memories, which she believed to be triggered, suggested, implanted, or created in the mind. Her trials have included those of mass murderer Ted Bundy and George Franklin. She testifies with the hope of preventing an innocent victim from going to prison and protecting a family's unity.

Elizabeth Loftus has appeared on countless talk shows including the Oprah Whinfrey Show. She has published 19 books and nearly 200 articles. She remains one of the most sought after psychology speakers and is an important spokesperson for the False Memory Syndrome Foundation (FMSF). Loftus' most recent book, "The Myth of Repressed Memory" written with her colleague Katherine Ketcham, was published in 1994 by St. Martin's Press. It contains three detailed histories of individuals falsely accused of sexual molestation. It is an attempt to justify innocent people from being prosecuted and families being torn apart based on her explanation of the false memory phenomenon.

Loftus is an avid member of several psychological associations and has received numerous grants, fellowships, and awards. She is a member of the American Psychological Association, Western Psychological Association, and the Psychonomic Society. Her most recent award was in 1995 when she received the Distinguished Contribution Award from the American Academy of Forensic Psychology. Though Elizabeth Loftus' research and work had been highly criticized and critiqued, she still attains the highest respect from her colleagues and remains an important figure in this unfolding drama of memories and crime.

Overview of Theory

Dr. Loftus is at the center of a controversial and dramatic phenomenon in psychology today. Often compared to the witchcraft trials, a recent rise in reported memories of childhood sexually repressed memories and accusations has caused an uproar in questioning the validity of the memories. Loftus saw this child abuse explosion of the eighties as an open door for further memory research.

She has dedicated most of her life's work and energy to creating a vivid and brilliant model and theory showing that the memory is amazingly inventive and fragile. She has done innumerable studies of over 20,000 subjects showing that eyewitness testimonies are often unreliable and that false memories can be triggered in up to 25 percent of people merely by suggestion or giving of incorrect post event information (Niemark,1996). The majority of Loftus' research focuses on repressed sexual abuse memories from childhood, that suddenly reappear in adult women often twenty years or more after the events took place. Her work raises enormous doubt about the validity of long-buried memories of trauma.

She investigates the circumstances under which information received subsequent to an accident or crime may cause predictable changes in witness' recollections of the event. Loftus criticism of repression has altered the cornerstones of psychoanalysis and gives new rise to a number of questions: (1) How common is it for memories of child abuse to be repressed? (2) How are jurors and judges likely reacting to these repressed memory claims? (3) When the memories surface, what are they like? (4) How authentic are the memories?(American Psychologist,1993).

Loftus does not deny child sexual abuse occurs or that it might be possible for the mind to repress a trauma, but she questions the accuracy of those memories and the techniques used to resurface such memories. This model mainly concerns a particular class of memories; those that emerge in adulthood after "memory work". "Memory work" is the means or process of retrieving the repressed memory through invasive therapeutic techniques such as regression, dream work, hypnosis, visualization, group therapy, and suggestion by a therapist. In a case reviewed by Loftus and Ketcham (1994) she gives evidence of how a therapist's use of "memory work" and suggestions played a role in a woman's development of false sexual abuse memories that led her to later accuse her parents of abuse and neglect. After extensive investigation, no evidence was found showing that any abuse had ever taken place. Therefore, the memories most likely never existed but were created and truly believed by the victim.

Her model also supports the theory of responsible skepticism about claims and recovery. She encourages therapists to explore each individual case on credibility, motives, timing, and potential for suggestion, in order to make a clear assessment of what the mental product really means. She gives alternatives to therapy such as the realization of positive aspects of a patient's life or the enhancement of functioning, rather than the immediate uncovering of memories. Loftus' conclusions have been highly criticized and have virtually caused a memory war by attacking the previously unquestioned and believed concept of repressed memories. Her theory has been labled as inconclusive, abstract, and invalid. Professor Bessel van der Kolk,M.D., a psychiatrist at Harvard says "I have nothing good to say about Elizabeth Loftus". Loftus' main argument and support for her theory is that there are no controlled scientific experiments to prove that repressed memories actually exist. Experimental proof would be unethical because it would be illegal to traumatize a person for research (Speyrer,1997).

Examples of Theory

"The most horrifying idea is that what we believe with all out hearts is not necessarily the truth," Loftus stated in the "Diva of Disclosure" interview. She learned that first-hand. When Loftus was 14 her mother drowned in a swimming pool. Thirty years later, her uncle informed her that she was the first one to find her mother in the pool. The memories and pictures began to drift back quickly and vividly. Yet, soon afterward, her uncle called to inform her he had made a mistake and it was her aunt who had found her mother. Loftus had experienced an anecdotal test of her own theory and the results were clearly supportive.

In Loftus' Lost in the Shopping Mall study, teenagers and children were programmed to remember when they were lost in a mall as a child. Though the incidents never actually occurred, simply by being questioned about it, the subjects had increasing vibrant memories. This pattern is similar to the process of traumatically repressed memories unearthed through therapy. Her research shows how false events can become reality in a person's mind and how subjects can confuse or combine dreaming and waking events (Neimark,1996). Her research suggests that people's earliest memories cannot date back to before the age of three. Memories before the age of three are probably a result of educated guesses about what most likely occurred. In her research article "Memories of Childhood Sexual Abuse; Remembering and Repressing", women were interviewed to examine their recollections of childhood sexual abuse. Of the 54% whom reported sexual abuse history, 81% remembered all or part of the abuse while 19% reported that they had forgotten the memory but later recalled the memory. Women whom remembered the memory their entire lives reported a much clearer picture of the abuse when compared to those whom only recently recalled the memory.

In Loftus' book, The Myth of Repressed Memories, she writes about her involvement with the George Franklin trial, a convicted child-killer accused by his own daughter, Eileen. Twenty years after the unsolved murder of her best friend at the age of eight, Eileen had a vivid memory of the murder portraying her father as the killer. Loftus researched the case to find important discrepancies between Eileen's story and important facts and details from the investigation. Loftus testified in court presenting her previous research on memory, providing the discrepancies she discovered, and providing reasonable explanations for Eileen's mistaken memory.

Loftus' research and model was confirmed by the numerous additions and subtractions in Eileen's account of the murder. Over time memory changes and is distorted. As new events arise, the original memory is incorporated to fit the additional facts. At the time of the accusation, Eileen was in therapy. Her anger towards her father was most likely refocused into a false memory that she truly and sincerely believed. This example, is just one supporting story for Loftus' theory on the malleability of memory as a possible explanation for many repressed memory crime accusations. Her work needs to be considered by therapists and the justice system before innocent victims of the false memory syndrome are put behind bars.

Time Line Of Loftus' Life

1944 Born in Los Angeles, Calif.
1959 Mother Dies
1966 Completed B.A., UCLA
1967 Completed M.A., Stanford
1968 Married Geoffrey Loftus
1970 Completed Ph.D., Stanford
1970-1973 New School for Social Research, New York
1973-1975 Assistant Professor, University of Washington
1971-1974 Grants from National Institute of Mental Health
1973 Human Memory published
1973-1975 Associate Professor, University of Washington
1974-1976 Department of Transportation
1974 General Services Administration
1974 Member of editorial boards of the Journal of Experimental Psychology
1974 Published article which hurtled her into the courtroom
1975-1976 Fellow of the American Council on Education
1976 Cognitive Processes published
1977 Member of the National Science Foundation
1978-1979 Fellow of the Center for Advanced Study in Behavioral Science
1979 Eyewitness Testimony published
1979 Professor of Psychology, University of Washington
Begins research on repressed memory and eyewitness accounts due to increase of childhood trauma phenomenon.
1980 Law and Human Behavior published
1981 Memory; Surprising insight into how we remember and why we forget
1991 Divorce from Geoffrey Loftus
1994 The Myth of Repressed Memory published
1995 Remembering Dangerously published
1995 Received Distinguished Contribution Award from the American Academy of Forensic Psychology


Neimark, Jill. 1996. " The Diva of Disclosure, Memory researcher Elizabeth Loftus". Psychology Today. January Vol.29 Pg.48
Loftus, E. and Ketcham, K. 1994. The Myth of Repressed Memory. N.Y., St, Martin's Press.
Loftus, E. 1994. "Memories of Childhood Sexual Abuse: Remembering and Repressing". Women's Quarterly. March Vol.18 P67-84.
Loftus, E. 1993."The Reality of Repressed Memories" American Psychologist. May Vol.48 , P518-537.
Loftus, E. 1993. " Desperately Seeking Memories of the First Few Years of Childhood: The Reality of Early Memories." Journal of Experimental Psychology. June Vol. 122 P 247-277.
Loftus, E. 1995. "Remembering Dangerously" . Skeptical Inquirer. March P1-14.
Speyrer, John. 1997. Book Review on "The Myth of Repressed Memory." www.net-connect.net/jspeyrer/myth.htm.
Contemporary Authors. Volume 105. P.293.

[History Home Page] [Psychology Department Home Page]