Manic Monday: Loftus lost in the Mall

We’ve heard about how false memories can be “planted” in someone’s mind. For example, people can be convinced they committed a crime they never did commit–in just a few hours! Others have been convinced they were raped, or molested as children.

In 1999, Dr. Elizabeth F. Loftus conducted a study that greatly impacted our understanding of human memory, and its superb vulnerability.

Dr. Loftus begins her notes by stating that the idea to plant ideas in people’s minds was just that–an idea. She thought it was safe to do: getting someone to create a memory of being lost most likely won’t be traumatic. Dr. Loftus had been at a birthday party and she had casually told a friend about her idea. He then brought his daughter over and asked her “Do you remember that time you were lost…”

Dr. Loftus chimed in after and asked the daughter if she had been scared when she was lost.

It would be months, however, before any sort of research design had been done.

In 1991, Dr. Loftus taught her cognitive psychology course about memory distortion as she had been doing for 20 years. She had an extra credit assignment that she always had: go out and try to distort someone’s memory or “create” a new memory in their minds. Her hope with this sort of assignment is to indicate to students that it is rather easy to plan a memory in someone’s mind, and once planted, it becomes as real to the person as their “real” memories. (Sounds sorta like Inception to me. Awesome!)

Students go over and try to convince their roommates they had chicken instead of burgers the night before, and safe things like that.

In 1991, however, Dr. Loftus created a twist in her assignment: is there a difference between changing the detail of a memory, and planting an entirely new one?


Dr. Loftus got back the assignment papers, and several students had tried to convince their relatives they’d been lost. One student even involved both his mother and brother. The brother was subsequently convinced that he’d been lost in the University City shopping mall in Spokane, Washington.

Another student involved her daughter, who, at the prodding of her mother, came to believe that she had once been lost at a ranch.

A study was eventually born. It involved three phases:

Subjects first completed booklet with four stories about childhood events provided by a relative of theirs. Later on, they were debriefed and told that 4/6 of their memories were false, and then they were asked to identify which of the memories they thought were indeed false.

According to Dr. Loftus:


She further noted:


She also interestingly reports a little about past-lives and how memories can be created regarding them:


So all in all, Dr. Loftus, as well as a host of other researchers, have studied the phenomenon of false memories being planted in another person’s mind. One does wonder, then, how this knowledge can be used, such as during interrogations, trials, and more. Seems rather interesting, but also, it creates a responsibility in others to not plant false memories in another’s mind to implicate them in crimes or events they have not committed, nor took any part in. Further, it behooves individuals to understand memories to ensure that they are never “tricked” into believing something that never happened.

One thought on “Manic Monday: Loftus lost in the Mall

  1. Pingback: Techniques Thursday: Memory Sleuth: How to tell a memory is false | neuravinci

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