Skip to content

Dr. Elizabeth Loftus: Distinguished Professor of Social Ecology, and Professor of Law, and Cognitive Science at the University of California, Irvine


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Publication (Outlet/Website): In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2013/04/22

1. What is your current position at the University of California, Irvine?

My title is Distinguished Professor.  My main appointments are in a couple departments.  One is Psychology and Social Behaviour.  Another is Criminology, Law, and Society.  Then, I am also Professor of Law.

2. Where did you grow up?  What was youth like for you?  What effect do you feel this had on your career path?

I grew up in Los Angeles, not very far from UCLA.

I would say it was peppered with tragedies.  My mother drowned when I was 14 and my brothers were 12 and 9.  A few years later, our house burned down, and we had to live somewhere else while it was being rebuilt.  Through all of this, I managed to keep studying and got into college.

Well, I feel a little like it contributed to my workaholic ways.  You know, just keep working, working, working, and feeling a sense of accomplishment.  Then, distract yourself from painful thoughts.  Since I do not do psychotherapy that is just an armchair self-analysis.

3. Where did you acquire your education?

I went to college at UCLA.  UCLA was close by to where I lived.  UCLA was probably not the greatest idea since I lived about a half-mile away, and I ended up living at home.  I graduated from UCLA and then ended up going to Stanford for Graduate School.  I got my PhD in Psychology from Stanford.

4. What was your original dream?

At some point because I had a double major in mathematics and psychology, I thought I might teach mathematics.  Something like high school or junior high, but that is not what I ended up doing.  I don’t know if I had a dream.  I just kept on with school, until I had a PhD and became an assistant professor.

5. How did you gain an interest in Mathematical Psychology?In Chapter 3 of Do Justice and Let the Sky Fall, Dr. Geoffrey Loftus recounts your hemming skirts and keeping familial correspondence up to date during your Graduate School training at Stanford.  When did you realize Experimental Psychology was the new dream for you?

I did that because I was bored with mathematical psychology.  I later happily discovered memory, ha!  It’s what ultimately I would get a little more passionate about.  I ended up going to Graduate School in mathematical psychology because I thought that combining my two majors in what would be a perfect field.  I was not in the end taken by it.  I did other things while listening to, in one ear, the talks, or presentations that were being made.

6. You have published 22 books and over 500 articles.  You continue to publish new research on an ongoing basis.  What have been your major areas of research?

Well, most generally it is human memory.  More specifically, I studied eyewitness testimony for a long time.  I studied people’s memory for crime and accidents, and other complex events that tend to be legally relevant.  Even within that area, I studied how memories can change as a result of new information that we are exposed to.  I did hundreds of experiments studying everything you would want to know about memory distortion in that kind of context.  In the 1990s, when I started to get interested in what would be called ‘The Memory Wars,’ the debate about psychotherapy and whether some subset of psychotherapists were using highly suggestive procedures that were getting patients to create entirely false memories.  I, with my collaborators and students, established a paradigm for studying the development of what we would later call, in a paper with Bernstein, Rich False Memories.  Not just changing a detail here and there in memory, but actually applying people with suggestions so that they would develop these complete false memories.

7. Your research did not have immediate acceptance among professionals.  In fact, it attracted much anger, which spilt over to you.  In particular, what research set the controversy?  What became the controversy?  How did this come to a resolution?

I would take us back to around 1990, when I was confronted with an opportunity to consult on my very first repressed memory case.  A case where someone was claiming repressed memory.  It was a murder case where a man named George Franklin was being prosecuted for murdering a little girl twenty years earlier.  The only evidence against him was the claim of his adult daughter that she had witnessed the murder when she was 8 years old and had repressed the memory for 20 years, and now the memory was back.  It was in the context of that case that I began to scour the literature of what was the evidence for this kind of repression.  She was claiming that she had repressed her memory of the murder.  That she had repressed her memory for years of sexual abuse that the father had supposedly perpetrated on her.   I could really find no credible scientific support for the idea that memory works this way.  That you could take years of brutalization, banish it into the unconscious, and be completely unaware of it by some process that is beyond ordinary forgetting – and that you could remember these experiences completely accurately later on.  And so I began to ask, “Well, if these memories aren’t real, (If there is no credible support for the idea that memory works this way) where could these memories have come from?”  I began to dig through literature, and examples, ultimately court cases, and would discover that some of these memories were being created by highly suggestive psychotherapy procedures.  When I began to speak out about this issue, then people began to get mad, and for those who got mad, this was something for whom repression was one of their treasured beliefs.  The repressed memory therapists and the patients they influenced.

Early in my interest in memory distortion, I was thinking about legal cases.  In fact, my earliest experiments were designed to map onto what happens when a witness sees an accident or a crime, and then is later exposed to some newer information about that experience, e.g. talks to other witnesses, is questioned in a leading or suggestive fashion, or sees media coverage about an event, my research modeled after that real-world situation.

Some things have happened in the law.  In the eyewitness cases, because of many, many psychologists’ work, some jurisdictions have revised the way they handle eyewitness evidence in a case.  Some courts have suggested that, and recognized the scientific work by devising new legal standards for handling eyewitness evidence.  That’s been a change, and a fairly recent change.  And then in the repressed memory cases, I think some jurisdictions have recognized now that this whole claim of massive repression is highly controversial at best.  Some courts have ruled that it is too controversial for the cases to go forward.  You know, one day we may prove that repression exists.  It has not been proven.  It is my opinion that we should not be throwing people in prison based on an unproven theory.

8. Subsequently, you took the role of expert witness in a number of important, controversial, and intriguing court cases.  What are some of the court cases?  Can you describe some of the more memorable moments with individuals involved in them?

Many of these cases involve people no one has ever heard of, of course, I have worked, and consulted, on some famous cases involving people like Michael Jackson, Martha Stewart, and Scooter Libby – a politician in the United States.  I think some of the more memorable ones are people looked at accused of crimes convicted based on somebody’s memory when these people are either definitely innocent or probably innocent.

I think a memorable one was a man named Steve Titus, who was charged with rape based on the testimony of an eyewitness who somehow in the course of being interviewed went from not being particularly certain to being completely certain it was Steve.  Steve Titus was convicted.  Ultimately, he was able to get a journalist to show that another man committed these crimes.  So Titus was freed, but he was very, very bitter.  He had lost his job.  He lost his fiancé.  He lost his reputation.  He lost his savings.  He filed a lawsuit against the police and just as that case was about to go to trial, he woke up one morning and doubled over in pain and died of a stress related heart attack at 35.  That is one of the saddest cases I have ever encountered.

If you want to write about one up in Canada, you might write about the teacher Michael Kliman, who, based on claims of repressed memory, had to go through three trials up in Vancouver before he was freed.  I would bet my house the man is innocent.

9. What is your most recent research?

I started a line of work with Dan Bernstein and a couple of Graduate Students.  We were looking at the repercussions of having a false memory.  If I plant a false memory in your mind, does it have consequences?  Does it affect your later thoughts, or intentions, or behaviours?

We started by trying to convince people they had gotten sick as children by eating certain foods. We succeeded in persuading people that they got sick eating hard-boiled eggs and dill pickles, and we did it with a fattening food, namely strawberry ice cream.  Then, we showed that it could effect, not only what people thought they wanted to eat when they went to a party, but what they actually ate when you put food in front of them.  Bernstein has gone on with some other collaborators to do further experiments on how it effects eating behavior.  Most recently we have published a paper with collaborators showing these kind of suggestive manipulations work not just with food, but also can work with alcohol.  We can plant false memories that you got sick drinking vodka and you don’t want to drink vodka as much.

That’s one line of continuing work.

For instance, in Asparagus: A Love Story, we described a study that showed that you could plant not only a getting sick memory that people then want to avoid.  You could also plant a warm, fuzzy memory for a healthy food, and then people want to eat it more.

10. If you had unlimited funding and unrestricted freedom, what research would you conduct?

I am not sure if I want to conduct it, but with unlimited funding and no worry about ethics, ha!  You could maybe do the kind of experiment to explore whether massive repression really occurs or it doesn’t.  Where you could be able to expose people to prolonged brutalization, and really get a chance to study them thoroughly, but ethical concerns would prohibit that kind of study.

11. Currently, you are on the executive council for the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal – or CSI for short.  What role do you play on the executive council?  What is the core message of CSI?

I am a fellow of the CSI.  Periodically, I give talks at various conferences that the organization holds or I might write something for the Skeptical Inquirer.  But I am so busy with so many organizations that I don’t play a large role in the executive council.  I mean, other people may have been providing more input to what to bring to the conferences or activities that the organization might engage in, but I am on so many committees and boards that I am spread a little too thin to spend too much time at one.

It’s an organization of people that are pro-science, against pseudo-science and flimflam.  Trying to expose efforts to manipulate people into believing or thinking things that might be dangerous, harmful, or untrue.

12. Since you began studying psychology, what do you consider the controversial topics in Psychology? How do you examine the controversial topics in Psychology?

That is a big question, and I do not get into all of them.  I’ve got my own little area in memory and memory distortion.  I know a lot about the science of memory and lay beliefs about memory.  I sort of tend to focus my efforts there.  There are many controversial areas that one could look at, but you are going to have to find a different expert to talk about some of the other ones.  A related one to the one I care about is using facilitated communication with autistic kids.  There is controversy about vaccinations.  I don’t think it is particularly controversial.  There is controversy about the human contribution to climate change.  I don’t think there is much of a controversy.  You can find a few people out of the mainstream.

13. How would you describe your philosophical frameworks inside and outside of Psychology? How have your philosophical frameworks evolved?

I would say one of the things, and this is one of the great things about training in psychology, even if you do not go on to teach psychology or even to be a psychologist in your professional life.  It teaches you a way of thinking.  It teaches you to be thinking about, “What is the evidence for any claim that somebody might try to fob off on you?”  We know not just how to ask, what is the evidence?  But really, what exactly is the evidence?  What kind of study was done?  Was it an experimental study?  Where you and say something about causation.  It is it just correlational?  Was there a control group?  How well was it done?  Is the sample size sufficient?  What were the statistical results?  We know how to think about evidence.  That is one of the gifts that experimental psychology, the study of psychology, research methods in psychology, has given to people who have taken the time to expose themselves to it.

14. For students looking for fame, fortune, and/or utility (personal and/or social), what advice do you have for undergraduate and graduate students in Psychology?

It certainly helps if you can find some research to get involved in.  As an undergraduate or graduate student, find some interesting research to get involved in.  If you can feel a little passion about it, it can keep your motivation up to keep working hard.  I think it is very helpful for students to try to work with faculty members, where you are working on something the faculty member is interested in, and hopefully with a faculty member is generous about publications with students. Having scientific research under your belt can open doors for you.  It can get you into Graduate School.  It opens doors to jobs. It can open doors to advancement in your field.   Anything that you can do to beef up that aspect of your experience is bound to be helpful.

Once you get that under your belt, you might want to get something in a magazine or a journal.

15. You have earned numerous awards, but the AAAS award for Scientific Freedom and Responsibility seems most relevant to me.  In your acceptance speech you state, “We live in perilous times for science…and in order for scientists to preserve their freedoms they have a responsibility…to bring our science to the public arena and to speak out as forcefully as we can against even the most cherished beliefs that reflect unsubstantiated myths.”  I quote this in an interview with Dr. Daniel Bernstein and ask, “How important do you see criticizing ‘unsubstantiated myths’ in ‘perilous times’ for Science?”  He says, “I think that this is excellent advice. Science has a responsibility to “give back” to the communities and cultures that invest in it. Scientists can and should correct myths whenever the opportunity arises.”  Can you expand on this idea of scientific responsibility to society?

You know, I think he put it beautifully.  Not everyone has to do everything, I think collectively we can all contribute to giving back to the society that supported the scientific work.  Some people are going to be good at getting the experiments done and published in journals, and they’re uncomfortable speaking to the press or speaking in the context of legal cases.  Other people are comfortable doing that.  Some people are not comfortable writing for lay audiences.  They only want to write for concise scientific journals.  Collectively, I think there is something of a responsibility in an ideal world for people to want to give back.

16. Whom do you consider your biggest influences? Could you recommend any seminal or important books/articles by them?

Back in Graduate School, I had a professor that I did some research with on semantic memory that really taught me how to be an experimental psychologist.  To be able to design a study with him, conduct and gather the data, analyze the data, and write up a publication.  That was a great benefit for me.  That collaboration was with a social psychologist named Jonathan Freedman.  That was an important influence in terms of turning me into an independent experimental psychologist.  I would say, in terms of people that I have never met whose work has probably set the stage for the tradition in which I work, Bartlett from England who was famous for his work on reconstructive memory.  I see my work in the tradition of reconstructive memory.  He was an important forefather.

If people want to read about memory distortion, I think they may want to read something more recent.  I have a book by Brainerd and Reyna.  It is rather advanced, but it is called The Science of False Memory.  It is sort of everything you would ever want to know about false memories up to 2005 or whenever that book was published.    For your readers, if they wanted something easy and fun for reading, I would recommend The Memory Doctor in written by Will Saletan.  That will give you a small slice of memory research.  If you want more, you could probably read The Science of False Memory.

17. What do you consider the most important point(s) of Psychology as a discipline?  In particular, what do you consider the most important point about cognitive psychology?

I do not think I want to go there.  (Laughs)  There are just too many.  I have just been focused on the study of memory.  I think the study memory distortion is an important area because of its practical and theoretical implications.  I think some recent work in a completely different area has to do with learning and memory, in a classroom or an educational setting.  The work that shows that if you test people, they learn better than if you just ask them to study again.  All these findings on testing effects are interesting and we will see more work in that area.

This of course has many people interested in memory and neuroscience, and brain imaging.  It is not something I do, unless I am collaborating with someone who does, but we will see where that will lead.  It is certainly the subject of a lot of current research.

18. Three years ago, I informally asked Dr. Anthony Greenwald, “Where do you see Psychology going?”  He said the frontier lies in cognitive psychology and neuroscience.  However, a first generation of researchers, like the first round of soldiers marching out of the trenches, will fall – making all the necessary mistakes.  After that point, the next generation of researchers will have learned from those mistakes to make deep progress.  In the same stream of thought three years later, “Where do you see Psychology going?”

That is interesting because he has been quite successful with the implicit association test and all kinds of ramifications in uses of it, but he does not seem to be going in a neuroscience direction.  However, he is a smart guy, whose speculation I would invest in.

People are enamored with this neuroimaging stuff.  I do see a lot more research.  I was about to say progress, but I do not know yet.  The neuroscience of cognitive psychology, there has been a lot of discussion in our interdisciplinary teams, people seem to be enamored with the idea that if you bring together people from all different types of perspectives and fields, then you can come together to tackle problems.  Will we see more of that – more funding of those type of enterprises?  More research, more publications, involving these large interdisciplinary teams.  It is a speculation, but it is an educated one given how enamored people seem to be of this notion.


In-Sight Publishing by Scott Douglas Jacobsen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Based on a work at


© Scott Douglas Jacobsen and In-Sight Publishing 2012-Present. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Scott Douglas Jacobsen and In-Sight Publishing with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. All interviewees and authors co-copyright their material and may disseminate for their independent purposes.

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: