This article discussed the work of cognitive psychologist Elizabeth Loftus from the University of Washington. She contended that when we recall a memory the event is not accurately recreated, but instead we recall a reconstruction of the actual event. She stated that this is most common in criminal investigation cases. Loftus argues that changing minor details in a question can cause a person to recall the event differently or even add in details that were not there to begin with.
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She used four experiments to prove her hypothesis. Loftus’ work has been challenged, with some psychologists stating that the memory is not lost, but can be obtained with proper questioning. Recently, Loftus’ research has been applied to repressed memories of childhood sexual abuse that is recalled through the assistance of a therapist (Loftus, 560-572).
Upon reading the article, I found that many of the points made by Loftus make sense. I can easily compare and apply her research to real life situations. If you want current crime dramas, such as Law and Order, you can see the questions the lawyers use to trigger memories with the eyewitnesses.
It was very interesting however that changing simple key words in the question can almost create a memory in the person’s head. For example, Loftus compares the usage of “a” as opposed to “the.” I could ask an eyewitness, “Did you see a knife?” This question evokes a different answer than, for example, “Did you see the knife?” The second question implies that there was a knife at the scene.
I feel that it is up to the lawyers to ask the questions properly so the eyewitness can accurately recall the events, to the best of their ability. Of course, what I find fascinating is that a lawyer could use this method to elicit the responses they need from an eyewitness. By using this research, the prosecuting attorney could, in effect, make an eyewitness recreate an inaccurate event. I can understand where some of her research could be called into question as well.
The end of the article states that the memory is still there, but it is up to the investigators to focus on the right wording, as I stated above. In order to obtain accurate eyewitness accounts, an investigator must be made aware of how a witness will later recall the event in question.
I find it interesting and apt that Loftus’ research is being used to call into question reports of repressed child abuse. While I am sure that the complaining person is not automatically being doubted, a therapist could conceivably manipulate a person into believing that they were abused because it fits the diagnosis.
For example, a therapist could ask a client, “Did he ever touch you?” This could mean a variety of things. The therapist would have to define the type of touch. I think it is important for therapists not to put their own personal spin on things.
They are there to assist their clients in unraveling their problems and offering plausible explanations and solutions. While it is important to question these repressed allegations, it should not be forgotten that if the therapist is at fault, their client is still a victim of their manipulative, whether intentional or not, tactics.
In conclusion, it is my belief that eyewitness testimony should never solely be used to convict someone of a crime. I am thankful that the judicial system does not rely on just one aspect of evidence in order to obtain a conviction. However, Loftus’ research could be used by a defense team to discredit an eyewitness. This must be taken into consideration as well as not all event recall is recreated memory.
I have to agree with Loftus’ research on some level in that I could see how different questions might lead someone to think that there was something there that maybe they had forgotten before that moment. However, I do not think there is enough information on how the brain stores and recalls information at this point in time to make Loftus’ research the tell all and end all to cognitive memory studies.
Loftus, E.F (1975). Leading Questions and the Eyewitness Report. Cognitive Psychology, 7, 560-572.