People from all walks of life may be at risk of false memories according to an American psychologist known for her extensive research into the manipulation of human memory, including recovered memories of childhood sexual abuse.
Speaking at Monash South Africa on 30 July 2012, Professor Elizabeth Loftus, a distinguished professor at the University of California, said that both eyewitness testimonies and memories had to be treated carefully to avoid wrongful accusations or unjust punishment of people.
Professor Loftus said children were particularly susceptible to false memories as they could easily be made to “remember” things that did not actually happen, but adults were also at risk from techniques such as hypnosis and guided imagination. Social standing, educational background or upbringing were no protection.
Not all false memories are necessarily the result of deliberate manipulation. Professor Loftus referred to American politicians Mitt Romney and Hillary Clinton, both of whom have famously described remembering things that did not happen to them.
In Mrs Clinton’s case, a memory of landing in Bosnia under sniper fire was proved wrong by news footage; Mr Romney recalled attending an event that happened before he was born.
The consequences of false memories, whether deliberately planted or not, can be traumatic. Psychologists have been successfully sued for implanting false memories in patients and Professor Loftus also said that distorted memories could mean victims wrongly identified innocent people as perpetrators of crimes against them.
She gave the example of the US Ronald Cotton case, in which a woman genuinely believed Cotton was the man who raped her and identified him as such. He spent 11 years in prison before being exonerated by a DNA test.
“My quest has been to prove that there has to be careful consideration when it comes to such cases as many innocent people have been incarcerated for crimes they did not commit,” Professor Loftus said.