The following letter was just published in the February 2017 issue of The Psychologist, a publication of the British Psychological Society. The author is Dr. Ashley Conway:
Your short report in the January edition congratulates Elizabeth Loftus on winning the John Maddox Prize, and comments on her facing hostility and attempts to undermine her professional status, without explaining why some fellow psychologists might not be happy about everything that she has done. It might be helpful to have some insight into this reaction. In an extraordinary editorial, Brand and McEwen (2016) inform us that, according to American Psychological Association officials, Loftus was tipped off by them that there was an ethics complaint against her pending, and she left the Association. So no ethics investigation took place. It is reported that, under oath in court, Loftus has repeatedly denied awareness of this sequence of events (Cheit, 2015).
Olafson (2014) and Kluemper (2014) address a separate issue – Loftus allegedly violating the privacy of the subject of a case history, who was promised anonymity, and being untruthful in representing herself to the foster mother of the abuse victim. Discussing two particular papers co-written by Loftus, Olafson (2014) states: ‘There are so many errors among those facts that can be checked…that they cast doubt on the accuracy of the alleged facts in these articles that cannot be easily checked.’ And Dalenberg (2014) makes it clear that Loftus’s actions in this case have now made it ethically problematic for any psychology journal to publish case histories. Read more…
Two years ago, the Journal of Interpersonal Violence published a special issue about Taus v. Loftus, a civil lawsuit against psychology professor Elizabeth Loftus, stemming from Loftus’s decision to engage private investigators to uncover the identity of Jane Doe, the subject of an anonymous case study involving a memory of child sexual abuse.
There were eight commentaries in the issue, including my own: “Research Ethics and Case Studies in Psychology: A Commentary on Taus v. Loftus.” All of the commentaries are now available as PDFs (without charge) at this site. Scroll half way down the page to find them–along with the 1997 issue about Jane Doe’s memory, beginning with Corwin and Olafson’s landmark article, “Videotaped Discovery of a Reportedly Unrecallable Memory of Child Sexual Abuse with a Childhood Interview Videotaped 11 Years Before.”
The Hoffman Report, an independent investigation into the American Psychological Association’s involvement with government-sponsored torture programs, was released earlier this month. As James Risen reported in the New York Times, the 542-page report concluded that the APA’s ethics office “prioritized the protection of psychologists — even those who might have engaged in unethical behavior — above the protection of the public.” The focus of the report is the involvement of the APA in sanctioning interrogation techniques that included torture. But the Report also contains an important footnote about the lax attitude towards ethics in the APA office long before the post-9/11 era:
The Ethics Office was not insulated from outside influence and the nature of the process allowed for manipulation at times. Koocher told Sidley that Raymond Fowler manipulated the adjudication process when there was a complaint filed against Elizabeth Loftus, a high-profile psychologist who did work on false memories. When Fowler found out there was an ethics complaint pending against Loftus, he reached out to her and told her she should resign her membership before a case could be formally opened against her. He later denied that he had done so and appointed one of his deputies to “investigate” how Loftus had found out about the complaint.
INDEPENDENT REVIEW RELATING TO APA ETHICS GUIDELINES, NATIONAL SECURITY INTERROGATIONS, AND TORTURE, July 2, 2015 (p. 485)
This footnote provides the only explanation that has ever made sense for why Professor Loftus resigned from the APA by fax, shortly after two ethics complaints had been filed against her. The complaints concerned Loftus misrepresenting the facts about two successful recovered-memory lawsuits. Her resignation made the complaints moot under rules that have since been changed to close that loophole. Professor Loftus has never provided a convincing explanation for her sudden resignation. Her sworn testimony on the matter (see examples below) stands in stark contrast to statements in the Hoffman Report.
Perhaps the APA, now anxious to regain its credibility, will finally address the manipulations that resulted in the dismissal of complaints against Elizabeth Loftus.
Shortly after news anchor Brian Williams was exposed for exaggerating a war story on January 30th, Professor Elizabeth Loftus rushed to his defense. It was “a teachable moment,” she declared, criticizing everyone who concluded that Williams had exaggerated the story for glory. (See the video linked to this NYT story for an illustration of how Williams puffed up the story over time.) Williams simply had a “false memory.” That was the lesson that Loftus thought we should learn. Pamela Freyd, the Executive Director of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation, followed suit, labeling Williams’ exaggeration as a “memory mistake.”
Those conclusions were contradicted by the investigation that NBC conducted. It was reported that NBC found at least ten other instances in which Williams made exaggerated statements about his involvement in stories. Today, Mr. Williams apologized for his behavior. He said it was “clearly ego driven” and came from “the desire to better my role in a story I was already in.” It was a mistake in judgment, not memory.
A teachable moment, indeed. The lesson is clear: those who promote the false-memory defense are both too quick to acquit people of wrongdoing and too willing to ignore facts that contradict their template. The larger lesson is even more important: that is, the false-memory template cannot distinguish between false valor and false memory. Neither can those who employ it.
There was a piece in the New Yorker in March called “Remembering a Crime that You Didn’t Commit.” It begins with a brief description of the McMartin Preschool case that omits virtually all of the evidence of guilt, while exaggerating the extent of satanic claims in the case. (See this post for more detail.) The author then pivots to a description of Elizabeth Loftus’ Lost-in-the-Mall study, claiming that the experiment caused “six of the twenty-four test subjects [to] internalize the story, weaving in sensory and emotional details of their own.” But the vaunted fact checkers at the New Yorker were wrong about more than the McMartin case. They apparently failed to consult the original Lost-in-the-Mall study which makes it clear that the 25% figure includes those who “remembered” the event “either fully or partially,” and partially includes “remembering parts of the event and speculations about how and when it might have happened” (p.722). Speculations, of course, are not memories. And remembering, say, the “part” about being lost is hardly remarkable, since everyone has been lost at one time or another. In short, the original article never claimed that 25% of subjects internalized the false story. A much smaller number did.
Memory experts are quick to point out that memory is constructed and it changes over time. Curiously, those who cover memory researchers rarely, if ever, pause to ask whether professors describing their own research might reconstruct their “findings” over time, remembering results they didn’t actually find. That seems to be the real, but unrecognized, legacy of the Lost in the Mall study. To many, the study stands for much more than it ever actually found.
In 1995, two ethics complaints involving recovered-memory cases were filed against Professor Elizabeth Loftus. The complaints asked the American Psychological Association (APA) to examine misrepresentations made about two successful civil cases, one brought by Lynn Crook, the other by Jennifer Hoult. Hoult’s complaint is documented in detail at this site. Crook’s case is documented here (Case No. 19).
The complaints were never investigated because Professor Loftus resigned from the APA shortly after they were filed. The strange circumstances of her resignation–coming by fax, shortly after two complaints were filed–raised questions about whether Professor Lofus was “tipped off ” about the complaints and given an opportunity to resign before they could be investigated.
Jill Neimark of Psychology Today branded those claims nothing more than “rumors” and Professor Loftus has denied them repeatedly to reporters and in testimony under oath. But now there is powerful evidence that contradicts Professor Loftus’s claim. Dr. Gerry Koocher, past president of the APA, published an insider’s account of the matter last year in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence. He reported that the APA’s CEO, Raymond Fowler, told Koocher and Norine Johnson (also an APA president) six years later that he had “gotten word” to Loftus about the ethics complaints. According to Koocher, “[Fowler] expressed the personal belief that an ethics investigation of a high-profile psychologist at that time in APA’s history would have severely damaged the organization.”
Would the finding of unethical behavior against a high-profile psychologist damage the APA more than the revelation that they conspired to avoid the investigation of a complaint? Does the APA still consider some psychologists “too big” to be held accountable to their code of ethics?
Patihis, Ho, Tingen, Lilienfeld, and Loftus recently published a research article in Psychological Science related to the “Memory Wars.” The article carries the provocative title: Are the “Memory Wars” Over? A Scientist-Practitioner Gap in Beliefs About Repressed Memory.
The article is so flawed that one scarcely knows where to begin. It is a sure sign that something is seriously wrong when an article contains a significant misrepresentation in the second sentence. So it is with Patihis et. al., who summarize Professor Jennifer Freyd’s work as standing for the proposition that “memories of traumatic events can be repressed…and yet recovered accurately in therapy.” The authors cite, without a page number or quotation, a single publication of Freyd’s from 1994 that makes no such claim. Instead, Freyd makes the uncontroversial claim that psychotherapy can be useful for those who have experienced childhood trauma. Freyd also cautions, on page 320: “This aspect of psychotherapy and memory recovery also has the potential to lead to distortions in the interpretation of sensory, affective, and behavioral memories.”
One wonders why the authors did not portray the nuance in Freyd’s position. One also wonders why they ignored the substantial body of Freyd’s work in the years since 1994, including her highly-regarded Harvard Press book, Betrayal Trauma: The Logic of Forgetting Childhood Abuse. Freyd’s work is notable in part for highlighting two independent features of memory: continuity and accuracy. Freyd has always acknowledged that memory, both continuous and non-continuous, can be inaccurate. See her useful 2004 presentation at the American Association for the Advancement of Science on Misleading and Confusing Media Portrayals of Memory Research. It applies directly to Patihis et. al. and the attendant media coverage. Read more…
In a recent TED talk about memory, psychology professor Elizabeth Loftus misrepresented the basic facts of a case study that led her to hire a private investigator and write an article that prompted the subject of the case study to sue her for invasion of privacy. Loftus has mentioned the civil suit frequently in recent appearances and told audiences how terribly unfair it was that she was sued. Given the importance of these events to Professor Loftus, one wonders why she misrepresented the basic facts of the underlying case.
Loftus said the case was about a women who “accused her mother of sexual abuse based on a repressed memory” (See the 13-minute mark of this talk). That is not true. The accusation against her mother came in an evaluation when the child was 6 years old! What makes the underlying case so important is that the girl forgot the details, which had been videotaped at the time, and recalled them spontaneously at age 17. Here is the article that documents those events, which occurred under the supervision of the doctor who conducted the original interview. (She had sought him out because she wanted to know what happened to her as a child.) There is much more to say about how Loftus investigated this case. But for now, it is telling, to say the least, that Loftus misrepresented the facts. Presumably she thinks that audiences are more likely to find her actions in this matter sympathetic if the underlying case was an accusation based on a dubious-sounding recovered memory. Whatever her motivation, there is no question the version presented in her TED talk is false. We await the correction that should occur after a scientist commits an error like this.
There are a few studies of “false memory” that have attained almost iconic status. These studies are widely known, but not necessarily well understood. Perhaps the most cited but least understood study of all is the “Lost in the Mall” study by Professor Elizabeth Loftus. As part of an interesting new project at the New England Law School, Professor Wendy Murphy and two law students recently analyzed that study in light of the Daubert and Frye cases. Here is their critique. This project holds great promise for unmasking some of the myths and other inaccuracies that have crept into academic discussions of memory issues.