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Elizabeth Loftus

Experts say false confessions come from leading questions, young suspects, high-pressure interrogations

(Continued from Richard Leo page)

Elizabeth Loftus

Dr. Elizabeth Loftus Ph.D.

"Hawaii? You want me in Hawaii?"

The nation's most sought-after courtroom expert on eyewitness memory silently ponders a quick trip to the 50th state, the suggestion rendering her momentarily speechless - which is not the usual state of affairs for Elizabeth Loftus. But this offer is unexpectedly alluring, dangled before her by an eager defense attorney calling from Honolulu: Could she please take a quick summer trip to paradise to testify in a murder case?

She gets at least one such call a day, a deluge that has put her on the stand more than 250 times in her career. She's just back from a homicide case against a cop in Phoenix, and she'll soon head to Boston, where she'll analyze the "recovered" memories of people who have, after many years, remembered being abused as children by Catholic priests. There's no time for more trips, even to Hawaii.

"No," Loftus finally tells her crestfallen caller, stifling a sigh. "I just can't do it."

Elizabeth Loftus is in demand for a simple reason: She is the ultimate memory detective.

For the last quarter-century, she has hunted the sources and causes of false memories and revealed just how easily our remembrance can be manipulated. In Loftus' memory lab, people recall events that did not occur, recognize strangers as familiar faces, and recount in sensory detail experiences that they have never had.

In an experiment for a PBS documentary, Elizabeth Loftus and her team persuaded actor Alan Alda that eating a hardboiled egg may have made him sick during a picnic when he was a child - something he had previously insisted never happened.

All it takes is a suggestive or misleading question from an incompetent or devious interrogator, and an entire memory can change without a person even knowing it, Loftus has found. The implications of her research have been profound, for when false memories involve more than picnic lunches and party encounters, when they influence crime witnesses, victims and suspects, then liberty, life and the integrity of the justice system are at stake. In ways no one ever expected but which are now the basis of countless research projects, Loftus' work has permanently altered the way our recollections are treated in court.

Elected this year to the prestigious American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Loftus is one of the 25 most cited psychologists in scientific literature. To say her arrival was a coup for the university, says Leo, who helped recruit her and whose own research is based in part on her discoveries, is an understatement.

"Beth Loftus is not just a pioneer. She is the pioneer in the field of eyewitness testimony and memory," says Steven Clarke, chairman of the law and psychology program at UC Riverside. "Beth Loftus was the first to develop the scientific methodology to study the memory of eyewitnesses. ... She's a magnet for talent. She has catapulted UCI to the top in law and psychology."

Over the course of her career, Loftus' work shattered the once widely held notion that the brain stores memory like some sort of organic computer, an analogy she has disproved in a series of clever experiments that showed just how easy it is to influence, contaminate and manipulate what people remember. She proved that leading questions, even seemingly innocuous ones, could contaminate and alter memories of complex events.

She began experimenting early on with witnesses' memories of car accidents - showing them recreations or videos of collisions, then questioning them. She found that even varying simple descriptive terms in questions - asking, for example, how fast the cars were traveling when they smashed one another versus when they hit one another - had profound consequences.

People in the "smashed" group tended to remember higher speeds than the "hit" group, and to claim more often that they saw glass breaking during the accident, although there had been no broken glass.

The results were even more dramatic when she experimented with offering outright misleading information to witnesses, such as suggesting there was a yield sign at the scene of a collision when there was actually a stop sign. Those who received the misleading information more often remembered the signs incorrectly than those who were questioned in a neutral way.

Blame for an accident could be shifted, Loftus discovered, just by asking questions in a certain way. And the resulting false memories were not necessarily uncertain - many people recalled them with conviction, even emotion, just as if they were genuine experiences.

In a series of follow-up experiments, she demonstrated what would later be called the "Lost in the Mall Effect," finding that, on average, as many as one in four people can be convinced through suggestive questioning that they experienced all sorts of traumatic events that never occurred - getting lost in the mall as a child and becoming terrified; witnessing demonic possessions; getting bitten by an animal.

The test subjects often went on to add their own rich, detailed accounts of these non-existent events that they now adamantly believed to be true: fictional rescuers, fictional medical treatment, fictional joyous returns home.

Even visceral, primal memories are not sacrosanct in Loftus' Memory Lab, where she experiments on implanting false food memories as the ultimate dieting tool. "Just think of what we could do for people who need to diet if they could be persuaded to remember that they dislike fattening foods." she says.

Her work, along with that of other like-minded researchers, proved critical to debunking the mass child-abuse cases that sprang up around the country in the 1980s, including the McMartin preschool case and dozens like it from Bakersfield to Boston. Loftus, Leo and others have found that children are especially vulnerable to having their memories altered by leading questions.

Although prosecutors have sometimes criticized and grilled her, and some experts have tried to cast doubt on her lab work by asserting that it exaggerates memory problems in the "real world," the science behind Loftus' conclusions about eyewitness memory is widely accepted. She says she never felt particularly controversial - until she began about 10 years ago to take on what she derisively calls "the recovered-memory crowd."

"That's when all hell broke loose," she says.

When a series of spectacular and emotionally charged cases began cropping up in the `90s based on the theory of "repressed" and "recovered" memories of past traumas and abuse, Elizabeth Loftus discerned a pattern: The long-lost memories were almost always revealed during sessions with therapists who were already inclined to believe in repressed memories as a cause of depression, bulimia and a host of other disorders. Not only did she find the scientific basis for this dubious, Loftus also came to believe that many "recovered" memories could be attributed to therapists who inadvertently used suggestive techniques with their patients.

"Except people were being sent to prison this time," she says.

Her work helped free George Franklin of San Mateo, Calif., perhaps the most widely publicized recovered-memory defendant, who was convicted of murder after his adult daughter recalled during therapy that she had witnessed him kill her best friend when she was 6 years old, more than two decades earlier. Franklin served five years in prison before successfully appealing.

Elizabeth Loftus' testimony on behalf of Napa winery executive Gary Ramona, accused of abusing his daughter many years after the fact, helped him successfully sue his daughter's Irvine, Calif., therapist, then persuade a jury that the "recovered" memories that destroyed his career and marriage had been created in the therapist's office.

Most recently, Loftus has gotten involved in the defense of the Archdiocese of Boston and Father Paul Shanley in cases arising from recovered memories of sexual abuse. The district attorney in Boston recently dropped charges involving two of the alleged victims, whose memories seemed most subject to Loftus-style challenge.

But psychologists remain somewhat divided on the validity of recovered memories, and Loftus has aroused the ire of true-believers, particularly those who consider themselves victims of long-past abuse - which is why she has been swatted with a newspaper by a fellow air passenger, and why a man spoke at a conference on repressed memory not long ago about longing to slash Loftus' tires.

Indeed, UCI owes Loftus' presence at the Irvine campus to a controversial repressed-memory case.

While at the University of Washington, Loftus raised doubts about a therapist's claims that he had videotaped a woman in the act of recovering a memory of child abuse. The patient on the video, which was shown by her therapist at conferences nationwide, complained that Loftus had violated her privacy by attempting to investigate the claims.

Loftus had been a faculty member for 29 years at Washington, yet she recalls with undisguised bitterness that, following this complaint, university officials arrived at her office and seized her files with 15 minutes' notice, ordered her not to speak about the case and began an investigation that lasted 19 months. She finally was exonerated by the university, she says, but racked up $30,000 in legal fees in the process, then was sued by the patient when she and another psychologist published an account of their work on the case (without ever publicly identifying the patient). The lawsuit is pending.

Leo heard about the controversy and suggested UCI's School of Social Ecology make Loftus an offer. His own research on false confessions has repeatedly turned up impressionable people who come to "remember" perpetrating crimes they didn't commit. He told her he felt UCI supported professors whose findings challenged conventional thinking - something he had experienced when his work came under fire for freeing people from prison.

Loftus accepted UCI's offer of a titled professorship and the chance to work for what she calls "the best law and psychology department in the country."

Now Loftus sees a "critical mass" forming at UCI, and though she hesitates to suggest her arrival was the catalyst for this, the evidence of her influence is hard to miss.

Down the hall, Assistant Professor Jodi Quas attacks the question of witness reliability from another angle: Her work is geared toward finding ways to make witness memory more reliable, particularly in young children, by scrupulously avoiding the "Lost in the Mall" questioning techniques. Quas is working with juvenile justice authorities in Los Angeles and elsewhere to help young children testify truthfully and to help police officers and social workers question them in a neutral way.

Two other young researchers drawn to the UCI law and psychology group this fall also are shaking conventional views on kids and the legal system. Elizabeth Cauffman of the University of Pittsburgh and Jennifer Skeem of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, are studying the reliability of a checklist many juvenile courts use to identify young sociopaths.

Judges and juvenile social workers have been desperate for a tool to help determine which kids can benefit from treatment and which should just be locked away, and the checklist has seemed to fit the bill. But Skeem and Cauffman are finding that it could easily mistake normal teen problems for adult-style sociopathy. If the checklist isn't working as intended, Cauffman and Skeem say, then kids who can be saved are, literally, being thrown away.

The growing reputation of the law and psychology faculty at UCI has led to an increase in the number of students applying to the university's School of Social Ecology, as well as an influx of grants to keep the research going. "We're like kids at the playground," says Loftus. "This is the place to be."

Richard Leo's work seems to tie together the varied threads of the work of the psychology and law researchers at UCI. His views on false confessions and their causes combine theories about altered memories, suggestive questioning, the effects of stress and trauma on kids, and the way the legal system treats the young and the mentally unstable.

Leo and his mentor, UC Berkeley Professor Richard Ofshe, have done some of the world's most oft-cited research on the false-confession phenomenon. Along the way, Leo, 40, has consulted on more than 500 criminal cases and testified in more than 100, primarily for the defense. (He also has done training for the Miami Police Department and other law-enforcement organizations.)

Interest in false confessions came accidentally for Leo: While an undergrad at Berkeley in 1984, a student in his class was grilled by police for 16 hours in a murder case. The young man ended up confessing to killing his girlfriend.

No physical evidence pointed to Bradley Paige as the killer of Berkeley student Bibi Lee, who was found dead on a hiking trail, her skull badly fractured. The police zeroed in on him out of habit: Statistically, most murdered women are killed by their husbands or boyfriends.

The account of the crime police extracted from him did not match the evidence at the murder scene - although it did match preliminary information the interrogators had in hand about the girl's death, information that proved to be wrong. In later years, Leo would show how this sort of flaw can be a prime indicator of a false confession, evidence that the police, not the suspect, provided the story line.

But at the time, confessions were rarely attacked in court, and such fine points seemed like nitpicking. He said he did it, the prosecutor argued, so what else did one need to know? Page was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to six years in prison - a conviction that has stood despite compelling evidence uncovered later implicating a convicted serial killer seen in the vicinity of Bibi Lee's murder.

The case, and particularly the tactics of the police and the discrepancies between the confession and the crime, left a deep impression on Leo. Such cases have been the subject of his research ever since.

Leo does not design and perform experiments as Loftus does, but instead uses real-world criminal cases to study confessions and interrogation techniques, making detailed comparisons between accounts of crimes given by "confessed" criminals and the objective facts uncovered by forensic investigations and eyewitness interviews. Confessions are such powerful evidence that police, prosecutors and juries will often overlook irrefutable evidence of innocence - somebody else's DNA or fingerprints at the crime scene - rather than disregard the confession, Leo has found.

One particularly tough case for him was in Stanislaus County, Calif., last fall, when Joseph Alan McCarty was convicted of manslaughter for killing his best friend's mother. Leo was called to the stand in the case to testify about techniques police use to extract confessions, and how they can lead to false admissions, particularly with young and impressionable people under stress. McCarty was 20 at the time. But Leo was barred from saying outright that McCarty's confession was, in his opinion, false.

The jury foreman would later say he and his fellow jurors, while convicting McCarty, found Leo "completely credible," but that they ended up believing the confession was legitimate in this case. The jury never knew what Leo and everyone else in the courtroom knew: McCarty had passed a polygraph test in which he denied responsibility for the murder. That test, like Leo's opinion, was legally inadmissible.

"It is depressing at times," says Leo. "False confessions have led to more wrongful convictions than any other single type of evidence."

Leo helped reach a happier outcome two years ago in Wenatchee, Wash., where a modern-day witch-hunt for child molesters led to the arrest of 43 residents accused of abusing 60 children. Nearly 30,000 criminal charges were filed before the case began to unravel, as allegations of police misconduct, threats and coercion of suspects and child witnesses - including the lead investigator's own foster daughter - began to surface.

But by that point, more than a dozen indigent and developmentally disabled defendants had been persuaded to confess and plead guilty.

Leo strives to avoid emotional involvement in the cases he studies, but he was infuriated by the Wenatchee case, and he felt compelled to get involved. Leo's work proved pivotal in freeing several of the accused (as did the work of Loftus, who also took on several Wenatchee cases). In one case, Leo was able to show how Doris Green, a mother of four, had been coerced and threatened into confessing. She was freed after serving four years of a 23-year prison sentence.

This spring, Richard Leo and Richard J. Ofshe published a study that uncovered 125 false confessions that occurred in five years, in which DNA or other conclusive evidence subsequently proved the confessed criminals innocent. These were not cases in which innocence was possible or likely, but absolutely certain - confessed "criminals" who had done nothing more than walk into an interrogation room.

Among Leo's most provocative findings:

False confessions are most common in murder cases, where the pressure is greatest to make an arrest. The high stakes of such cases do not make the police more careful about avoiding false confessions - just the opposite.

A third of false confessions come from juveniles, "the most vulnerable" to police pressure, says Leo.

The average interrogation in the 125 false confession cases lasted more than 16 hours, compared to a typical police interrogation, which averages less than two hours.

Almost 60 percent of the false confession cases studied were dropped by police or prosecutors before trial. But of those false confession cases that went to trial, 81 percent ended with a conviction - with nine receiving death sentences.

Most of the false confessions would not have been revealed without the advent of modern DNA testing - innocents would remain in prison, or face execution.

The Stephanie Crowe murder investigation in Escondido illustrated all of these factors in a single case: juveniles accused of murder, high pressure on the police to solve a sensational crime, marathon interrogation sessions, and a case that entered jury selection before it was abruptly dropped because DNA evidence pointed to an entirely different killer.

Leo says it was his most memorable and disturbing case by far. He interrupted his yearlong book-writing sabbatical so he could testify in the case this past spring.

Part of Leo's work required him to view the 40-plus hours of interrogation tapes in the case. They are painful to watch - no parent would willingly allow their child to be subjected to the crushing pressure exerted on the three boys by the police. But the parents had no choice. They were kept away, with the Crowes threatened with arrest and with losing custody of their youngest daughter even as they mourned Stephanie's death.

In the videos shot inside the Escondido Police interrogation room, 14-year-old Michael writhes, screams, sobs, appears to nearly choke, and begs the police to please, please stop. He bangs his head against the wall and cries out, "Oh, God, oh God, no." He curls into an upright fetal position and says over and over that he could not possibly have killed his sister, that he would remember it if he had.

But the detectives are relentless.

They lie to him, they claim a voice stress analyzer reveals him as a killer, they say blood and other evidence link him and his friends irrefutably to the crime. They imply prison and rape by older inmates will be inevitable unless he confesses and gets help. And, finally, Michael cracks.

"As one watches Michael Crowe's deep and anguished cries as he is told, repeatedly, and comes to believe, that he killed his sister without any knowledge or memory of doing so, one sees the picture of psychological torture," Leo later wrote in a report to Crowe's lawyer. "In my professional opinion, the interrogations of Michael Crowe were psychologically brutal, coercive and highly improper."

As so often happens with impressionable and young suspects, Leo says, Michael reached a point where he began to say whatever the detectives wanted to hear - anything to make the interrogation end. He begins to express doubts about his own mind and memory, the detectives having convinced him that there is a mountain of evidence against him. At last he says on the tape that he may have done it without really remembering it.

The detectives declared this a triumph and called Michael Crowe's words an admission of guilt. Leo calls it a "coerced-persuaded" confession - when the confessor doubts his own memory and makes an admission based on the "facts" the police give him. The only real evidence in the case against Crowe was this confession, a similar one from one friend and incriminating statements from another.

The detectives' failure to give Miranda warnings eliminated some of this taped evidence, and the rest of the case evaporated as trial was about to begin. It turned out that the Escondido Police had in their possession for months a shirt seized from a 34-year-old schizophrenic transient, Richard Tuite, who witnesses saw in the neighborhood on the afternoon and evening of the murder. Police discounted him as a suspect as they focused solely on Stephanie's brother and his two friends.

At the insistence of defense attorneys, an independent lab finally examined Tuite's shirt. DNA tests identified Stephanie's blood spattered on the cloth. The police had the key to the case in their possession all along.

As for the hairs on Stephanie's hands that seemed so suspicious to detectives: They were stray hairs the girl probably picked it up from the carpet while trying to crawl out of her room.

In the wake of the DNA evidence, the San Diego district attorney dropped the case against Michael Crowe and his friends but refused to charge Tuite, saying prosecutors still believed a case could be re-filed against the boys. Leo says the power of the confession evidence swayed the authorities as they began to search for some theory that could put the boys and Tuite together - even though none of the confessions mentioned a transient.

The Escondido police have never publicly apologized nor retreated from their belief in the boys' guilt, and the city has succeeded in winning dismissal of most, though not all, of a federal lawsuit filed by the boys' family.

Police officials routinely decline comment on the case, but several of the original detectives served as consultants for a true-crime book that suggested the boys were more likely Stephanie's killers than Tuite. But a new investigation by the San Diego Sheriff's Department placed blame squarely on Tuite.

The state attorney general took over the case, filing murder charges and calling on Leo as an expert witness to explain why the boys' confessions could not be believed. "It is ... one of the most egregious examples of inept and improper questioning I have ever seen," Leo testified.

Escondido detectives testified for the defense and in support of the confessions.

In May, six years after Stephanie died and long after the three boys on the confession videotape had become young men, jurors rejected the confessions and the detectives who extracted them, and voted to convict Tuite of voluntary manslaughter - a verdict both Leo and the Crowe family view as a form of vindication. Tuite received a maximum sentence of 13 years in prison in August, and faces additional time for briefly escaping custody during jury selection.

The attorney general's office was so impressed with Leo that they want him back to do training for their office about false confessions. "He's normally a defense witness, of course," says Deputy Attorney General Jim Dutton, a prosecutor on the Tuite case. "But he's the kind of witness who says the same thing no matter what side calls him. ... Our job is to get it right, not just win a case. If there's a false confession, we want to know it."

If there's a common goal for the researchers in psychology and the law at UCI, they say it's not what some in law enforcement tend to imagine: that they're out to prove America is overrun by rogue cops and bullying prosecutors. Rather, their findings suggest that injustices tend to arise from the best, not the worst, of intentions, from genuine - if misguided - desire to protect the public, from conventional wisdom that is anything but wise, and from good-faith beliefs that are, nevertheless, as false as the memories they can generate.

The power and continuing impact of their work is not simply a mater of pointing out how the authorities can get it wrong, say memory researchers. It's in helping the authorities get it right.


False memories can be planted under interrogation, according to US scientists

Scientists have planted false memories into people's minds in a study that demonstrates just how easy it is to for police to convince people they have witnessed something that did not actually happen.

More than a third of people are susceptible to false memories, according to studies by Elizabeth Loftus, professor of psychology at the University of California. Her experiments could explain why so many people in Washington DC said they saw a white van near to the scene of last year's sniper shootings. In fact, the snipers used a dark Chevrolet Caprice and no white van was involved.

"Where did that white van come from? It came from the fact that someonetalked to the media and suddenly the whole country is looking for a white van that perhaps did not exist," she said.

In one study, Professor Loftus implanted a false memory in the minds of volunteers who had visited Disneyland as children. "We have tried to come up with ways of planting memories that could not have happened. We try to make people believe that when they went to Disneyland they managed to shake hands with Bugs Bunny.

"Bugs could never have been at Disneyland because he is a Warner Bros character. Yet we've found a way of getting 36 per cent of our subjects to tell us they shook hands with Bugs.

"There are some methods of interrogation that are unwittingly or even deliberately suggestive. But there are some situations where law enforcement agencies essentially lie to people that they are interviewing. They say things like 'another witness claims to have seen you there' ... some sort of lies that they think will lead to a confession," she said.

Loftus is one of the country's most controversial memory researchers. She frequently draws harsh criticism from victims' advocates, attorneys and other scientists.

Over 25 years, she has examined more than 20,000 subjects and written 19 books. She appears frequently in court as an expert witness.

While some recovered memories turn out to be true, Loftus says her experiments repeatedly show that memories are fragile possessions that are easily manipulated. But she does not condemn her subjects for being gullible.

Of adopting false memories, she said: "This behavior is entirely normal."

Loftus' work has implications in criminal cases in which childhood memories of supposed sexual abuse and other crimes crop up decades later, and in situations where memory distortion comes into play, such as in the recent sniper attacks around Washington, D.C.

"Give me enough time with somebody, and I'll make them believe in just about everything," Loftus said. If that sounds worrisome, she said it's better to understand the truth about the human mind "so you know how to defend against it."

A controversial practice in which psychologists try to recover repressed memories of childhood sexual abuse also got attention at the session. In some cases, psychologists may actually create in their patients memories of childhood events that never occurred. Innocent people can be prosecuted and jailed as a result.

Loftus described planting false memories in more than 20,000 research volunteers. They included recollections of accidents, leisure time activities, childhood trauma and other events that never occurred.

Loftus said although fewer than half the subjects in her studies displayed false memories, she argued the effect can be quite persuasive -- even if it is to the subject's detriment. She cited instances in which police interrogators will lie to suspects and cause them to confess to crimes they did not commit.

The false-memory effect can be widespread -- to the point of mass hysteria -- Loftus noted, as in last fall's sniper incidents in Washington, D.C., in which "there was the case of the white van that everyone was searching for that did not exist."

"Memory is highly susceptible to distortion and contamination," said University of California-Irvine cognitive psychologist Elizabeth Loftus, a pioneer in false memory research. The sniper attacks around Washington, D.C., last fall, when scores of witnesses became convinced they had seen a white van or panel truck near a shooting scene is just one of the latest notable examples of how eyewitness accounts can prove inaccurate, she said.

Her three decades of research have shown that people can be led to remember rather familiar or common experiences, even when those experiences likely had not occurred, she said.

Much of Loftus's work has focused on false claims of repressed memories of sexual abuse.


Warning on false memory

A US study indicates that it can be easy to induce false memories in the minds of some people. Scientists at the University of California found they could plant memories in more than a third of volunteers. Psychologist Elizabeth Loftus says the finding demonstrates that people such as police interrogators and those investigating sexual-abuse allegations must be careful not to make suggestions to their subjects.


Researchers find it's easy to plant false memories in minds of some people

DENVER - Remember that wonderful day when Bugs Bunny hugged you at Disneyland? A study presented Sunday shows just how easy it can be to induce false memories in the minds of some people.

More than a third of subjects in the study recalled that theme-park moment - impossible because Bugs is not a Disney character - after a researcher planted the false memory.

Other research, of people who believed they were abducted by space aliens, shows that even false memories can be as intensely felt as those of real-life victims of war and other violence. The research demonstrates that police interrogators and people investigating sexual-abuse allegations must be careful not to plant suggestions into their subjects, said University of California-Irvine psychologist Elizabeth Loftus. She presented preliminary results of recent false memory experiments Sunday at the national meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Loftus said some people may be so suggestible that they could be convinced they were responsible for crimes they didn't commit. In interrogations, "much of what goes on - unwittingly - is contamination," she said.

The news media's power of suggestion also can leave a false impression, Loftus said.

"During the Washington sniper attacks, everyone reported seeing a white van," she said. "Where did it come from? The whole country was seeing white vans."

Loftus is one of the country's most controversial memory researchers. She frequently draws harsh criticism from victims' advocates, attorneys and other scientists.

Over 25 years, she has examined more than 20,000 subjects and written 19 books. She appears frequently in court as an expert witness.

While some recovered memories turn out to be true, Loftus says her experiments repeatedly show that memories are fragile possessions that are easily manipulated. But she does not condemn her subjects for being gullible.

Of adopting false memories, she said: "This behavior is entirely normal."

A key, researchers said, is to add elements of touch, taste, sound and smell to the story.

In the Bugs Bunny study, Loftus talked with subjects about their childhoods and asked not only whether they saw someone dressed up as the character, but also whether they hugged his furry body and stroked his velvety ears. In subsequent interviews, 36 percent of the subjects recalled the cartoon rabbit.

In another study, Loftus suggested frog-kissing incidents that 15 percent of the group later recalled.

"It is sensory details that people use to distinguish their memories," said Loftus. "If you imbue the story with them, you'll disrupt this memory process. It's almost a recipe to get people to remember things that aren't true."

In other research presented Sunday, Harvard University psychologist Richard McNally tested 10 people who said they had been abducted, physically examined and sexually molested by space aliens.

Researchers tape-recorded the subjects talking about their memories. When the recordings were played back later, the purported abductees perspired and their heart rates jumped.

McNally said three of the 10 subjects showed physical reactions "at least as great" as people suffering post traumatic stress disorder from war, crime, rape and other violent incidents.

"This underscores the power of emotional belief," McNally said.


Memories Made to Order at UCI; With manipulation, people an 'recall' what they're led to, researchers find

With a little ingenuity and the powr of suggestion, it really is possible to make people believe the impobable -- that they kissed a frog or shook hands with Bugs Bunny at isneyland. The findings are among the latest work on false memories by UC Irvine cognitive psychologist Elizabeth Loftus and her researchers. They were resented Sunday in Denver at the annual meeting of the American Assn. or the Advancement of Science. Loftus' work has implications in criminal cases in which childhood memories of supposed sexual abuse and other crimes crop up decades later, and in situations where memory distortion comes into play, such is in the recent sniper attacks around Washington, D.C. "Give me enough time with somebody, and I'll make them believe in just about everything," Loftus said. If that sounds worrisome, she said it's better to understand the truth about the human mind "so you know how to defend against it."

Loftus came to UC Irvine as a professor of psychology and criminology this year after 29 years at the University of Washington in Seattle. She has been an expert witness or consultant in a number of high-profile trials, including the McMartin Preschool molestation case, the Hillside Strangler case, the Rodney King beating and the Bosnian war trials.

Loftus presented the results of three experiments, all involving planting false memories.

In one study, undertaken with one of her researchers, interviewers in Russia were able to convince 12.5% of their subjects that they had seen a wounded animal in media coverage of two terrorist bombings in Moscow that killed 233 people in September 1999.

The people were first interviewed in March 2002. They were interviewed again six months later and told that they had mentioned a wounded animal in their first interview. They were asked to describe it.

One person described a parrot in a cage. Another described a dog barking and racing around police officers. Another talked of a bleeding cat lying on a desk.

One problem: They all made it up. No wounded animals were shown on TV or in newspaper or magazine coverage of the incident.

"There are a lot of studies now of the aftermath of 9/11," Loftus said. "What are people going to remember? The bottom line is: It shows you can take an event that is very traumatic to people and tamper with it."

A study of University of Washington students last year illustrated ways in which ideas can be planted in people's memories. Subjects were asked to study a made-up advertisement describing meeting Bugs Bunny at Disneyland.

People later said that when they had visited the Anaheim amusement park as children, they had shaken hands with Bugs, hugged him and touched his tail. Some even recalled the character uttering his signature "What's up, doc?"

The percentages varied, depending on the number of times people were exposed to the ad and other factors. In one study, though, 46% of those who claimed to have met Bugs said they shook his hand.

One problem: Since the rascally rabbit is a Warner Bros. character, he would never have been at the Disney attraction.

"Clearly these are impossible memories, and no one can say we revived true memories," Loftus said.

In another 2002 experiment by Loftus' doctoral student Ayanna Thomas, University of Washington students were told to imagine the color of a frog, and how it would feel on their lips. Subjects were told to imagine other activities, such as crushing a Hershey's kiss with a dental floss container. Two weeks later, they were asked to recall what they had done on that previous day.

Fifteen percent claimed they actually had kissed a frog or smashed a chocolate. Though the percentage is not large, Loftus said, it was significant that people were willing to say they did something bizarre and improbable when they did not.

What's at work, said the memory specialist, is that people are first persuaded a thing is plausible. In the Bugs Bunny experiment, for example, people saw a realistic advertisement.

"People think, 'If it's part of an advertisement, it must be true,' " she said.

Next, people are asked about their own experiences in such a way as to suggest that the same thing happened to them.

They are asked to imagine how something might smell, look or feel, for example, kissing a frog.

"Then what you have is an experience that feels like a memory," Loftus said.

Witnesses can be reliable if their recollections are not distorted or contaminated, but the research suggests people can be persuaded to interpret events in new ways.

And it can happen to an entire population, as shown by public reaction to the October sniper shootings that panicked Washington and suburban Virginia and Maryland for three weeks.

"Suddenly, everybody is out there seeing white vans, looking for white vans," Loftus said. "My suggestion is that because somebody talked about a white van in the media, people became unwitting subjects in some mass memory distortion experiment. In the end, [the pair arrested] had a blue Caprice."


Tricks on brain could have Legal Ramifications

It's Easy to Plant False Memories, study finds

DENVER - Everything you remember from last week may not be real, a panel of scientific experts cautioned yesterday.

That is because the human brain is frighteningly susceptible to suggestive comments, subliminal messages and other tricks that can form false memories.

Among the brain's memory scams is a strange but surprisingly common phenomenon called sleep paralysis. Scientists identified it as the likely explanation in people claiming they've been abducted and molested by space aliens. Research spanning 20 years has given us almost a recipe for planting and embellishing false memories in people, said Elizabeth F. Loftus, a professor of psychology and criminology at the University of California at Irvine. This has serious implications for false memory problems that are occurring in society, which are really memory distortion episodes, she said.

Loftus and other experts on false memories, who spoke at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, cited several concerns. Police interrogation practices, for instance, may intentionally or unwittingly plant false memories in suspects or witnesses, they said, and embellish the memories with life-like detail.

A controversial practice in which psychologists try to recover repressed memories of childhood sexual abuse also got attention at the session. In some cases, psychologists may actually create in their patients memories of childhood events that never occurred. Innocent people can be prosecuted and jailed as a result.

Loftus described planting false memories in more than 20,000 research volunteers. They included recollections of accidents, leisure time activities, childhood trauma and other events that never occurred.

More than a third of subjects in the study recalled being hugged by Bugs Bunny at Disneyland-- impossible because Bugs is not a Disney character -- after a researcher planted the false memory.

Research has shown that it is possible to do more just than change a detail or two in a memory, Loftus said. Totally false memories of events that never occurred can be planted intentionally or unintentionally. The process involves, in part, making a person believe that an event could have happened, and suggesting that it could have happened to them even if they don't remember it.

Loftus proposed establishing a National Memory Safety Board. A counterpart to the National Transportation Safety Board, it would investigate memory problems that led to injustices in the legal system.

Harvard University's Richard J. McNally described research on another memory trick now believed to be the basis of alien abduction stories. People who claim to have been abducted by space aliens are not mentally ill, he said, citing numerous studies. Rather, they probably are victims of sleep paralysis, a condition that occurs when people who are awaken from deep sleep are only partially conscious of their surroundings and can't move. About one in three people have experienced it, he said, with one in 20 having a severe form accompanied by hallucinations. Some involve otherworldly sensations that can be mistaken for alien encounters, he said.


False memories easy to foster in witnesses

Memories can be vivid, emotionally powerful, realistic -- and completely false, researchers reported late Sunday.

The findings could have important implications for evidence presented in court that is based on the testimony of witnesses.

Elizabeth Loftus, professor of psychology at the University of California, Irvine, described studies in which more than one-third of the subjects could be persuaded they had experiences that turned out to be demonstrably false. At a news briefing at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Loftus detailed one study in which college students reviewed several "ads" for Disneyland that featuring Bugs Bunny -- a Warner Brothers cartoon character with no connection to the amusement park.

Afterward, when the students were asked questions about childhood visits they made to Disneyland, 36 percent responded they had met Bugs Bunny there, Loftus reported.

"Many of them described detailed experiences with Bugs, a memory that has to be impossible," she told reporters.

Loftus also found subjects' memories surrounding traumatic events could be manipulated. She and colleagues in Russia documented how approximately 12 percent of study subjects there could be manipulated by interviewers. The subjects later described specific false details -- planted by the interviewers -- about news events, such as a 1999 terrorist bombing in Moscow that killed more than 200 people, and the World Trade Center attack.

The vividness of false memories also can produce intense physiological symptoms similar to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder when relived, said Richard McNally, a psychology professor at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.

McNally said he had 10 individuals, all of whom had claimed to be abducted by aliens, listen to tape recordings of their previous descriptions of the experience. He found their heart rates, levels of sweating and other measures of emotional response paralleled those of individuals who actually had experienced traumatic events in their lives and who listened to their own tape recordings of those experiences.

"If you genuinely believe you've been traumatized, you'll show the same physiological reactions as people who have PTSD," McNally said, adding the individuals who claimed to be abducted showed no signs of mental illness.

He said such persons tended to be interested in so-called New Age beliefs, such as tarot cards and channeling. They also tended to fantasize and experience hypnopompic hallucinations, in which subjects think they have been awakened while dreaming.

Although his research did not deal directly with memory, Joel Weinberger, professor of psychology at Adelphi University in New York, said the controversial practice of flashing subliminal messages on a television screen could influence subjects' attitudes, for example, about political candidates. Subjects who viewed screens where the word "rats" was flashed over political ads later rated the candidates negatively.

"They regarded them as less trustworthy, more fishy, more disgusting," Weinberger said, adding subjects who viewed screens that flashed positive messages did not rate the candidates positively.

Loftus said although fewer than half the subjects in her studies displayed false memories, she argued the effect can be quite persuasive -- even if it is to the subject's detriment. She cited instances in which police interrogators will lie to suspects and cause them to confess to crimes they did not commit.

The false-memory effect can be widespread -- to the point of mass hysteria -- Loftus noted, as in last fall's sniper incidents in Washington, D.C., in which "there was the case of the white van that everyone was searching for that did not exist."


Scientists probe tricks of the mind

Memories can be malleable, researchers tell symposium

DENVER - Whether it's recalling kissing a frog, witnessing a demonic possession or seeing a white van leave a crime scene, humans can be a suggestive bunch.

Researchers described a new generation of research on false memories and the effects of subliminal suggestion during a scientific symposium here Sunday.

The scientists told the American Association for the Advancement of Science that suggestive remarks, subliminal messages and a phenomenon known as sleep paralysis can trick our brains into forming false memories and hallucinations.

"Memory is highly susceptible to distortion and contamination," said University of California-Irvine cognitive psychologist Elizabeth Loftus, a pioneer in false memory research. The sniper attacks around Washington, D.C., last fall, when scores of witnesses became convinced they had seen a white van or panel truck near a shooting scene is just one of the latest notable examples of how eyewitness accounts can prove inaccurate, she said.

Her three decades of research have shown that people can be led to remember rather familiar or common experiences, even when those experiences likely had not occurred, she said.

Much of Loftus's work has focused on false claims of repressed memories of sexual abuse.

She described one recent study in which volunteers carried out a set of actions that mixed common tasks, like flipping a coin, with more unusual behaviour, like crushing a Hershey's kiss with a dental floss container. Later, the researchers told the volunteers to imagine additional things they'd done that day, like kissing a frog. Some days later, the participants were asked to recall their actions on that specific day and 15 per cent insisted they had actually performed some of the actions they'd only imagined doing.

Joel Weinberger, a psychologist at the Derner Institute at Adelphi University, said the science of subliminal stimulation, discredited for allegedly sloppy research four decades ago, has been revisited by a number of researchers in recent years who have found "there is something important going on in subliminal presentations.

"It can affect psychological functioning by biasing perceptions and influencing decisions without the person being aware of it," Weinberger said.

But it's not a matter of tapping the subconscious or influencing buying decisions so much as it is a memory phenomenon.

"Implicit memory and subliminal perception studies are showing that much of human functioning goes on unconsciously," Weinberger said.

He reported on two recent studies, one in which the word "RATS" was flashed before participants being asked to offer their impressions of a hypothetical candidate running for office, with those who saw it forming more negative impressions.

Richard McNally, a psychologist at Harvard Medical School, recruited 10 adults who reported they'd been abducted by space aliens and eight people who denied having been abducted to see what emotional and physical reactions they would have when they listened to their own voices on tapes describing the sexual and medical probes to which they said they'd been subjected on spaceships.

McNally said all the "abductees" had had at least one episode of "sleep paralysis" accompanied by frightening hallucinations upon awakening that were likely the source of the abduction scenarios, although the "abductees" were considered psychiatrically healthy.

The researchers measured heart rate and sweating of the palm while each subject listened to the tapes. All the of self-declared abductees had heightened heart rate and sweating while listening, while the control subjects didn't.

McNally said the study shows that "falsely believing that you've been traumatized can produce intense physiological reactions similar to those associated with genuine traumatic memories. So contrary to what some researchers have suggested, the intensity of an emotional reaction associated with a memory doesn't confirm the authenticity of that memory."