The Memory Doctor

Truth or Consequences?

Exploiting psychology in law and advertising.

By the turn of the century, Elizabeth Loftus was the world’s most influential debunker of false memories. She had rescued defendants from mistaken eyewitness testimony and from the pedophile witch hunt of the repressed-memory movement. But two dangers lurked at the core of her work. She was learning more and more about how to manipulate beliefs. And her allegiance to truth was negotiable.

In 1989, when the Chinese government tried to alter memories of the Tiananmen Square massacre, Loftus used her knowledge of brainwashing to expose the deception. (For more on this episode and her writings on politics, see George Orwell’s 1989.) In the case of Jane Doe, an alleged victim of child abuse, Loftus risked her career to find out what had really happened. (See Memory and Truth: The Mystery of Jane Doe.) And in her books about witness testimony and repressed memory, she drew her moral power from truth. She wrote with dismay of the “horrifying idea that our memories can be changed, inextricably altered, and that what we think we know, what we believe with all our hearts, is not necessarily the truth.” Witness for the Defense, pp. 149-150”>  Quoting a fellow psychologist, she warned readers not “to accept a false reality as truth, for that is the very essence of madness.” The Myth of Repressed Memory, p. 174”>  Memory was truth’s guardian, and Loftus was memory’s guardian.

Click image to read about Loftus’ work on politics and photographic tampering.

But this picture, too, was part myth. Alongside the official story of her career, there was a shadow story. Loftus never believed in the absolute sanctity of truth or memory. She believed that memory, through wishful thinking, constantly modified itself. People remembered themselves as having given more to charity than they really had. They mentally airbrushed their behavior in marriages and relationships. They minimized what they had lost and embellished what they had chosen.

Like the clipped-on portions of Loftus’ adolescent diary, memories could be conveniently adjusted. And this rewriting of history was no perversion. It seemed to Loftus such a common tendency that it must be a product of evolution. In short, it was natural. Its function, she surmised, was to promote happiness or, at least, to avoid depression. And this theory matched her reflections about her own life and the lives of her friends: Often, happiness was more important than truth.

Loftus on jury selection and strategy, 1987

In court, Loftus never consciously faced this question. There, she believed, truth and happiness overlapped. False memories on the witness stand sent innocent people to jail, and this terrible consequence was unacceptable. But her faith in the rightness of her cause sometimes numbed her to the manipulative games defense lawyers played. In fact, Loftus was very good at these games. And, for a while, she played them. She left truth to fend for itself.

The most important game was jury selection. As attorneys became familiar with Loftus’ expertise in psychology, they recruited her to be a jury consultant. Her job was to present the anticipated prosecution and defense arguments, in summary form, to several hundred people. Each respondent had to render a verdict. It was like political polling, but with a twist: Using the respondents’ demographic data—age, occupation, sex, race, income—the consultant would compute which kinds of jurors the defense should seek or exclude. On a few occasions in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Loftus did such work. She didn’t love it, but she didn’t refuse it, either.

In articles for legal journals, she deployed her expertise in juror psychology and her knowledge of how to alter beliefs. She counseled attorneys on jury selection eliminate better-educated jurors who could serve as leaders in arguments against their clients.”

Loftus wasn’t a mercenary. She was just good at calculating the angles, and she didn’t think anything terrible was at stake. The same was true of her work on advertising. In 1976, the Federal Trade Commission asked her to assess the power of ads to mislead consumers. She astutely dissected marketers’ tactics, but she was equally capable of teaching them. A few years after the FTC job, an ad agency hired her to figure out how to get people to remember its client’s product. There was nothing sneaky about the assignment. It was just a chance to use her talents and enjoy being wined and dined.

Loftus didn’t care about ad consulting, so she didn’t pursue it. But by the mid-1990s, her work on memory distortion was well-known, and others could see its business value. In 1996, she was approached by Kathryn Braun, a doctoral student in marketing. Starting in 1997, they collaborated on several articles about advertising’s power to alter memories. They called this power insidious, warned that people should be educated about it, and stipulated that they didn’t support intentional editing of consumers’ pasts. But they also highlighted the “managerial opportunities” it presented.

Braun, Loftus, and their co-authors always disavowed deception. Yet they spelled out, for readers of Psychology & Marketing and the Journal of Advertising, exactly how their findings could be exploited. They analyzed which recollections were “better suited for memory revision“: childhood memories in the case of Disney, college memories in the case of beer. They noted that since memory was fallible and malleable, advertisers could win back consumers who thought they’d had bad experiences with their products. From the advertiser’s standpoint, they wrote, “you want the consumer to be involved enough that they process the false information” but “not so involved that … they notice the discrepancy between the advertising information and their own experience.”

The fake Mickey Mouse ad used by Loftus, 2002

To illustrate the technique, Loftus and Braun drew up fake “Remember the Magic” print ads for Disney theme parks. The ads reminded readers of the parks’ sights and sounds: Cinderella’s castle, Space Mountain, meeting Mickey Mouse.

The researchers showed these ads to a group of college students, while other students saw a non-Disney ad instead. To ensure that the Disney ads wouldn’t trigger true memories of shaking Mickey’s hand, the researchers screened out students who reported up front that they had met a TV character at a theme park.

Of the students who were shown an ad featuring happy memories of meeting Mickey, 90 percent later reported increased confidence that this event had happened or might have happened to them. That was twice the percentage who reported such an increase in the control group. And compared with the control group, those who saw the Disney ad were significantly more likely to say that they fondly remembered visiting the park and that such visits had been central to their childhoods. Many who saw a different version featuring Bugs Bunny were convinced that they had met him at Disneyland, even though this was impossible, since he was a Warner Bros. character. (See Part 4.)

In a subsequent article for the Cornell Hotel and Restaurant Administration Quarterly, Loftus, Braun, and Braun’s husband (Braun, having added her husband’s surname, was now Kathryn Braun-LaTour) demonstrated “how to employ reconstructed memory to help restore a brand damaged by a crisis.” Using similar mock ads, they planted recollections of happy childhood visits to Wendy’s: playing on the slide, jumping in the ball pit, swinging on the swing sets. These recollections couldn’t be true, since Wendy’s had never had such equipment. Compared with subjects who were shown an ad offering a free Frosty, those who were shown the happy-childhood ads reported that they had visited and enjoyed Wendy’s more as children, including the fictional Wendy’s Playland. The authors concluded that “it is better to engage consumers emotionally after a crisis situation than to appeal to their rational side.”

The fake Wendy’s ad used by Loftus, 2006

If Loftus didn’t condone memory tampering, why was she explaining how to do it? In part, she was just doing as she had been trained. You had to get published, and publishers wanted value for their readers. When you wrote for therapy journals, you offered advice to therapists. When you wrote for legal journals, you offered advice to lawyers. When you wrote for advertising journals, you offered advice to advertisers. That was how the game was played.

But Loftus was more than a trainee. She was a trainer. She had learned how to make people remember and believe things, and this knowledge was as useful to advertisers as it was to lawyers. Her only qualm about manipulation was that people might be harmed. And advertising didn’t strike her as terribly harmful. Most advertisers, she and her colleagues noted, were “unlikely to try to plant a negative memory, as has been the issue with false memories of childhood abuse.”

That was why Loftus treated advertisers more kindly than she treated recovered-memory therapists. The therapists’ motives might be better, but the memories they planted were worse. Welfare, not honesty, was her god.

But in that case, what if you could help people by deceiving them?

In her curious mind, the idea was already brewing.

Next: The Road to Therapy

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