Newswise — Irvine, Calif., July 21, 2020 — Elizabeth F. Loftus, a University of California, Irvine distinguished professor of psychological science and criminology, law and society, has been named this year’s recipient of the Suppes Prize by the American Philosophical Society. And, she is donating the $20,000 award to UCI’s School of Social Ecology, where she has been employed for 18 years.
Honored by the award, especially because it was endowed by her dissertation advisor, the late Patrick Suppes, Loftus says she wants the school to use the funds to create a festive event that would bring a noted speaker to campus to share knowledge and interact with faculty, students and the community.
“I’ve been thinking for a long time that I’d like to start a speaker series,” she says. “This prize is a step toward that vision.”
The prize will be awarded in November at the society’s annual meeting in Philadelphia.
"We congratulate Professor Loftus on her Suppes Prize. Her accomplishments are astonishing and this recognition is well deserved," says Nancy Guerra, dean of UCI’s School of Social Ecology. "We are very grateful to be the recipients of her generous gift and are excited to start planning an Elizabeth Loftus Speaker Series."
The memory doctor
Loftus, dubbed the memory doctor in the award-winning Slate feature about her, has been studying false memories for five decades.
Loftus earned her Ph.D. from Stanford University in 1970, at a time when it was thought that simply asking people questions about an event would trigger the answers. But, she was finding that questions could trick people into wrong answers, and could even create false memories. She would go on to conduct hundreds of studies showing how people develop memories of things that never happened.
“Thanks to her ingenuity and persistence, the witch hunts of the recovered-memory era subsided,” William Saletan writes in the Slate article. “I was shaken, as others have been, by her research on memory's fallibility.”
Loftus is renowned for her groundbreaking work in the malleability of human memory. Her groundbreaking work is on the “misinformation effect” – in which the memories of eyewitnesses are altered by exposure to incorrect information about events. She has proven that memories can be implanted or manipulated by things we are told: facts, ideas, suggestions and other post-event information. Based on more than 350 U.S. prisoners freed after DNA analysis, the most common reason for wrongful conviction is faulty eyewitness testimony.
Because of her work over the past 50 years, Loftus, who is the recipient of the international John Maddox Prize for courage in promoting science and evidence in a matter of public interest, has become one of the most influential and most controversial psychologists ever.
She got involved in her first court case in 1973, when she was a faculty member at the University of Washington. She volunteered as a memory expert on a Seatle murder trial that hinged on conflicting memories over how much time had elapsed for premeditation. The defendant was acquitted.
Soon, defense lawyers nationwide started calling her and she has testified in or provided counsel for hundreds of cases, including the McMartin preschool molestation case, the trials of Harvey Weinstein, Oliver North, Ted Bundy, O.J. Simpson, the Menendez brothers, the officers accused in the Rodney King beating, Michael Jackson, Martha Stewart, Scooter Libby and the Duke University Lacrosse players. She recently was called to testify in the murder trial of multimillionaire New York real estate heir Robert Durst, which has been postponed over fears of the transmission of COVID-19.
Testifying on such high-profile and controversial cases has brought on a good deal of antagonism in the form of insults, death threats, hate mail and lawsuits. She’s even been disinvited to speak at a conference. But, she endures and plans to continue to stand up for science.
Like she wrote in a Psychology Today essay in 2003: “I've discovered some difficult truths: namely that memory can be changed, inextricably altered, and that what we think we know, what we believe with all our hearts, is not necessarily the truth.”
Loftus’ book, “Eyewitness Testimony,” won a National Media Award (Distinguished Contribution) from the American Psychological Foundation. Her other honors and awards, including seven honorary doctorates, are numerous. The following is a partial list:
- In 2001, she won the William James Fellow Award from the Association for Psychological Science for “ingeniously and rigorously designed research studies…that yielded clear objective evidence on difficult and controversial questions.”
- In 2002, a study published by the Review of General Psychology identified the 100 most eminent psychologists of the 20th century, and Loftus was No. 58, the highest-ranking woman on the list. Topping the list were famed psychologists Sigmund Freud, B.F. Skinner, and Jean Piaget.
- In 2004, she was elected to the National Academy of Sciences.
- In 2005, she won the $200,000 Grawemeyer Prize in Psychology to honor ideas of “great significance and impact.”
- In 2006, she was elected to the American Philosophical Society, the oldest learned society in the United States, established in 1745 by Benjamin Franklin.
- In 2010, she received the Warren Medal from the Society of Experimental Psychologists for “significant contributions to the understanding of the phenomenology of human memory, especially its fragility and vulnerability to distortion.” She also received the 2010 Scientific Freedom and Responsibility Award from the American Association for the Advancement of Science for “the profound impact that her pioneering research on human memory has had on the administration of justice in the United States and abroad.”
- In 2012, she received the University of California, Irvine Medal for “exceptional contributions to the vision, mission, and spirit of UC Irvine.”
- In 2013, she received the Gold Medal Award for Lifetime Achievement in Science from the American Psychological Foundation for “extraordinary contributions to our understanding of memory during the past 40 years that are remarkable for their creativity and impact.”
- In 2015, she received the Cornell University gave her its Lifetime Achievement in Human Development, Law & Psychology Award “in recognition of a distinguished career of pioneering contributions in legal applications of psychological research.”
- In 2019, she received the Lifetime Achievement Award for Psychology from Australian National University.
Among Loftus’ research projects are studies on fake news.
With collaborators in the Netherlands, Loftus recently published a study showing that people who are high on cannabis are more likely to form false memories, in which they wrongly ‘remember’ information that they never actually learned or recall bits of events that never happened.
This is important, Loftus says, because “it educates scientists about an additional factor that is able to lead to the false memory effect. There are also practical implications for the police and others who do investigations of crimes and accidents and are confronted by people possibly under the influence of cannabis.”
Another study involves planting false information in the minds of Irish voters. That research, a collaboration between several psychologists at UCI and two in Ireland, was published in August in Psychological Science. It concluded that voters may form false memories after seeing fabricated news stories, especially if those stories align with their political beliefs. Though conducted in the week preceding the 2018 referendum on legalizing abortion in Ireland, the research suggest that fake news is likely to have similar effects in other political contexts, including the U.S. presidential race in 2020.
“People will act on their fake memories, and it is often hard to convince them that fake news is fake,” Loftus says. “With the growing ability to make news incredibly convincing, how are we going to help people avoid being misled?”
About the University of California, Irvine: Founded in 1965, UCI is the youngest member of the prestigious Association of American Universities. The campus has produced three Nobel laureates and is known for its academic achievement, premier research, innovation and anteater mascot. Led by Chancellor Howard Gillman, UCI has more than 36,000 students and offers 222 degree programs. It’s located in one of the world’s safest and most economically vibrant communities and is Orange County’s second-largest employer, contributing $5 billion annually to the local economy. For more on UCI, visit www.uci.edu.
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