Elizabeth Loftus was born in Los Angeles, California on 16th October 1944.Although she was planning to become a maths teacher, whilst at UCLA she discovered psychology, it was there that she achieved her BA in both maths and psychology She then went on to Graduate school at Stanford and received her M.A in 1967 and also her PhD in 1970 both in psychology. It was while at Stanford that Elizabeth became interested in long term memory and this led her into research how the mind classifies and remembers information and then recalls it. Elizabeth is known worldwide as a cognitive psychologist who works in the specialized field of memory.
Psychologists who use the cognitive approach are mainly interested in the way that we perceive process and store information. The cognitive process can be divided into five different processes, perception, attention, memory, language, and studying the way that we think. Cognitive psychologists see psychology as a science and most studies are done in laboratories under controlled conditions. There is now a method of interviewing based on four main principles that helps to improve eye witness memory recalls. This was devised by cognitive psychologists (geiselman et al ) and he called this the cognitive interview. The main principles are;
* Witnesses are encouraged to think back and recall immediately preceding events, their moods and actions. The witnesses to mentally reinstate the environment at the time the event occurred.
* To encourage the witness to report back every detail no matter how trivial.
* Ask the witness to describe the event in different order, both forward and backward.
* Ask the witness to describe from different viewpoints (e.g. what they would have seen from across the road).
Research began whilst Elizabeth was employed as assistant professor at the University of Washington. In the 1970’s she started to research on traumatically repressed memories and sexual abuse stories. This research included the reliability of eye witness testimonies in a court of law. She believed that some eye witness accounts are based on false memories which have been suggested, implanted, created in the mind. Research took her into the courtroom to testify in over 200 trials as an expert on the unreliability of eye witness statements and defending accused offenders. Her trials have included Ted Bundy and George Franklin.
Elizabeth Loftus states that” the most horrifying idea is that what we believe with all our hearts is not necessarily the truth.” (Loftus, 1996, AU: Neimark) Her own theories were put to the test and confirmed. When Elizabeth was fourteen years old her mother died by drowning in the family swimming pool. Thirty years later her uncle confirmed that Elizabeth had been the first on the seen to find her dead mother. The memories and pictures of finding her mother dead came flooding back. Soon after her uncle said that he had made a mistake and it was her aunt that had found her mother and not Elizabeth.
In 1974 Loftus and Palmer studied the effect that wording of questions has on the responses of eye witnesses. Forty five student participants were used for the experiment and broken up in to five groups of nine people. Each group were then shown the same short film involving a car crash and were then given a questionnaire to answer after.
The only difference was the wording of one question with surprising results, this question was, How fast were the cars going when they…………….other? The different groups had different words inserted into the blank space. The words were smashed into, connected with, collided with, bumped into and hit. Loftus and Palmer found that even though participants had seen exactly the same film, the words used in the question affected the estimates given for the speed. When the word smashed was used in the question, the average estimate of the speed was 41mph, but if the word connected was used the average estimate speed was 31mph.This experiment show how witness reports may be biased by subtle word changes.
Therefore a second experiment was conducted; the same participants were brought back one week later and questioned about the existence of broken glass at the scene of the accident on the video of the car crash. Again the when the group were asked the questions the words smashed, connected, collided, bumped or hit were used. The results showed that if the word smashed was used in the question then participants were more likely to say that they had seen some glass at the accident(32% of participants).T hose participants that had received the word hit in their questioning were less likely to have seen some glass(14% of participants).
Elizabeth Loftus suggests that our memory may be altered over time and there may be a number of reasons for this. We may alter our recollection to fit in with what we believe to be true or to make things make sense. Other research shows we can alter our memory to fit in with stereotypes we might have. Although witnesses cannot always be easily misled, you cannot always put words into witnesses mind for example if the information is blatantly incorrect. Loftus 1979 did experiments to prove this fact.
In one experiment participants saw a film showing a man stealing a red wallet from a woman’s bag. When ask questions on this event 98% answered correctly that the purse had been red. They then read a written statement of the event containing wrong information that the purse had been brown. The final test showed that all but two of the participants continued to resist the wrong information and continue to remember the purse as being red. Loftus concluded that memory for obviously important information which is correctly perceived at the time is not easily distorted. The colour of the purse was remembered correctly because the purse was the focus of the event.
In conclusion the fact that eye witness testimonies continue to be so hit and miss are a source of problems for the police and courts of law. Eye witnesses cannot totally be relied on to give correct accounts of events.