Elizabeth F. Loftus

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Elizabeth Loftus

Grawemeyer winner conducts 'memorable' research
Renowned psychologist presents findings to university audience

Staff Writer

April 05, 2005


World-renowned research psychologist Elizabeth Loftus presented her findings to U of L students and faculty last Wednesday as part of preparation for the annual Grawemeyer Awards.

Loftus, who drew international attention for her research on the ability of human memory to be altered, accepted the Grawemeyer Award for Psychology the next day.

“It’s a huge, huge thrill,” Loftus said. “It’s the biggest prize in psychology and it’s a tremendous honor to have this award, especially when I see some of the biggest names in psychology have won this award in the past.”

The University of Louisville Grawemeyer Awards have been presented annually since 1985 in the categories of education, improving world order, music composition, psychology and religion. The psychology award was added in 2000. Former winners in the field of psychology include Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman and Aaron Beck, who is credited with developing the system of psychotherapy.

Charles Grawemeyer founded the awards in 1984. Grawemeyer graduated from U of L in Chemical Engineering but he wanted to support the liberal arts and started the awards to honor important ideas rather than overall career work or famous achievements. After winning both the Nobel Prize and the Grawemeyer Award, Kahneman said he felt the latter was more important.

“I think we have a lot to be proud of here at U of L, and the Grawemeyer celebration is yet another indicator of that excellence that we all strive for,” said Dennis Molfese, chair and professor of the Psychological and Brain Sciences department.

The award winners each receive $200,000. While Loftus joked during her presentation that one of her first congratulatory calls came from a friend asking to borrow some money, she says she has already begun putting the money to good use by donating to psychological research at the University of California. Loftus teaches psychology and social behavior at the University of California-Irvine.

“Dr. Elizabeth Loftus readily earned this award for her work into the notion of repressed memories,” Molfese said. “Her visit to U of L brings one of the top scientists in psychology in the world to our campus.”

During her presentation, Loftus argued that many people have been wrongly convicted of crimes because of faulty memories from witnesses. Her research shows how adding incorrect details to true events in a person’s childhood can change the way people think of their past. She has managed to convince subjects that during their childhood they experienced trauma, rode in a hot-air balloon or visited Mount Rushmore by showing them false psychological profiles pointing toward certain childhood causes or by simply editing childhood photographs. Afterwards, many subjects created elaborate stories around their false memories.

“Even false memories have a lot of sensory details in them,” Loftus said.

In one experiment, some subjects became convinced they had seen Bugs Bunny, a Warner Brothers character, at Disneyland during a childhood vacation after Loftus created a flier with Bugs standing in front of a sign for Disney.

“I would like to meet the people who don’t believe this research,” said Patrick Gabbard, a junior who had already read Loftus’ work. “It seems blatantly obvious with her research that memories can be changed.”

Loftus has had her share of critics though, which she addressed during her emotional acceptance speech on Thursday. She said she has had death threats aimed toward herself as well as state and government officials because of her work. She also mentioned criticism she has received from newspapers, including The Courier-Journal, which called her the “most controversial” Grawemeyer winner since Mikhail Gorbachev.

“When I began my life work on the fallibility of memory, I had no idea it would one day prove to be such a socially relevant and politically explosive topic,” she said. “But I’m proud of the work I’ve been able to accomplish as a psychological scientist and proud of the people whom I’ve had a chance to help along the way. I’ve learned to accept the hassles as the price that all scientists pay for doing research that matters or that threatens deeply held beliefs.”

While the research may seem controversial to some, many students at the presentation felt Loftus’ research will strongly impact society.

“The research is important because every day we have cases in the court where witnesses think something happened, but it really didn’t,” said freshman Mayra Barcenas.

 end of article dingbat

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