Memory Researcher Elizabeth Loftus And Her Contributions To The Legal System

Legal SystemThroughout the years she dedicated to memory research, Elizabeth Loftus was trying to discover the unreliability of memory when emotions are involved and her research might finally have an impact in the U.S. legal system. Loftus’ work suggests that eyewitness testimonies might not reflect what actually has taken place. Another aspect she has been studying is the change in behavior caused by these memories. We asked our Zintro experts if and how her research could affect the legal system.

Forensic trial expert, Dean Tong emphasizes the importance of having declarants with reliable and valid memories, since the legal system usually handles res gestae cases of delayed memory recall. “Memory is encoded, stored, retrieved and then reported. It is incumbent upon our entire child protection system, including attorneys, judges and juries to glean whether or not out-of-court statements made by a complaining witness are the product of recognition memory or autobiographical free recall memory. Clearly, Dr. Elizabeth Loftus, a pioneer in the field of memory and suggestability, has caused the legal system to examine more closely the reliability of witness’ testimony,” notes Tong. “In fact, one of her recently co-authored studies looked at the close relationship between misinformation disseminated to in childhood and their resultant long-term adult false memories.” As Tong also pointed out, Loftus’ work has made judges in contested civil and criminal cases order hearings to find out whether there’s a legal basis to find witness’ testimony impaired. “The same can be said in criminal cases when a jury is the fact-finder, and a memory expert articulates to the jury that perhaps due to poor source monitoring in the case, the declarant’s statements may be the product of contamination,” he adds.

Rita Carter, an expert in psychology and neuroscience, doesn’t agree that Loftus’ research will likely have an impact on the legal system. “Legal hearings are adversarial and it’s unlikely that advocates would explain in full to a jury the complex findings about falsified and recovered memories. They will just chuck the bare bones of it around as crude weaponry as in ‘Your witness made it up!’ and ‘Science proves it’. Witness testimony is bound to be distorted by attentional glitches, perceptional biases, prejudice, expectation and emotion. That’s before it even gets into memory,” Carter explains. “Loftus’ work is an important part of this but it should not be taken out of context. If the legal system is to benefit from this work, jurors and judges need a clear, unbiased lesson about it shortly before they are called to assess evidence. Another finding about memory is that we forget counterintuitive information very quickly.”

< type="mce-text/javascript">//  Zintro has experts in every industry sector, across every job function, in every geographic region. Recently, some of the following topics have seen inquiry activity: