COLUMBIA — A captivated audience of about 250 people packed the seats and aisles of Jesse Wrench Auditorium on Wednesday to learn how memories can be manufactured and planted in people's unsuspecting minds.
Elizabeth Loftus, a distinguished professor at the University of California, Irvine, focused 30 years of research on the malleability of the human memory. She spoke as part of the Distinguished Lecture Series in Psychological Sciences at MU about the potential for implanting false memories to help people create healthy aversions to unhealthy foods or fondness for healthy ones. One of the studies planted memories of being sick after eating certain foods and found subjects no longer wanted to eat that food.
Loftus sat down with the Missourian before the lecture to talk about how misinformation and false memories played a role in the 2005 Ryan Ferguson case. Loftus has written 22 books and more than 500 scientific articles, according to the lecture pamphlet, and often serves as an expert witness on how human memory works. She testified when Ferguson was on trial for the murder of Kent Heitholt, sports editor at the Columbia Daily Tribune.
She said police investigators planted false memories while questioning Ferguson's friend Charles Erickson. He came forward two years after the murder and told police he dreamed he was involved in the murder and later confessed that Ferguson was also involved. He recanted his testimony in 2009.
Q: Do you believe that Ryan Ferguson is innocent?
A: Given the shabby evidence against him it's shocking that he was convicted and it's shocking that he's still in prison.
Q: As an expert witness, you said that you think Charles Erickson's memories are false. Why?
A: There's no credible scientific support for his testimony. To come forward two years later and wonder "did I dream this, did I do this?", and eventually claim to have a full fledged memory that came back ... there's just so many things wrong with the way he described his memory. I've watched the interviews of him. I saw that he didn't have any information at all, and then I saw him being fed information about what might have happened or what did happen, and he adopted those details.
Q: What are the most outrageous examples of leading questions that helped Erickson create false memories when he was being interrogated?
A: It's hard for me to remember all the details after eight years, but there was evidence that he may have had as many as nine to 10 drinks, which means he could have been in almost a blackout type of state. He was like a blank slate on which you could paint any memory that you wanted to paint. Even as few as two to three drinks could affect someone's formation of memory.
Q: Have you done any research in the ensuing years that has strengthened or weakened your conviction that Erickson had false memories implanted?
A: I just think this is an outrage. His claimed memory sent this young man (Ferguson) to prison. Now there's even stronger evidence that entirely false memories of things that didn't happen can be planted into the minds of people. You can also get people to claim to remember that they did bad things, like cheat on a test, all through the power of suggestion.
Q: Not too long ago, two key witnesses recanted their testimonies, and one of them was Erickson. Judge Daniel Green said that Erickson's recantation was false and not credible. What's your response to this?
A: Well, I'm not sure what to make of that. I think that Erickson was wrong both times. I didn't see any evidence that Erickson was there when Heitholt was murdered. It seems to me that both of his stories, the initial confession and his recantation, are not credible.
Q: How do you retain your credibility as a scientist when you are repeatedly paid to be an expert witness?
A: I don't need to be an expert witness — I have ample compensation from my university. I could take it or leave it, but I get involved in these court cases because I believe there's a tremendous benefit to doing so. One is that I'm often helping innocent people, and the other is that I'm gathering all kinds of useful information that can help my teaching and my research. The prosecutor in the Ferguson case tried to insinuate that I'm just a hired gun and only doing it for monetary compensation, but it's just not true.
Q: How many times have you been an expert witness, and how much do you get paid to be an expert witness?
A: I've testified about 280 times since June 3, 1975. It depends on the case. I take pro bono cases here and there and sometimes I can get $5oo an hour for my time.
Q: How hard is it to manipulate someone with a false memory?
The Department of Psychological Sciences will host four more lectures this year as a part of its distinguished lecture series. The next lecture, which will be held from 3 to 5:30 p.m. on Nov. 19 in Jesse Wrench Auditorium, will focus on the effects of media violence on the mind, brain and behavior. There will also be three more lectures next semester.
Supervising editor is Katherine Reed.
The Missourian has published extensive coverage of the Ryan Ferguson case, available for digital subscribers. Several of these articles deal with memory and Loftus' original testimony.