False Memories — Criminal Trials and Simple Errors in Recall

False Memory and criminal cases are not two things I would immediately put together, like the trial for the murder of Susan Nason. However, after a basic understanding, there’s no doubt that these two go hand in hand often. But false memories also can occur on a daily basis. That is why they are so interesting, it can lead to a murder trial, or just a random memory of an event that did not happen

False memories are defined as a belief about one’s past that is not correct. These usually are events that people are aware of. They hear it or read it and then a person believes it happens to them. Even some people can be tricked with images. Since memory is reconstructive, nothing is set in stone. We have some suggestibility and sometimes all we may need to verify whether an event happened, is just some familiarity. If a retrieval cue seems familiar to us, if we were exposed to it somehow before, we are more likely to assume the event happened. In the late 1980’s, a woman by the name of Eileen Franklin-Lipsker felt a surge of memories come back to her as she was looking at her daughter (Bryce, 2017). Lipsker was flooded with memories of her father raping her friend, Susan Nason, who was later found dead (Bryce, 2017). Lipsker called the cops and her father gets prosecuted. The court calls the one and only, Elizabeth Loftus, to act as an expert witness (Bryce, 2017). Elizabeth Loftus is a cognitive psychologist. She is an expert on memory.  Loftus asks Lipsker numerous times on how she recounted the memory and told the court that there were many versions (Bryce, 2017). Interestingly, her sibling testified, saying that “her sister had recovered the memories during hypnotherapy sessions that she had been attending to alleviate the depression she had suffered from since her teens”(Bryce, 2017). Loftus believes this is where the false memory came from, and with that, the court released Lipskers’ father (Bryce, 2017). False memories are usually created when there is a high level of suggestibility, and that makes perfect sense in Lipskers case. One may believe Lipskers’ memories were just repressed, because repressed memories happen, are forgotten, and remembered again. This does sound a lot like what happened here, but the fact that Loftus noted that Lipsker told the story of her remembering so many different ways, leads to the idea that maybe the event did not happen, especially since false memories can be implanted. Like her sister explained, Lipsker actually ‘recovered’ these memories in hypnotherapy, so the reliability of them is low. Since her testimony was based on the recollection that happened in her adult years, the case was thrown out. 

False Memory cases are not always that severe. Three experimenters, Seamon, Philbin, and Harrison, wanted to continue the work of Roediger and Loftus so they did some experiments. The experimenters walked kids around campus and either described some events for the students to imagine, or they actually acted some out (Laney and Loftus, 2013). Findings show that after two weeks, the subjects had trouble distinguishing what happened versus what they were told by the experimenters (Laney and Loftus, 2013). False memory can be easily acquired. 

I personally think both examples are so interesting. How can one just suddenly remember such incriminating evidence, but then have different recollections of how she remembered that information. If it were me, I would not be able to get that horrifying moment out of my mind. How even her sister knew when and where she was when that memory surfaced. False memory can be incriminating, or they can also mean nothing at all. The amount of suggestibility at play is astounding. 

https://web.colby.edu/cogblog/2017/12/12/pay-attention-divided-attention-impairs-memory-processes/ 

https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/0081246313484236

https://www.wired.co.uk/article/false-memory-syndrome-false-confessions-memories

2 thoughts on “False Memories — Criminal Trials and Simple Errors in Recall

  1. ellsonke

    Repressed memory is difficult for me personally to believe, because I have never reacted that way in traumatic or stressful situations (although I’ve never been in a situation like hers). I’d be interested in seeing just how varied her retellings of the story were. With the thought that repressed memories are a real thing in mind, I’d imagine that her story might change as she remembered more and more.
    If that really is a false memory, it certainly testifies to the power of memory and confidence in that she was so confident that this event occurred, she went so far as to accuse her own father of rape and murder.
    I know that there has also been some debate about whether testimony recovered via hypnosis is presentable in courts.

  2. wharris2

    I found the Lipsker case very interesting because I recently had a past memory come back to me during a therapy session. It strengthened my belief that repressed memories are real, but at the same time I sometimes question how much of what I remember really happened and how much of what I remembered is just an implanted false memory. It raises important questions about the reliance of repressed memories especially when it comes to court trials.

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