Ten days ago, Slate Magazine conducted an experiment
modeled on the Ministry of Truth
in George Orwell's 1984: they asked readers to look at eight photographs of notable political moments from the past decade and share their memories about each. Over 5,000 people participated in the first three days, but what they didn’t know was that four of the pictures were significantly doctored, and one was totally fabricated.How they did it
. The results of the study are discussed in the first part
of an ongoing eight-part series titled The Memory Doctor
. Written by William Saletan (previously
, more recently
), the series explores the life and work of psychologist and memory expert Elizabeth Loftus
and raises questions about what we think we remember and how our memory is and might be used by therapists, lawyers, advertisers and governments.
Very brief TL;DR of the first five parts of the series:
“We altered four images, took a fifth out of context, and mixed these five fake scenes (which involved Joe Lieberman, Dick Cheney, George W. Bush, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama), with three real ones. Half of our readers who participated in the experiment remembered the fabricated episodes as true, and when they were asked to guess which of the four incidents they had seen was fake, 37 percent picked the wrong one.” These figures are consistent with previous findings in memory-implanting experiments: "the average rate of false memories is about 30 percent, but when visual images are used to substantiate the bogus memories, the numbers can increase."
The entirely fabricated picture of Obama shaking hands with Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
in 2009 elicited the most interesting memories
The study was based on the work of Elizabeth Loftus, a woman with a painful past
who switched from studying math to memory and went on to testify as a memory expert in over 250 court hearings and trials (including those of Oliver North, O.J. Simpson, Michael Jackson and the Unabomber). Her studies have demonstrated the gullibility and fallibility of eyewitness memories and coached testimony
, and debunked the credibility of repressed childhood memories
in many criminal trials. She also used her knowledge of brainwashing to expose the Chinese government's attempts to suppress memories of the Tiananmen Square massacre.
Yet Loftus has also conducted studies to engineer memories (such as giving people false memories of being healthy eaters as children), counseled attorneys
on jury selection and coaching economists as expert-witnesses to win bigger damage awards. She worked for the FTC to assess the power of advertising to mislead consumers and then for an advertising agency to help them figure out how to make their products more memorable.
She worries about false memories being used to harm people (as in the case of convictions based on testimony about childhood abuse), debunks recovered-memory therapists, but also believes that advertising isn’t terribly harmful - and that memory engineering can be used for good.
"Loftus never believed in the absolute sanctity of truth or memory. She believed that memory, through wishful thinking, constantly modified itself... And this rewriting of history was no perversion. It seemed to Loftus such a common tendency that it must be a product of evolution. In short, it was natural. Its function, she surmised, was to promote happiness or, at least, to avoid depression... Often, happiness was more important than truth."