“This issue has been studied exhaustively for thirty years.” — A letter from Elizabeth Loftus to New York Magazine, and Their Reply
These letters are part of a set of letters issued to New York Magazine in response to their reporting on false memory and repressed memory. For greater context, and to see all letters, please start here.
“This issue has been studied exhaustively for thirty years.”
A letter from Dr. Elizabeth Loftus.
January 13, 2021
To the Editor:
Since neither Katie Heaney nor New York Magazine’s fact checkers saw fit to contact me for confirmation of the allegations in her article “The Memory War”, I would like to report her mistakes here:
1. Heaney’s description of the Eileen Franklin case is inaccurate. Franklin’s conviction was overturned not because of the hypnosis issue, but for other reasons — for instance, the defense was barred from presenting news coverage of the case that would have shown that the rich details of daughter’s memory were in the public domain.
2. Heaney’s assertions/insinuations about my testimony in the Weinstein trial are misleading. This is what I actually said, not what people thought I said:
Q: So doctor, you are not here today to testify about the credibility or lack thereof of any witness in this case is that correct?
A: That is correct.
Q: And we have not asked you to testify about that any particular memory is true or false or credible or mistaken, is that correct?
A: That is correct.
Q: We have simply asked you to explain to the jury how the human memory operates ….. A: That is correct. (p .3190 of trial transcript)
3. Heaney says I explained (in the Weinstein case) how false memories could be implanted and believed, citing the mall study as evidence. In fact, I was asked for examples of “upsetting things that have been implanted” in my research, and I started with the mall study as the first. My description was only a few sentences in a long transcript. Later I mentioned one of the many confirming studies, a Canadian study showing false memories for committing a crime as a teenager.
Heaney writes: “When Loftus says ‘about a quarter’ of people can be made to believe false memories that are externally implanted, she is citing a figure that originated with the six subjects in the mall study.” This is inaccurate and wrong. I have said about a quarter of the subjects in the mall study developed a partial or complete false memory. I have never said that a quarter of all people “can be made to believe false memories” based on this small study.
4. Heaney cites Kathy Pezdek’s enema study where no subject remembered getting a rectal enema. But Heaney fails to mention the later study by Hart & Schooler showing that suggestion did lead to increased confidence in having had an enema. In discussing Pezdek’s enema study, Heaney writes: “The typical response was ‘No fucking way. That didn’t happen,’ says Kathy Pezdek.” In Heaney’s podcast you actually hear Pezdek’s voice, saying “The typical response was ‘no fucking way.” I challenge them both to provide proof that even one single subject actually uttered that remark. Subjects do not “typically” say “fucking” to an experimenter, and in tens of thousands of examples I’ve never heard a single one do so. I believe this is a fabricated exaggeration.
5. Heaney describes a 2017 “meta-analysis” (sic) of 8 false memory experiences, reporting that it found “23 percent of subjects accepted the false event ‘to some degree.’” In fact I told her that the “mega-analysis” conducted by Scoboria and colleagues showed that 30% developed a false memory and an additional 23% developed a false belief. Why did she leave out the full description of the findings?
6. Heaney writes about Jim Coan’s role in the “lost in the mall” study. He has vigorously disputed Heaney’s description in a strongly worded facebook post. On January 6, 2021 Dr. Coan posted on facebook “Katie Heaney…appears to have done some creative editing of our phone conversation to make it appear that I’m saying that Elizabeth Loftus’s work is unconvincing and misunderstand, when what I’m ACTUALLY talking about is my five point extra credit assignment in Beth’s class nearly 30 years ago. And things like being misquoted in the service of a shoehorned agenda is what I was referring to when I made my “decades of grief” quip. And the reason I don’t testify about all of this when asked to is that I’m not qualified to do so, not that I think the research is bad or irrelevant.”
7. Finally, Heaney, quoting Brewin, claims that judgments about whether somebody’s got a false memory or not are almost always made by the experimenters and not by the person themselves. “Almost never have they actually asked the person.” This statement is flat wrong. We have many studies where we ask people to characterize their mental experience as a memory, a belief, or something else.
Katie Heaney went into the assignment with a clear bias, as reflected in the title and insinuations in the article — implying that somehow the important work of psychological scientists on memory has been used to let pedophiles and sex offenders off the hook, leading to false exonerations. This issue has been studied exhaustively for thirty years. Every new generation, it seems, forgets history, and forgets science, in digging up the sensational but incorrect claims about repressed memories, and the battle against bias and injustice must be waged again.
University of California, Irvine
“…which is entirely consistent with what we published.”
A response from New York Magazine to Dr. Elizabeth Loftus
January 13, 2021
From: Ted Hart
Cc: Eric Bates, Elissa Cohen
Dear Dr. Loftus,
Thank you for sharing your concerns about our story “The Memory
War.” Katie Heaney considered many sources and perspectives, including
yours, during the year she spent reporting this story, and we thoroughly
fact checked the piece with you and others prior to publication to
ensure its accuracy and fairness.
Several of the points you mention in your letter do not contradict what
we published in any way — they simply raise additional information or
context. While George Franklin’s conviction, for example, was
overturned for a number of reasons, he was released from prison only
after it was revealed that Eileen had undergone hypnosis, which is
entirely consistent with what we published. Similarly, the exchange you
provided about your testimony in the Weinstein trial is not at odds with
anything Heaney wrote.
You also dispute our characterization of comments we quoted from several
other sources, without pointing to anything that casts doubt on their
accuracy. Your claim that Dr. Kathy Pezdek’s comments are a
“fabricated exaggeration” seems to be based on a misreading of what
she said; she was clearly paraphrasing the incredulity of her subjects,
not quoting them directly. Our review of the tape and transcripts of
Heaney’s interview with Dr. Jim Coan confirms that we accurately
conveyed his comments in the story, and that he was referring to the
study itself, as well as to his class assignment. And while you may
disagree with the comment from Dr. Chris Brewin, he clearly has the
appropriate expertise in this field to offer the observation we cite.
Finally, you dispute that you have ever used the mall study to assert
that a quarter of all people can be made to believe false memories. In
the story, however, we say only that the figure “originated with the
six subjects in the mall study.” We then go on to cite the very
mega-analysis that you refer to in your letter, as a way of noting that
the 25 percent figure is not, as you point out, based entirely on your
initial study. Our characterization is also in keeping with your
previous public statements, and with what you told both Heaney and our
In regards to the mega-analysis cited in the story: you are correct in
pointing out that 30 percent of the subjects developed some level of
false memory, in addition to the 23 percent who accepted the false event
to some degree. We regret the oversight, and we will update the story
accordingly to include the additional figure.
Thank you again for the time you gave to Heaney and the fact checker in
the preparation of our story, and for sharing your concerns with us.
Ted Hart, Research Director
New York Magazine is part of Vox Media.