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  • I'd like to tell you about a legal case that I worked on

  • involving a man named Steve Titus.

  • Titus was a restaurant manager.

  • He was 31 years old, he lived in Seattle, Washington,

  • he was engaged to Gretchen,

  • about to be married, she was the love of his life.

  • And one night, the couple went out

  • for a romantic restaurant meal.

  • They were on their way home,

  • and they were pulled over by a police officer.

  • You see, Titus' car sort of resembled

  • a car that was driven earlier in the evening

  • by a man who raped a female hitchhiker,

  • and Titus kind of resembled that rapist.

  • So the police took a picture of Titus,

  • they put it in a photo lineup,

  • they later showed it to the victim,

  • and she pointed to Titus' photo.

  • She said, "That one's the closest."

  • The police and the prosecution proceeded with a trial,

  • and when Steve Titus was put on trial for rape,

  • the rape victim got on the stand

  • and said, "I'm absolutely positive that's the man."

  • And Titus was convicted.

  • He proclaimed his innocence,

  • his family screamed at the jury,

  • his fiancée collapsed on the floor sobbing,

  • and Titus is taken away to jail.

  • So what would you do at this point?

  • What would you do?

  • Well, Titus lost complete faith in the legal system,

  • and yet he got an idea.

  • He called up the local newspaper,

  • he got the interest of an investigative journalist,

  • and that journalist actually found the real rapist,

  • a man who ultimately confessed to this rape,

  • a man who was thought to have committed 50 rapes

  • in that area,

  • and when this information was given to the judge,

  • the judge set Titus free.

  • And really, that's where this case should have ended.

  • It should have been over.

  • Titus should have thought of this as a horrible year,

  • a year of accusation and trial, but over.

  • It didn't end that way.

  • Titus was so bitter.

  • He'd lost his job. He couldn't get it back.

  • He lost his fiancée.

  • She couldn't put up with his persistent anger.

  • He lost his entire savings,

  • and so he decided to file a lawsuit

  • against the police and others whom he felt

  • were responsible for his suffering.

  • And that's when I really started working on this case,

  • trying to figure out

  • how did that victim go from

  • "That one's the closest"

  • to "I'm absolutely positive that's the guy."

  • Well, Titus was consumed with his civil case.

  • He spent every waking moment thinking about it,

  • and just days before he was to have his day in court,

  • he woke up in the morning,

  • doubled over in pain,

  • and died of a stress-related heart attack.

  • He was 35 years old.

  • So I was asked to work on Titus' case

  • because I'm a psychological scientist.

  • I study memory. I've studied memory for decades.

  • And if I meet somebody on an airplane --

  • this happened on the way over to Scotland --

  • if I meet somebody on an airplane,

  • and we ask each other, "What do you do? What do you do?"

  • and I say "I study memory,"

  • they usually want to tell me how they have trouble remembering names,

  • or they've got a relative who's got Alzheimer's

  • or some kind of memory problem,

  • but I have to tell them

  • I don't study when people forget.

  • I study the opposite: when they remember,

  • when they remember things that didn't happen

  • or remember things that were different

  • from the way they really were.

  • I study false memories.

  • Unhappily, Steve Titus is not the only person

  • to be convicted based on somebody's false memory.

  • In one project in the United States,

  • information has been gathered

  • on 300 innocent people,

  • 300 defendants who were convicted of crimes they didn't do.

  • They spent 10, 20, 30 years in prison for these crimes,

  • and now DNA testing has proven

  • that they are actually innocent.

  • And when those cases have been analyzed,

  • three quarters of them

  • are due to faulty memory, faulty eyewitness memory.

  • Well, why?

  • Like the jurors who convicted those innocent people

  • and the jurors who convicted Titus,

  • many people believe that memory

  • works like a recording device.

  • You just record the information,

  • then you call it up and play it back

  • when you want to answer questions or identify images.

  • But decades of work in psychology

  • has shown that this just isn't true.

  • Our memories are constructive.

  • They're reconstructive.

  • Memory works a little bit more like a Wikipedia page:

  • You can go in there and change it, but so can other people.

  • I first started studying this constructive memory process

  • in the 1970s.

  • I did my experiments that involved showing people

  • simulated crimes and accidents

  • and asking them questions about what they remember.

  • In one study, we showed people a simulated accident

  • and we asked people,

  • how fast were the cars going when they hit each other?

  • And we asked other people,

  • how fast were the cars going when they smashed into each other?

  • And if we asked the leading "smashed" question,

  • the witnesses told us the cars were going faster,

  • and moreover, that leading "smashed" question

  • caused people to be more likely to tell us

  • that they saw broken glass in the accident scene

  • when there wasn't any broken glass at all.

  • In another study, we showed a simulated accident

  • where a car went through an intersection with a stop sign,

  • and if we asked a question that insinuated it was a yield sign,

  • many witnesses told us they remember seeing a yield sign

  • at the intersection, not a stop sign.

  • And you might be thinking, well, you know,

  • these are filmed events,

  • they are not particularly stressful.

  • Would the same kind of mistakes be made

  • with a really stressful event?

  • In a study we published just a few months ago,

  • we have an answer to this question,

  • because what was unusual about this study

  • is we arranged for people to have a very stressful experience.

  • The subjects in this study

  • were members of the U.S. military

  • who were undergoing a harrowing training exercise

  • to teach them what it's going to be like for them

  • if they are ever captured as prisoners of war.

  • And as part of this training exercise,

  • these soldiers are interrogated in an aggressive,

  • hostile, physically abusive fashion for 30 minutes

  • and later on they have to try to identify

  • the person who conducted that interrogation.

  • And when we feed them suggestive information

  • that insinuates it's a different person,

  • many of them misidentify their interrogator,

  • often identifying someone who doesn't even remotely

  • resemble the real interrogator.

  • And so what these studies are showing

  • is that when you feed people misinformation

  • about some experience that they may have had,

  • you can distort or contaminate or change their memory.

  • Well out there in the real world,

  • misinformation is everywhere.

  • We get misinformation

  • not only if we're questioned in a leading way,

  • but if we talk to other witnesses

  • who might consciously or inadvertently feed us

  • some erroneous information,

  • or if we see media coverage about some event we might have experienced,

  • all of these provide the opportunity

  • for this kind of contamination of our memory.

  • In the 1990s, we began to see

  • an even more extreme kind of memory problem.

  • Some patients were going into therapy with one problem --

  • maybe they had depression, an eating disorder --

  • and they were coming out of therapy

  • with a different problem.

  • Extreme memories for horrific brutalizations,

  • sometimes in satanic rituals,

  • sometimes involving really bizarre and unusual elements.

  • One woman came out of psychotherapy

  • believing that she'd endured years

  • of ritualistic abuse, where she was forced into a pregnancy

  • and that the baby was cut from her belly.

  • But there were no physical scars

  • or any kind of physical evidence

  • that could have supported her story.

  • And when I began looking into these cases,

  • I was wondering,

  • where do these bizarre memories come from?

  • And what I found is that most of these situations

  • involved some particular form of psychotherapy.

  • And so I asked,

  • were some of the things going on in this psychotherapy --

  • like the imagination exercises

  • or dream interpretation,

  • or in some cases hypnosis,

  • or in some cases exposure to false information --

  • were these leading these patients

  • to develop these very bizarre,

  • unlikely memories?

  • And I designed some experiments

  • to try to study the processes that were being used

  • in this psychotherapy so I could study

  • the development of these very rich false memories.

  • In one of the first studies we did,

  • we used suggestion,

  • a method inspired by the psychotherapy we saw in these cases,

  • we used this kind of suggestion

  • and planted a false memory

  • that when you were a kid, five or six years old,

  • you were lost in a shopping mall.

  • You were frightened. You were crying.

  • You were ultimately rescued by an elderly person

  • and reunited with the family.

  • And we succeeded in planting this memory

  • in the minds of about a quarter of our subjects.

  • And you might be thinking, well,

  • that's not particularly stressful.

  • But we and other investigators have planted

  • rich false memories of things that were

  • much more unusual and much more stressful.

  • So in a study done in Tennessee,

  • researchers planted the false memory

  • that when you were a kid, you nearly drowned

  • and had to be rescued by a life guard.

  • And in a study done in Canada,

  • researchers planted the false memory

  • that when you were a kid,

  • something as awful as being attacked by a vicious animal

  • happened to you,

  • succeeding with about half of their subjects.

  • And in a study done in Italy,

  • researchers planted the false memory,

  • when you were a kid, you witnessed demonic possession.

  • I do want to add that it might seem

  • like we are traumatizing these experimental subjects

  • in the name of science,

  • but our studies have gone through thorough evaluation

  • by research ethics boards

  • that have made the decision

  • that the temporary discomfort that some

  • of these subjects might experience in these studies

  • is outweighed by the importance of this problem

  • for understanding memory processes

  • and the abuse of memory that is going on

  • in some places in the world.

  • Well, to my surprise,

  • when I published this work and began to speak out

  • against this particular brand of psychotherapy,

  • it created some pretty bad problems for me:

  • hostilities, primarily from the repressed memory therapists,

  • who felt under attack,