Often considered a highlyinfluential paper within the discipline of psychology and more specificallyeyewitness testimony, Loftus and Palmer (1974) has been cited 1998 times todate. The paper questions whether we can influence and create false memories inhumans through our choice of vocabulary and the way in which questions areasked. Two experiments were carried out which involved participants viewingclips of car crashes and then responding to leading questions.
In this essay, Iwill discuss the extent of what we can learn about the nature of the humanmemory from this paper and consequently how useful it could be considered. One key aspect of memory thatis highlighted well within the paper is its reconstructive nature. The idea ofmemory being reconstructive refers to how we changeinformation when it is encoded in the brain and therefore remember eventsdifferently as a result of various cognitive processes. This idea was firstnoted by Bartlett (1932) who showed how unfamiliarity and also cultural schemascan lead to the creation of false memories. This was achieved by reading anative American story titled ‘War of the Ghost’ to British participants andthen asking them to recall it. Participants changed the story by means of 3processes which were labelled assimilation, levelling and sharpening andinvolved moulding the story to fit with British cultural beliefs with which theparticipants were more familiar. Although focused not on cultural schemas butinstead connotations of words, Loftus and Palmer (1974) also demonstrated thereconstructive nature of memory. In experiment II participants were required towatch a video clip of a multiple car accident and then were asked to estimatethe speed of one car when it either ‘smashed’ or ‘hit’ the others.
One weeklater the participants were asked further questions, including the criticalquestion of “did you see broken glass?”. It was found that those who were askedthe initial question using the word smashed were significantly more likely toreport seeing broken glass in the clip therefore showing how the connotationsof vocabulary used when presented in leading questions can lead the memory toreconstruct events. In this case, participants who were presented with a wordwhich is likely to be part of a more violent schema that being ‘smashed’remembered seeing broken glass when in fact the clip contained no broken glass.This finding was crucial in highlighting the frequent number of inaccuracieswithin eyewitness testimonies and therefore has been useful in many real-lifesituations for the example the 1972 Devlin Report which stated a criminal couldnot be convicted based on eyewitness testimony alone. Loftus and Palmer (1974) tellsus not only how longer-term memories can be reconstructed, as shown inexperiment II, but also how more immediate recollections of events can too bemanipulated. In experiment 1 the participants were also required to watch avideo clip of a car crash and among other questions, to estimate the speed ofthe cars. Participants were asked to give their estimation as part of a writtenquestionnaire and were asked using 1 of 5 critical verbs which varied inintensity; hit, bumped, smashed, collided and contacted.
‘Smashed’, arguablythe most intense verb that was used, elicited the highest mean estimate fromthe participants (40.8mph) and contacted the lowest (31.8mph). This thereforedemonstrates that due to the imperfect nature of the human memory, perceptionof events can become inaccurate when influenced by misleading information. However, when focusing moreclosely on the results of the first experiment, the extent to which the papertells us this could be questioned.
Although the most vivid word of ‘smashed’did elicit the highest estimate, not all of the verbs followed this straightforwardpattern of, the more intense the word the higher the estimate. The thirdhighest estimate was given from participants who were asked using the word’bumped’ (38.1mph), whereas the verb ‘hit’ provoked a response of only 34.0mph.The word ‘hit’ is often considered to have more intense connotations than theword ‘bumped’ which is often regarded as an almost gentle form of collision.
There was also quite a large difference between the third and fourth verbs of’bumped’ and ‘hit’ respectively in comparison to the differences between otherconsecutive verbs. Both of these aspects of the results cannot be explained throughthe simple belief that using a more intense verb manipulates the memory intorecalling a higher estimated speed and therefore the nature of memory may notbe so fallible to word connotations and Loftus and Palmer (1974) could beargued to be over exaggerated. To fully understand what wecan learn about the nature of memory, we have to consider the methodology usedwithin the experiments. To what extent can results obtained from clips tell usabout the nature of memory regarding real-life crimes? 4/7 of the clips usedwithin experiment I were staged crashes and this combined with the fact thatthey were not experienced first-hand in real life and instead may mean that theparticipants reacted differently to how they would in real-life.
Anxiety towardsthe ambiguity of being in a laboratory could have impeded the memory of theparticipants or conversely the fact that they did not have the high levelsarousal associated with viewing a crime (Franks & Miller, 1986) could haveled to an increased memory ability. Yuille and Cutshall (1986) conducted astudy on eyewitnesses to a real-life gun shooting and found that the leadingquestions did not alter the accuracy of the information, for example whenmisinformed about a broken headlight, 10/13 participants still recalled thatthere was no broken headlight. This therefore contradicts what Loftus andPalmer (1974) tells us about the nature of memory and could be viewed as moreuseful due as it was a real-life crime study.
The conclusions to be drawnfrom Loftus and Palmer (1974) regarding the nature of memory could also beinterpreted from a social approach. Often referred to as the response biasexplanation, it could be that the act of giving a higher estimate for moreintense verbs or recalling broken glass is merely a result of socialconformity, arising from informational social influence (Deutsch & Gerard,1955), rather than a result of memory reconstruction. Deutsch and Gerard (1955)draw attention to how humans are likely to copy or be influenced by thebehaviour of others in novel situations where they are unsure of how to behaveor how to answer which is driven by a need to be right.
This idea is amplifiedby the involvement of authority figures. McAllister and Bregman (1982) foundthat when participants overheard speed estimates from confederates who werewearing a uniform, an authoritative symbol, they changed their estimates by a largerextent to fit with the overheard estimate than they did when the confederatewas wearing normal clothes. This shows how authorities can influence eyewitnessreports through indirect pressures and could be a possible explanation for Loftusand Palmer (1974); the experimenter could be viewed as an authority figure andtherefore a participant who thought the car was going very fast or did notremember how fast the car was going at all may lower their estimate whenpresented with the word ‘contacted’ as they believe the car must be going atthis level of intensity as a statement from an authority figure has insinuatedso. Therefore, Loftus and Palmer (1974) may not tell us much about the natureof memory but may instead offer an insight into more social aspects of humanbehaviour. Loftus and Palmer 1974 couldbe argued to elude to an aspect of memory more recently referred to as ‘thesocial contagion of memory’ (Roediger et al.,2001).
This refers to a middle waybetween the two previously stated explanations believing that indeed, ourmemories are reconstructed, however this is subconscious and due to socialfactors. Roediger at al. (2001) involved confederates making mistakes when recallingwhat participants had viewed in a kitchen. After hearing this, participantsrecalled the wrong items along with correct items that the confederate had notmentioned at a later date suggesting a reconstruction of memory to includeincorrect information that had been obtained as a result of other interactionin the environment.
The words presented in the questionnaire within Loftus andPalmer (1974) could be considered similar to the external stimuli of misleadinginformation in this study and therefore Loftus and Palmer (1974) could beconsidered to tell us about the socially contagious nature of memory. In conclusion, Loftus andPalmer (1974) tells us that there is a reconstructive nature to human memorywhich has been useful in the area of eyewitness testimony for instance thedevelopment of the Devlin Report (1972). However, the extent to which thisreconstruction is solely based on cognitive processes regarding word schemasand connotations may not be so great as first believed and could instead beexplained in social terms. Word count: 1485 References Bartlett,F.
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Yuille,J. C., & Cutshall, J. L. (1986). A case study of eyewitness memory of acrime.
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