Commentary: Response to 17 February 2003 Media Reports on Loftus' Bugs Bunny Study
Jennifer J. Freyd, University of Oregon
The Newspaper Stories | What really happened and what does it mean? | Critical Response to Media Portrayal | Beware of Generalizing the Research | Compare to remembering being molested by Mickey Mouse | Summary & Hopes | References | How do I cite this page?
The Newspaper Stories -- What did they Claim?
According to the Boston Globe version of a widely printed Associated Press (AP) story on February 17, 2003: "A study presented yesterday shows just how easy it can be to induce false memories in the minds of some people. More than one-third of subjects in the study recalled being hugged by Bugs Bunny at Disneyland - impossible because Bugs is not a Disney character - after a researcher planted the false memory."
The AP story explains that: "The research demonstrates that police interrogators and people investigating sexual-abuse allegations must be careful not to plant suggestions in their subjects' minds, said University of California-Irvine psychologist Elizabeth Loftus. She presented preliminary results of recent false memory experiments yesterday at the national meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science."
The AP article further states: "In the Bugs Bunny study, Loftus talked with subjects about their childhoods and asked not only whether they saw someone dressed up as the character, but also whether they hugged his furry body and stroked his velvety ears. Later, 36 percent of the subjects recalled the cartoon rabbit."
Although the AP story does not mention this, an article in the Denver Post provides an additional bit of detail: "In one experiment, a researcher showed people a fake print advertisement for Disneyland depicting children playing with Bugs Bunny, a Warner Brothers character that has never appeared at the park. Later, 36 percent of people who saw the ad claimed to remember meeting Bugs Bunny at Disneyland, said Elizabeth Loftus, a psychology professor at the University of California at Irvine."
The Bugs Bunny Research -- What really happened and what does it mean?
Apparently these are preliminary results, not yet published in a peer-reviewed journal. A web version of an article by Loftus in the March 2003 issue of Nature includes the following information: "To prove that false memories can be insinuated into memory by these suggestive techniques, researchers have tried to plant memories that would be highly implausible or impossible. For example, one set of studies asked people to evaluate advertising copy. They were shown a fake print advertisement that described a visit to Disneyland and how they met and shook hands with Bugs Bunny. Later 16% of these subjects said that they remembered meeting and shaking hands with Bugs Bunny." A citation to a published study for the 16% figure is included in a footnote. The article continues regarding what are apparently still unpublished results: "In follow-up research carried out by Grinley in my laboratory, several presentations of fake advertisements, involving Bugs Bunny at Disneyland resulted in 25-35% of subjects claiming to have met Bugs Bunny."
A search on Google with the string "Loftus Bugs Bunny" brings forth media articles that go back as far as the summer of 2001. The methodological detail available in the articles is generally scant and inconsistent, or even puzzling. For instance, an article from ABCNews dated June 27, 2001, regarding a Bugs Bunny study reports: "At least 10 percent of the persons who were expected to participate . . . knew they had never shaken paws with Bugs in Disneyland, so the researchers kicked them out of the study because they knew they couldn't trick them."
The one peer-reviewed article on Bugs Bunny memories apparently available is from a journal called Psychology and Marketing, in the January 2002 issue. However the details of the research in that article do not match up with the February 2003 newspaper articles.
Although the study producing a 36% recall rate described in the AP story and the Denver Post is apparently unpublished, it is quite likely that public and even scientific opinion on this matter will be influenced by the media coverage. In general the media delight in running stories that cast doubt on the believability of memory for abuse. In general, the public and even the intellectual public seem to buy the bad-memory stories even when the research reported is being seriously over-generalized from one situation to a very different one.
Without benefit of the actual empirical article that details methodology, thorough scientific critique is not possible in any case. For instance, it is noteworthy that the Denver Post story mentions faked photographs of Bugs Bunny shown to participants but the more widely distributed AP article apparently neglects this detail (or at least it was neglected in versions that were picked up in the newspapers I saw). This sort of methodological detail may be crucial to understanding the meaning of the subsequent memory errors.
Critical Response to February 2003 Media Portrayal of the Research
This commentary is a response to the February 2003 media portrayal of the research. Importantly, this commentary is not a critique of the research itself, but of the way it is being portrayed. The research is not a problem as far as I can tell. Like most memory research, it adds another piece to a very large puzzle we are collectively trying to solve. But what does the research mean? And to what issues should it be applied?
On February 17 many of my colleagues sent me electronic versions of the media coverage of the Bugs Bunny story. Some of my colleagues further expressed frustration with the coverage, as it seemed to imply that this research had applications to memories for childhood sexual abuse, and yet, as one colleague put it "rabbits are not rape!" Other colleagues pointed out that while Bugs Bunny is not a Disney character, there are in fact many rabbits among Disney's cast (such as Brer Rabbit, the White Rabbit, and so on) and that participants may simply have been confusing rabbits rather than remembering something implausible. (See correspondence with Disney Archives regarding presences of rabbits at theme parks.) The question was raised: How many people in rabbit costumes were hugging children at Disneyland or Disney World at some time in the past and might the participants have remembered such encounters with other rabbits?
Beware of Generalizing the Research -- Event Plausibility and Event Meaning are Key to Memory
A crucial practical issue regarding memory inaccuracy is the significance and meaning of error. All memories are subject to some degree of error. We are all somewhat suggestible. We can all confuse imagination with remembered experience. This is all old news in memory science.
The key issue in memory accuracy is the similarity between actual experience and remembered experience. The plausibility of an event having occured in a person's life will depend upon it's similarity to other events. Is it plausible to be hugged by Bugs Bunny at Disneyland? Technically, no, because he is not a Disney Character. But this is a technicality. Psychologically it's plausible because the particular character is probably not an important feature of the event to many kids. These are costumes after all.
Kathy Pezdek and her colleagues (Pezdek, Finger, & Hodge, 1997) found that planting implausible memories is much harder than planting plausible memories. Recall that the ABCNews article from 2001 reports: "At least 10 percent of the persons who were expected to participate . . . knew they had never shaken paws with Bugs in Disneyland, so the researchers kicked them out of the study because they knew they couldn't trick them." While it is unclear whether the researchers did something similar in the study more widely reported on February 17, 2003, and regardless of how throwing participants out of a study impacts results, excluding those people suggests that the researchers realized that they could not easily implant memories in those who found the event implausible to begin with.
Compare remembering being hugged by Bugs Bunny at Disneyland with remembering being molested by Mickey Mouse.
I can remember my own children were hugged by some Disney employees in furry suits about a decade ago, but I cannot remember which characters/creatures did the hugging. So what? For me costume identity is not a central detail -- I hardly know the differences between these characters. They all have a lot in common -- big ears and furry and so on -- they are not real animals. What was central to my encoding and still central to my memory now was my children's experience and reactions to the big furry creatures. For instance, I monitored whether the hugging was appropriate and gentle, and whether my kids were more thrilled or scared. (If a criminal case were to depend on whether it was Bugs or Mickey costume, then the detail or costume might be very important to some, but still not very important to the rememberer. Again compare to memory for abuse when the central issue in a disputed case -- such as perpetrator identity -- usually is important to the rememberer, particularly if the perpetrator is someone close to the victim.)
It is probably of interest to memory researchers to know whether the 36% who report these memories did in fact have experiences being hugged by furry creatures at Disneyland or a similar theme park. If so, then they may be wrong about a particular detail (probably not of high personal relevance) but not wrong that the whole thing happened. This boils down to an empirical question: what was the actual experience of these rememberers when they were children at theme parks? Suppose that Loftus reported being able to convince 36% of people they remember being hugged by the Pope at Disneyland. That would seem a remarkable percentage. Or suppose that Loftus reported that 36% of people remember having a man in a rabbit costume (or for that matter, a man in a mouse costume) expose his genitals at Disneyland. Given how controlled and how public an environment is Disneyland, that would be a humongous proportion.
[A separate issue is whether participants tend to think these are recovered memories; if not then this research has no particular applicability to recovered memories per se. See the diagram at http://pages.uoregon.edu/dynamic/jjf/whatabout.html. Another issue is whether research on memory errors is any more applicable to memories for abuse than it is for memories for a childhood apparently free of abuse -- see Freyd & Quina 2000.]
Summary & Hopes for the Future
In the 1990s there was a lot of press attention on the finding that some people could be convinced they had been lost in a shopping mall. For the average middle-class American now in college having been lost in a shopping mall is plausible. Getting hugged by Bugs Bunny at Disneyland is probably equally plausible in the ways that matter psychologically to the average middle-class American now in college.
What is not plausible for the average middle-class American now in college is having been slapped or fondled by Mickey Mouse at Disneyland. And I expect - not that anyone should actually do this experiment as it would not be ethical, but please do the thought experiment - that that memory would be fundamentally harder to implant.
Yet, despite these fundamental issues of event plausibility that constrain the generalizability of remembering Bugs Bunny in Disneyland, the media was apparently delighted to present the findings without any cautionary remarks. The headline to the Denver Post story was "Planting 'memories' is simple, studies say." The Boston Globe AP story began: "A study presented yesterday shows just how easy it can be to induce false memories in the minds of some people." Simple? Easy? Nowhere in either story was there a caution that the research might not generalize to memories for sexual abuse. Nowhere was there a suggested limitation of applicability of the research. No comments were provided by those who might interpet the findings in different ways or offer alternative viewpoints. Why were the newspaper stories so biased on this issue? Why do some in the media apparently delight in maligning human memory in the context of memory for sexual abuse?
I hope that students, researchers, and journalists take the time to look more closely at research on memory before applying it to memory of child sexual abuse. A closer, considered look should help all of us refrain from trivializing memory for abuse. We will only begin to prevent child sexual abuse when we, as a society, take it seriously.
Associated Press (2003) Studies link memories, suggestions. As published in the Boston Globe on February 17, 2003. Retrieved February 19, 2003 from http://www.boston.com/dailyglobe2/048/nation/Studies_link_memories_suggestionsP.shtml
Braun, K.A., Ellis, R., & Loftus, E.F. (2002) Make my memory: How advertising can change our memories of the past. Psychology & Marketing, 19, 1-23. Retrieved February 20, 2003 from http://faculty.washington.edu/eloftus/Articles/BraunPsychMarket02.pdf
Dye, L. (2001) Malleable meory: Study featuring Bugs Bunny shows it's easy to alter memory. ABCNEWS.com, June 27, 2001. Retrieved February 22, 2003 from http://abcnews.go.com/sections/scitech/DyeHard/Dyehard010627.html
Freyd, J.J. (2003). What about Recovered Memories? Retrieved February 22, 2003 from http://pages.uoregon.edu/dynamic/jjf/whatabout.html
Freyd, J. J. & Quina, K. (2000) Feminist ethics in the practice of science: The contested memory controversy as an example. In M. Brabeck (Ed) Practicing Feminist Ethics in Psychology (pp. 101-124). Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.
Loftus, E.F. (2003) Our changeable memories: legal and practical implications. Nature, 4, 231-234. Retrieved February 20, 2003 from http://faculty.washington.edu/eloftus/2003Nature.pdf
Pezdek, K., Finger, K., & Hodge, D. (1997). Planting false childhood memories: The role of event plausibility. Psychological Science, 8, 437-441.
Schmidt, E. (2003) Planting 'memories' is simple, studies say: False recollections can spur trauma symptoms. Denver Post, February 17, 2003. Retrieved February 19, 2003 from http://www.denverpost.com/Stories/0,1413,36%257E53%257E1185028,00.html
How do I cite this page?
Freyd, J.J. (2003). "Commentary: Response to 17 February 2003 Media Reports on Loftus' Bugs Bunny Study." Retrieved April 1, 2003 from http://pages.uoregon.edu/dynamic/jjf/bugs.html
Loftus and Palmer
Saul McLeod published 2010, updated 2014
Psychologist Elizabeth Loftus has been particularly concerned with how subsequent information can affect an eyewitness’s account of an event.
Her main focus has been on the influence of (mis)leading information in terms of both visual imagery and wording of questions in relation to eyewitness testimony.
Loftus’ findings seem to indicate that memory for an event that has been witnessed is highly flexible. If someone is exposed to new information during the interval between witnessing the event and recalling it, this new information may have marked effects on what they recall. The original memory can be modified, changed or supplemented.
The fact the eyewitness testimony can be unreliable and influenced by leading questions is illustrated by the classic psychology study by Loftus and Palmer (1974) Reconstruction of Automobile Destructiondescribed below.
Loftus and Palmer (1974) Study
Aim: To test their hypothesis that the language used in eyewitness testimony can alter memory.
Thus, they aimed to show that leading questions could distort eyewitness testimony accounts and so have a confabulating effect, as the account would become distorted by cues provided in the question.
To test this Loftus and Palmer (1974) asked people to estimate the speed of motor vehicles using different forms of questions. Estimating vehicle speed is something people are generally poor at and so they may be more open to suggestion.
Procedure: Forty-five American students formed an opportunity sample. This was a laboratory experiment with five conditions, only one of which was experienced by each participant (an independent measures experimental design).
7 films of traffic accidents, ranging in duration from 5 to 30 seconds, were presented in a random order to each group.
After watching the film participants were asked to describe what had happened as if they were eyewitnesses. They were then asked specific questions, including the question “About how fast were the cars going when they (smashed / collided / bumped / hit / contacted) each other?”
Thus, the IV was the wording of the question and the DV was the speed reported by the participants.
Findings: The estimated speed was affected by the verb used. The verb implied information about the speed, which systematically affected the participants’ memory of the accident.
Participants who were asked the “smashed” question thought the cars were going faster than those who were asked the “hit” question. The participants in the “smashed” condition reported the highest speed estimate (40.8 mph), followed by “collided” (39.3 mph), “bumped” (38.1 mph), “hit” (34 mph), and “contacted” (31.8 mph) in descending order.
Conclusion: The results show that the verb conveyed an impression of the speed the car was travelling and this altered the participants' perceptions. In other words, eyewitness testimony might be biased by the way questions are asked after a crime is committed. Loftus and Palmer offer two possible explanations for this result:
- Response-bias factors: The misleading information provided may have simply influenced the answer a person gave (a 'response-bias') but didn't actually lead to a false memory of the event. For example, the different speed estimates occur because because the critical word (e.g. 'smash' or 'hit') influences or biases a person's response.
- The memory representation is altered: The critical verb changes a person's perception of the accident - some critical words would lead someone to have a perception of the accident being more serious. This perception is then stored in a person's memory of the event.
If the second explanation is true we would expect participants to remember other details that are not true. Loftus and Palmer tested this in their second experiment.
Procedure: 150 students were shown a one minute film which featured a car driving through the countryside followed by four seconds of a multiple traffic accident.
Afterwards the students were questioned about the film. The independent variable was the type of question asked. It was manipulated by asking 50 students 'how fast were the car going when they hit each other?', another 50 'how fast were the car going when they smashed each other?', and the remaining 50 participants were not asked a question at all (i.e. the control group).
One week later the dependent variable was measured - without seeing the film again they answered ten questions, one of which was a critical one randomly placed in the list: “Did you see any broken glass? Yes or no?" There was no broken glass on the original film.
Findings: Participants who were asked how fast the cars were going when they smashed were more likely to report seeing broken glass.
Conclusion: This research suggests that memory is easily distorted by questioning technique and information acquired after the event can merge with original memory causing inaccurate recall or reconstructive memory.
The results from experiment two suggest that this effect is not just due to a response-bias because leading questions actually altered the memory a participant had for the event.
The addition of false details to a memory of an event is referred to as confabulation. This has important implications for the questions used in police interviews of eyewitnesses.
One limitation of the research is that it lacked mundane realism / ecological validity. Participants viewed video clips rather than being present at a real life accident. As the video clip does not have the same emotional impact as witnessing a real-life accident the participants would be less likely to pay attention and less motivated to be accurate in their judgements.
A study conducted by Yuille and Cutshall (1986) conflicts the findings of this study. They found that misleading information did not alter the memory of people who had witnessed a real armed robbery. This implies that misleading information may have a greater influence in the lab rather and that Loftus and Palmer's study may have lacked ecological validity.
A further problem with the study was the use of students as participants. Students are not representative of the general population in a number of ways. Importantly they may be less experienced drivers and therefore less confident in their ability to estimate speeds. This may have influenced them to be more swayed by the verb in the question.
A strength of the study is it's easy to replicate (i.e. copy). This is because the method was a laboratory experiment which followed a standardised procedure.
Loftus, E. F., & Palmer, J. C. (1974). Reconstruction of auto-mobile destruction: An example of the interaction between language and memory. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 13, 585-589.
Yuille, J. C., & Cutshall, J. L. (1986). A case study of eyewitness memory of a crime. Journal of Applied Psychology, 71(2), 291.
How to reference this article:
McLeod, S. A. (2014). Loftus and Palmer. Retrieved from www.simplypsychology.org/loftus-palmer.html