Psychology Award Criticized
Her Work on False Memory Provokes Ire
The Associated Press, carried in Cincinnati Enquirer [Louisville KY]
December 1, 2004
LOUISVILLE - A researcher whose work on false memory has been used to defend people accused of child molestation was tapped as the winner of the 2005 University of Louisville Grawemeyer Award for Psychology.
Elizabeth Loftus is the most controversial researcher ever to win the $200,000 prize and the most controversial Grawemeyer winner since former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev won the 1994 prize for improving world order, said Rich Lewine, a University of Louisville professor who is chairman of the psychology award.
"We did this strictly on the basis of the quality of her work. ... She's really solid," Lewine said. "One always risks with potent ideas to have potent reaction."
Loftus' work on false recollections and the reliability of eyewitness reports, as well as her questioning of memories "recovered" through therapy, have affected the way police and the courts view such testimony.
Her ideas have stirred such hostility that she has received death threats and has been forced to bring armed guards to speaking engagements. Much of the criticism of Loftus comes from abuse victims and their advocates.
David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said he was sexually abused as a child in the 1960s but repressed the memory until the early 1990s, when he saw a movie dealing with sexual abuse called "Nuts."
He said Loftus' work implies that his experience was impossible. "Her work has been used to give aid and comfort to child molesters," said Clohessy, of St. Louis. "I'm sure there are plenty of psychologists doing important work. I wish one of them had been given this award instead."
Clohessy said he is especially disappointed that Loftus is being honored in Louisville, where more than 200 people have sued the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Louisville and two local religious orders since 2002 alleging abuse by dozens of priests and other people associated with the church.
Most cases have been settled or are pending. The archdiocese reached a $25.7 million settlement with 243 plaintiffs last year, one of the largest settlements of any diocese in the nation.
But Loftus, 60, said she is honored to receive the award and said her work has shown that there are false memories, which can lead to false accusations. "I am sorry if there are people who don't want to accept that there are false memories," said Loftus, who plans to use some of the Grawemeyer money to continue her research. "Do I want to do my work in a sea of hostility directed at me? No."
Loftus' research on eyewitness accounts of crimes and accidents found that the questioning process influenced people's memories of events. Other research suggested that people can vividly recall events that never happened. She said she has never seen evidence of repressed memories; one of the books she co-wrote is called "The Myth of Repressed Memory: False Memories and Allegations of Sexual Abuse."
Lewine said human memory needs to be studied further.
"The extreme camps need to give a bit," he said. "Whenever people get upset, they obstruct learning from each other."
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