About: AAAS Awards
AAAS Award for Scientific Freedom and Responsibility
2010 Award Recipient
Elizabeth Loftus is honored for the profound impact that her pioneering research on human memory has had on the administration of justice in the United States and abroad.
Psychologist Elizabeth Loftus determined to focus her research on human memory in a way that would make a difference in peoples’ lives, leading her to become the first scientist to study eyewitness testimony. Her research caused her to question the reliability of eyewitness accounts, based on her conclusion that memories are not fixed, but are in fact fragile, suggestible, and malleable over time. She has testified at more than 200 civil and criminal trials and has appeared as an expert witness on behalf of some of the most notorious criminals in history, never refusing to testify at the trial of a defendant charged with capital murder. Although such testimony has often been controversial, her views have been vindicated by the finding that of the more than 100 prisoners freed on the basis of subsequent DNA analyses, the most common reason for wrongful convictions was eyewitness testimony.
During the course of her research, Dr. Loftus demonstrated that memories can be implanted or manipulated by a variety of means. Prior to this, belief in “repressed” or “recovered” memories was widely held. It was thought that people could “recover” memories, usually of traumatic events occurring in childhood or adolescence, that had been long “forgotten.” Based on these “memories” many people have been accused of committing heinous acts in the distant past, accusations that have resulted in the break-up of families and even criminal convictions. Dr. Loftus has spoken up for and testified on behalf of the accused, arguing that convictions should not be based solely on “memories” “recovered” or implanted—usually during psychotherapy—without corroborating evidence. The American Psychiatric Association declared repressed memory treatment “dead” because of her research.
Dr. Loftus, who received her Ph.D. in psychology from Stanford University, has been described as a “pioneer motivated by principle,” and has been named among the one hundred most influential psychologists of the 20th century. Her research has changed the course of American justice. Eyewitness testimony no longer receives the unquestioned credibility it once did, the method of conducting police lineups has changed, and repressed memories no longer hold sway in American courtrooms.