Lost in the mall technique
The "Lost in the Mall" technique is a memory implantation technique used to demonstrate that confabulations can be created through suggestions made to experimental subjects. It was first developed by psychologist Elizabeth Loftus as support for the claim that it is possible to implant entirely false memories in people. The technique was developed in the context of the debate about the existence of repressed memories and false memories (see False memory syndrome).
The idea of the lost in the mall technique was first developed and tested on a few individuals by Loftus and Ketcham. It was first used in a formal study by Loftus and her student Jacqueline Pickrell in 1995. In their experiment they gave 24 participants four short narratives describing childhood events, all supposedly provided by family members. The participants were told they were participating in a study looking at memory for childhood events and were instructed to try to remember as much as possible about each of the four events. If they could not remember anything about the events they were instructed to be honest and say so. Unbeknownst to the participants, one of the narratives was false. This narrative described the person being lost in a shopping mall at around the age of 5. According to the narrative the person was lost for an extended period of time before finally being rescued by an elderly person and reunited with his or her family. The narrative was based upon actual family shopping trips and incorporated plausible details provided by the relative such as the name of the mall they would usually go to when the person was a child and who would be likely to be present when they went shopping. The participants first had to fill in what they remembered about each event in a booklet, and were then called in for two interviews where they were asked about details of the events. In the study, 25% of the participants reported to be able to remember the false event. The memory for the false event was usually reported to be less clear than the true events, and people generally used more words to describe the true events than the false events. At the end of the study when the participants were told that one of the 4 events was false, some people (5 out of 24) failed to identify the lost in the mall event as the false event and instead picked one of the true events to be false. Loftus calls this study "existence proof" for the phenomenon of false memory creation and suggests that the false memory is formed as a result of the suggested event (being lost in a mall) being incorporated into already existing memories of going to the mall. With the passage of time it becomes harder for people to differentiate between what actually happened and what was imagined and they make memory errors.
The lost in the mall experiment has been replicated and extended with different ages of subjects.
Criticisms of methodology and conclusions
The Lost in the Mall technique is generally accepted as a memory implantation study that is useful for investigating the effect of suggestions on memory. However some people have argued that this is not generalizable to memories for traumatic events. An article in the journal Child Development by Pezdek and Hodges described an extension of the experiment. By using the subjects' family members to do the interviewing, their study was able to replicate Loftus' findings that memories of being lost in the mall could be created and were more likely to occur in young children. However, a much smaller number of children reported false memories of another untrue incident: that of a painful and embarrassing enema. Another article by Kenneth Pope in the American Psychologist suggested possible confounding variables in the study as well as questioning whether the technique's ability to generate a false memory could be compared with the ability of a therapist to create a pseudomemory of childhood sexual abuse. In still another article (in the Journal Ethics & Behavior) two people who had recovered memories of childhood sexual abuse, Lynn Crook and Martha Dean, also question Loftus' Lost in the Mall-study, arguing that the methods used are unethical and the results not generalizable to real life memories of trauma. Loftus responded to Crook and Dean's criticisms pointing to the exaggerations, omissions and errors in Crook and Dean's description of the technique and their mistakes about the study's representation in the media. Loftus makes it clear that the Lost in the Mall study and other studies using memory implantation techniques in no way try to claim that all memories of childhood sexual abuse discovered in therapy are false, they merely try to show how relatively easy it is to manipulate human memory. Loftus also accuses Crook of writing the article as part of a long series of efforts to discredit her integrity as a researcher and her work.
- Loftus EF, Coan J., Pickrell, JE. Manufacturing false memories using bits of reality. In Reder, L., ed. Implicit Memory and Metacognition. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum, in press.
- Loftus, E.F. & Ketcham, K. (1994) The Myth of Repressed Memory. NY: St. Martin's Press.
- Loftus, E.F.; Pickrell JE (1995). "The formation of false memories" (pdf). Psychiatric Annals 25: 720–725.
- Pezdek, K; Hodge, D. (July–August 1999). "Planting false childhood memories: The role of event plausibility". Child Development 70 (4): 887–895. doi:10.1111/1467-8624.00064. JSTOR 1132249.
- Pope, K. (1996). "Memory, Abuse, and Science: Questioning Claims About the False Memory Syndrome Epidemic". American Psychologist 51 (9): 957–74. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.51.9.957. PMID 8819364. Retrieved 2008-01-31 doi=10.1037/0003-066X.51.9.957.
- Crook, L.; Dean, Martha (1999). "Lost in a Shopping Mall—A Breach of Professional Ethics". Ethics & Behavior 9 (1): 39–50. doi:10.1207/s15327019eb0901_3. PMID 11657487. Retrieved 2008-01-18.
- Loftus, E.F. (1999). "Lost in the Mall: Misrepresentations and Misunderstandings" (pdf). Ethics & Behaviour 9 (1): 51–60. doi:10.1207/s15327019eb0901_4. PMID 11657488.
- Editorial (1996). Dispatch from the memory war. Psychology Today.
- Loftus, E.F. (Nov 2003). "Make-Believe Memories" (PDF). The American Psychologist (American Psychologist) 58 (11): 867–73. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.58.11.867. PMID 14609374.