But her testimonies and investigations into recovered memories have strained her professional relationships. Towards the end of 1995, two women filed formal complaints against Loftus with the APA. Lynn Crooks and Jennifer Hoult had won civil suits in cases involving recovered memories of childhood sexual abuse, and both claimed that Loftus had distorted the facts of their cases in articles and interviews. Loftus resigned from the APA and critics speculated that she had caught wind of the complaints and left before a formal investigation could take place. But Loftus chalks her resignation up to political disagreements, saying she knew nothing of the complaints at the time.
In 1997, Loftus and several colleagues began to dig into a published case study describing an anonymous subject, 'Jane Doe', who had apparently recovered a repressed memory of childhood abuse. They found information that cast doubt on her account, but before they could publish, Doe contacted the University of Washington in Seattle, where Loftus was working, and accused the team of breaching her privacy.
The university confiscated Loftus's files, put her under investigation for nearly two years and prevented her from publishing. She was eventually cleared, and published the work in 2002. The next year, however, Doe sued Loftus and her collaborators for fraud, invasion of privacy, defamation and causing emotional distress.
It was at around that time that Loftus moved to the University of California, Irvine. The Jane Doe case was eventually settled in 2007, when the Supreme Court of California dismissed all but one of the charges and Loftus agreed to pay a nuisance settlement of $7,500. “It was such a stressful time, but I can't really say it was detrimental overall,” says Loftus.
Her work has now moved from trying to affect single cases to pushing for broader changes in the legal system. Loftus has been working with Pennsylvania trial judge Jeannine Turgeon to compile a set of guidelines similar to those instituted in New Jersey last year. They instruct jurors that memory “is not like a video recording” and ask them to consider the many factors that can alter memories, such as the presence of a weapon, which can draw attention away from the perpetrator's face.
“This has the potential to be really important,” says Farahany. “Using cutting-edge research to undercut the idea that memory is as stable and precise as people believe it to be can really help us get to a place where we have better truth-seeking in criminal cases,” she says.
Loftus wants to go further. Almost every stage of the legal process — from the identification and questioning of suspects to cross-examination of eyewitnesses in the courtroom — is prone to error. In a line-up, for example, police officers can influence identification, but this can be avoided if someone who does not know the identity of the prime suspect conducts the line-up (see Nature 453, 442–444; 2008). “I'd like to see this kind of thing being implemented, and to keep educating people about the workings of memory,” says Loftus.
Meanwhile, her research has shifted into new controversial waters. Taking on board the lesson that memories can be manufactured, she has been investigating the possibility of using those memories to modify behavior. “We've shown that you can plant a memory of getting sick eating particular foods as a child,” she says, “and we can get people thinking they got sick drinking vodka, so they don't want to drink as much of it later on.”