Friday, March 30, 2007

Elizabeth Loftus: False Memories

The weekend is here, and it is time to return to Beyond Belief 2006. This weekendly series of blogs have been going through the presentations and discussions made at that conference and posted on the web for people such as me to look it. It contains presentations in a rich range of subjects relevant to the subject of religion, morality, and the meaning of life.

The last presentation on episode 6 (out of 10) came from Elizabeth Loftus. Loftus is concerned with memory research. Specifically, she has been involved in the study of implanting false memories in individuals. Effectively, one takes a susceptible subject, proves that subject with an authority who says that something happened in the past, and with a little bit of coaxing the individual will start to remember that event. However, the event never happened. The subject was manipulated into believing something that simply was not true.

Loftus suggested the possibility that some people have made themselves quite wealthy using these techniques on others. There are past-lives therapists who use this technique to cause their subjects to ‘remember’ their past lives. There are alien abduction therapists who ‘coax’ from their victims memories of being on board a flying saucer being subject to medical experiments.

However, the cases that Loftus was most concerned with are cases in which people were caused to ‘remember’ being severely abused as children – even being involved in satanic rituals – that simply did not happen. In these cases, people used the technique of planting false memories to inspire their victims to testify against family members and others, to accuse those others of all sorts of abuse. Those others have gone to jail over these accusations. It is reasonable to expect that some of them are there still, placed there by a therapist planting false memories in their patients.

Now, I am not saying that these people placed false memories in others intentionally. Instead, the practitioners stumbled on the recipe for planting false memories, and thought that they were getting true memories. This recipe involved using an authority figure – a doctor or a therapist of some sort – to provide the subject with positive feedback if the subject should report such a memory. The subject who says, “Yes, this happened” is praised. At the same time, the subject who says, “I don’t remember anything like that,” gets a reaction of disappointment and some coaxing to change her story. “It’s okay. Maybe next time.”

Loftus reports that her group has been able to use these techniques to plant false memories in about 30,000 people since her research started We are not talking pure hypothesis here. We are talking about experimental research with results that can re replicated.

There are still questions to be asked about the moral culpability of these two groups – those who stumbled upon a technique that planted false beliefs in their subjects and sent innocent people to prison, and those who continue to use these techniques to make a business out of ‘helping’ people discover their past lives or to deal with the trauma of alien abduction and demonic possession – traumas that are simply imaginary.

The moral culpability of the latter group is easy to determine. It is doubtful that a person with good desires would subject another person to memories of imaginary trauma, or to give them false beliefs about their own history. The moral person would take seriously the prohibition on doing harm, take seriously the vast body of literature that suggests that there is no trauma of alien abduction or demonic possession, and not perform procedures that have not passed muster in the peer-reviewed literature. Or, at the very least, the concerned individual will inform his or her voluntary patients of the vast amount of literature that suggests that these actions are nonsense and that an intellectually responsible person would take that research seriously.

Are the false memories of past lives harmful? Well, whether direct ‘harm’ can be found in all instances, desire utilitarianism can still support a claim of wrong. The person with good desires would have a love of truth. There is no truth in telling people about past lives, so it is not something that a person with good desires would want to do. A person who performs these activities wrongs their victims in the same way that anybody who lies or engineers false beliefs wrongs their victims.

These moral charges remain valid even if the therapist actually believes in past lives, alien abductions, or demonic possession. The fact remains that a person who puts himself in a position of authority over others gives up the right to believe whatever he or she pleases. He now has an obligation to those who will turn to him for the sake of his alleged expertise to provide them with good counsel. This implies an obligation to make sure that the counsel one gives is, in fact, good.

This claim that people can be held morally accountable for false or negligent beliefs has an important implication in these types of cases. If we are not going to let the counselor off of the hook for their false beliefs – claiming that he has an obligation to check his beliefs for a secure foundation – then it difficult to claim that the victims in these cases are entirely blame free. If we can say of the counselor that he should have known better, and should have evaluated his beliefs for a sound foundation, then we can say of the victims that they should have known better as well.

The therapist is not the only one who is in a position to know that this chain of causation will destroy somebody else’s life. The patient should know it as well. It is somewhat hypocritical to condemn the counselor because he had an obligation to check his beliefs, and let the patient go free. Everybody has an obligation to check their facts before they harm others (to the degree that available time allows), not just counselors.

In the case of alien abductions and the like, perhaps the obligations of the victims to double-check their own beliefs are weaker. Perhaps one can argue that since they do not harm others and the harm they do to themselves is punishment enough.

However, those who fall for these absurd beliefs are not entirely free of wrongdoing.

If I vouch for somebody – if I give somebody a good recommendation – then I am as responsible for that intentional act as I am for any other. If they turn out to be less than trustworthy – if they turn out to be reckless with their ideas – then the person who recommends them has some culpability for recommending such a person.

All of this applies even more so to the person who takes a stand at a trial. Indeed, it applies even more strongly. The harm that he does, at sending an innocent person to prison and labeling him or her as an abuser for life, is far more direct. If he cannot recognize the potential for harm if he does not get his facts right, and does not feel a need to take seriously research that shows that he is probably making false claims, then he is culpable for harms done.

In fact, some people who planted false memories in others and who falsely accused others, have been subject to lawsuits, and they have lost.

Which is as it should be, where a violation of professional ethics can be shown.

The last two cases that I want to consider are the teacher and the priest. These people are in a position of authority as well. Therefore, they are in a position to plant false memories in others – particularly children. Particularly in the minds of those who trust them. Anybody who teaches children is a person in a position of trust. Anybody who teaches something that he or she has not checked out in a responsible manner has abused that trust. It is somebody who cannot accurately be called a good person.

1 comment:

dcortesi said...

The person with good desires would have a love of truth.

Alonzo, I am still trying to find a coherent way to characterize the Person of Good Desires who plays such a central role in D.U. Here you toss out this statement which, at first blush, sounds like a morally-required trait for that POGD, a requirement that really sounds imposed or arbitrary (based in some "moral fact"?).

I'm hoping this statement is a compression of a logical chain that leads somehow from "general prevalance of truth-telling" to "satisfaction of the greater number of stronger desires," and from that to a love—not merely a preference, mind you, but a love—of truth.

It would be great if the trait love of truth could be shown to be logically required of (or even just logically consistent with) the POGD, but how does that chain run?