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Often considered a highly
influential paper within the discipline of psychology and more specifically
eyewitness testimony, Loftus and Palmer (1974) has been cited 1998 times to
date. The paper questions whether we can influence and create false memories in
humans through our choice of vocabulary and the way in which questions are
asked. Two experiments were carried out which involved participants viewing
clips of car crashes and then responding to leading questions. In this essay, I
will discuss the extent of what we can learn about the nature of the human
memory from this paper and consequently how useful it could be considered.


One key aspect of memory that
is highlighted well within the paper is its reconstructive nature. The idea of
memory being reconstructive refers to how we change
information when it is encoded in the brain and therefore remember events
differently as a result of various cognitive processes. This idea was first
noted by Bartlett (1932) who showed how unfamiliarity and also cultural schemas
can lead to the creation of false memories. This was achieved by reading a
native American story titled ‘War of the Ghost’ to British participants and
then asking them to recall it. Participants changed the story by means of 3
processes which were labelled assimilation, levelling and sharpening and
involved moulding the story to fit with British cultural beliefs with which the
participants were more familiar. Although focused not on cultural schemas but
instead connotations of words, Loftus and Palmer (1974) also demonstrated the
reconstructive nature of memory. In experiment II participants were required to
watch a video clip of a multiple car accident and then were asked to estimate
the speed of one car when it either ‘smashed’ or ‘hit’ the others. One week
later the participants were asked further questions, including the critical
question of “did you see broken glass?”. It was found that those who were asked
the initial question using the word smashed were significantly more likely to
report seeing broken glass in the clip therefore showing how the connotations
of vocabulary used when presented in leading questions can lead the memory to
reconstruct events. In this case, participants who were presented with a word
which is likely to be part of a more violent schema that being ‘smashed’
remembered seeing broken glass when in fact the clip contained no broken glass.
This finding was crucial in highlighting the frequent number of inaccuracies
within eyewitness testimonies and therefore has been useful in many real-life
situations for the example the 1972 Devlin Report which stated a criminal could
not be convicted based on eyewitness testimony alone.

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Loftus and Palmer (1974) tells
us not only how longer-term memories can be reconstructed, as shown in
experiment II, but also how more immediate recollections of events can too be
manipulated. In experiment 1 the participants were also required to watch a
video clip of a car crash and among other questions, to estimate the speed of
the cars. Participants were asked to give their estimation as part of a written
questionnaire and were asked using 1 of 5 critical verbs which varied in
intensity; hit, bumped, smashed, collided and contacted. ‘Smashed’, arguably
the most intense verb that was used, elicited the highest mean estimate from
the participants (40.8mph) and contacted the lowest (31.8mph). This therefore
demonstrates that due to the imperfect nature of the human memory, perception
of events can become inaccurate when influenced by misleading information.


However, when focusing more
closely on the results of the first experiment, the extent to which the paper
tells us this could be questioned. Although the most vivid word of ‘smashed’
did elicit the highest estimate, not all of the verbs followed this straightforward
pattern of, the more intense the word the higher the estimate. The third
highest estimate was given from participants who were asked using the word
‘bumped’ (38.1mph), whereas the verb ‘hit’ provoked a response of only 34.0mph.
The word ‘hit’ is often considered to have more intense connotations than the
word ‘bumped’ which is often regarded as an almost gentle form of collision.
There was also quite a large difference between the third and fourth verbs of
‘bumped’ and ‘hit’ respectively in comparison to the differences between other
consecutive verbs. Both of these aspects of the results cannot be explained through
the simple belief that using a more intense verb manipulates the memory into
recalling a higher estimated speed and therefore the nature of memory may not
be so fallible to word connotations and Loftus and Palmer (1974) could be
argued to be over exaggerated.


To fully understand what we
can learn about the nature of memory, we have to consider the methodology used
within the experiments. To what extent can results obtained from clips tell us
about the nature of memory regarding real-life crimes? 4/7 of the clips used
within experiment I were staged crashes and this combined with the fact that
they were not experienced first-hand in real life and instead may mean that the
participants reacted differently to how they would in real-life. Anxiety towards
the ambiguity of being in a laboratory could have impeded the memory of the
participants or conversely the fact that they did not have the high levels
arousal associated with viewing a crime (Franks & Miller, 1986) could have
led to an increased memory ability. Yuille and Cutshall (1986) conducted a
study on eyewitnesses to a real-life gun shooting and found that the leading
questions did not alter the accuracy of the information, for example when
misinformed about a broken headlight, 10/13 participants still recalled that
there was no broken headlight. This therefore contradicts what Loftus and
Palmer (1974) tells us about the nature of memory and could be viewed as more
useful due as it was a real-life crime study.


The conclusions to be drawn
from Loftus and Palmer (1974) regarding the nature of memory could also be
interpreted from a social approach. Often referred to as the response bias
explanation, it could be that the act of giving a higher estimate for more
intense verbs or recalling broken glass is merely a result of social
conformity, arising from informational social influence (Deutsch & Gerard,
1955), rather than a result of memory reconstruction. Deutsch and Gerard (1955)
draw attention to how humans are likely to copy or be influenced by the
behaviour of others in novel situations where they are unsure of how to behave
or how to answer which is driven by a need to be right. This idea is amplified
by the involvement of authority figures. McAllister and Bregman (1982) found
that when participants overheard speed estimates from confederates who were
wearing a uniform, an authoritative symbol, they changed their estimates by a larger
extent to fit with the overheard estimate than they did when the confederate
was wearing normal clothes. This shows how authorities can influence eyewitness
reports through indirect pressures and could be a possible explanation for Loftus
and Palmer (1974); the experimenter could be viewed as an authority figure and
therefore a participant who thought the car was going very fast or did not
remember how fast the car was going at all may lower their estimate when
presented with the word ‘contacted’ as they believe the car must be going at
this level of intensity as a statement from an authority figure has insinuated
so. Therefore, Loftus and Palmer (1974) may not tell us much about the nature
of memory but may instead offer an insight into more social aspects of human


Loftus and Palmer 1974 could
be argued to elude to an aspect of memory more recently referred to as ‘the
social contagion of memory’ (Roediger et al.,2001). This refers to a middle way
between the two previously stated explanations believing that indeed, our
memories are reconstructed, however this is subconscious and due to social
factors. Roediger at al. (2001) involved confederates making mistakes when recalling
what participants had viewed in a kitchen. After hearing this, participants
recalled the wrong items along with correct items that the confederate had not
mentioned at a later date suggesting a reconstruction of memory to include
incorrect information that had been obtained as a result of other interaction
in the environment. The words presented in the questionnaire within Loftus and
Palmer (1974) could be considered similar to the external stimuli of misleading
information in this study and therefore Loftus and Palmer (1974) could be
considered to tell us about the socially contagious nature of memory.


In conclusion, Loftus and
Palmer (1974) tells us that there is a reconstructive nature to human memory
which has been useful in the area of eyewitness testimony for instance the
development of the Devlin Report (1972). However, the extent to which this
reconstruction is solely based on cognitive processes regarding word schemas
and connotations may not be so great as first believed and could instead be
explained in social terms.


Word count: 1485




F. C. (1932). Remembering: An experimental and social study. Cambridge: Cambridge University.


N. J., & McAllister, H. A. (1982). Eyewitness testimony: The role of
commitment in increasing reliability. Social Psychology Quarterly, 181-184.


M., & Gerard, H. B. (1955). A study of normative and informational social
influences upon individual judgment. The journal of abnormal and social psychology, 51(3), 629.


I. M., & Miller, G. (1986). Eyewitness testimony in sport. Journal of sport behavior, 9(1), 38.


E. F., & Palmer, J. C. (1974). Reconstruction of automobile destruction: An
example of the interaction between language and memory. Journal of verbal learning and verbal behavior, 13(5), 585-589.


H. L., Meade, M. L., & Bergman, E. T. (2001). Social contagion of
memory. Psychonomic bulletin
& review, 8(2), 365-371.


J. C., & Cutshall, J. L. (1986). A case study of eyewitness memory of a
crime. Journal of applied
psychology, 71(2), 291.


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