The Newspaper Stories | What really happened and what does it mean? | Critical Response to Media Portrayal | Beware of Generalizing the Research | Compare to remembering being molested by Mickey Mouse | Summary & Hopes | References | How do I cite this page?
According to the Boston Globe version of a widely printed Associated Press (AP) story on February 17, 2003: "A study presented yesterday shows just how easy it can be to induce false memories in the minds of some people. More than one-third of subjects in the study recalled being hugged by Bugs Bunny at Disneyland - impossible because Bugs is not a Disney character - after a researcher planted the false memory."
The AP story explains that: "The research demonstrates that police interrogators and people investigating sexual-abuse allegations must be careful not to plant suggestions in their subjects' minds, said University of California-Irvine psychologist Elizabeth Loftus. She presented preliminary results of recent false memory experiments yesterday at the national meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science."
The AP article further states: "In the Bugs Bunny study, Loftus talked with subjects about their childhoods and asked not only whether they saw someone dressed up as the character, but also whether they hugged his furry body and stroked his velvety ears. Later, 36 percent of the subjects recalled the cartoon rabbit."
Although the AP story does not mention this, an article in the Denver Post provides an additional bit of detail: "In one experiment, a researcher showed people a fake print advertisement for Disneyland depicting children playing with Bugs Bunny, a Warner Brothers character that has never appeared at the park. Later, 36 percent of people who saw the ad claimed to remember meeting Bugs Bunny at Disneyland, said Elizabeth Loftus, a psychology professor at the University of California at Irvine."
Apparently these are preliminary results, not yet published in a peer-reviewed journal. A web version of an article by Loftus in the March 2003 issue of Nature includes the following information: "To prove that false memories can be insinuated into memory by these suggestive techniques, researchers have tried to plant memories that would be highly implausible or impossible. For example, one set of studies asked people to evaluate advertising copy. They were shown a fake print advertisement that described a visit to Disneyland and how they met and shook hands with Bugs Bunny. Later 16% of these subjects said that they remembered meeting and shaking hands with Bugs Bunny." A citation to a published study for the 16% figure is included in a footnote. The article continues regarding what are apparently still unpublished results: "In follow-up research carried out by Grinley in my laboratory, several presentations of fake advertisements, involving Bugs Bunny at Disneyland resulted in 25-35% of subjects claiming to have met Bugs Bunny."
A search on Google with the string "Loftus Bugs Bunny" brings forth media articles that go back as far as the summer of 2001. The methodological detail available in the articles is generally scant and inconsistent, or even puzzling. For instance, an article from ABCNews dated June 27, 2001, regarding a Bugs Bunny study reports: "At least 10 percent of the persons who were expected to participate . . . knew they had never shaken paws with Bugs in Disneyland, so the researchers kicked them out of the study because they knew they couldn't trick them."
The one peer-reviewed article on Bugs Bunny memories apparently available is from a journal called Psychology and Marketing, in the January 2002 issue. However the details of the research in that article do not match up with the February 2003 newspaper articles.
Although the study producing a 36% recall rate described in the AP story and the Denver Post is apparently unpublished, it is quite likely that public and even scientific opinion on this matter will be influenced by the media coverage. In general the media delight in running stories that cast doubt on the believability of memory for abuse. In general, the public and even the intellectual public seem to buy the bad-memory stories even when the research reported is being seriously over-generalized from one situation to a very different one.
Without benefit of the actual empirical article that details methodology, thorough scientific critique is not possible in any case. For instance, it is noteworthy that the Denver Post story mentions faked photographs of Bugs Bunny shown to participants but the more widely distributed AP article apparently neglects this detail (or at least it was neglected in versions that were picked up in the newspapers I saw). This sort of methodological detail may be crucial to understanding the meaning of the subsequent memory errors.
This commentary is a response to the February 2003 media portrayal of the research. Importantly, this commentary is not a critique of the research itself, but of the way it is being portrayed. The research is not a problem as far as I can tell. Like most memory research, it adds another piece to a very large puzzle we are collectively trying to solve. But what does the research mean? And to what issues should it be applied?
On February 17 many of my colleagues sent me electronic versions of the media coverage of the Bugs Bunny story. Some of my colleagues further expressed frustration with the coverage, as it seemed to imply that this research had applications to memories for childhood sexual abuse, and yet, as one colleague put it "rabbits are not rape!" Other colleagues pointed out that while Bugs Bunny is not a Disney character, there are in fact many rabbits among Disney's cast (such as Brer Rabbit, the White Rabbit, and so on) and that participants may simply have been confusing rabbits rather than remembering something implausible. (See correspondence with Disney Archives regarding presences of rabbits at theme parks.) The question was raised: How many people in rabbit costumes were hugging children at Disneyland or Disney World at some time in the past and might the participants have remembered such encounters with other rabbits?
A crucial practical issue regarding memory inaccuracy is the significance and meaning of error. All memories are subject to some degree of error. We are all somewhat suggestible. We can all confuse imagination with remembered experience. This is all old news in memory science.
The key issue in memory accuracy is the similarity between actual experience and remembered experience. The plausibility of an event having occured in a person's life will depend upon it's similarity to other events. Is it plausible to be hugged by Bugs Bunny at Disneyland? Technically, no, because he is not a Disney Character. But this is a technicality. Psychologically it's plausible because the particular character is probably not an important feature of the event to many kids. These are costumes after all.
Kathy Pezdek and her colleagues
(Pezdek, Finger, & Hodge, 1997) found that planting implausible memories
is much harder than planting plausible memories. Recall that the ABCNews
article from 2001 reports: "At least 10 percent of the persons who
were expected to participate . . . knew they had never shaken paws with Bugs
in Disneyland, so the researchers kicked them out of the study because they
knew they couldn't trick them." While it is unclear whether the researchers
did something similar in the study more widely reported on February 17, 2003,
and regardless of how throwing participants out of a study impacts results,
excluding those people suggests that the researchers realized that they could
not easily implant memories in those who found the event implausible to begin
I can remember my own children were hugged by some Disney employees in furry suits about a decade ago, but I cannot remember which characters/creatures did the hugging. So what? For me costume identity is not a central detail -- I hardly know the differences between these characters. They all have a lot in common -- big ears and furry and so on -- they are not real animals. What was central to my encoding and still central to my memory now was my children's experience and reactions to the big furry creatures. For instance, I monitored whether the hugging was appropriate and gentle, and whether my kids were more thrilled or scared. (If a criminal case were to depend on whether it was Bugs or Mickey costume, then the detail or costume might be very important to some, but still not very important to the rememberer. Again compare to memory for abuse when the central issue in a disputed case -- such as perpetrator identity -- usually is important to the rememberer, particularly if the perpetrator is someone close to the victim.)
It is probably of interest to memory researchers to know whether the 36% who report these memories did in fact have experiences being hugged by furry creatures at Disneyland or a similar theme park. If so, then they may be wrong about a particular detail (probably not of high personal relevance) but not wrong that the whole thing happened. This boils down to an empirical question: what was the actual experience of these rememberers when they were children at theme parks? Suppose that Loftus reported being able to convince 36% of people they remember being hugged by the Pope at Disneyland. That would seem a remarkable percentage. Or suppose that Loftus reported that 36% of people remember having a man in a rabbit costume (or for that matter, a man in a mouse costume) expose his genitals at Disneyland. Given how controlled and how public an environment is Disneyland, that would be a humongous proportion.
[A separate issue is whether participants tend to think these are recovered memories; if not then this research has no particular applicability to recovered memories per se. See the diagram at http://dynamic.uoregon.edu/~jjf/whatabout.html. Another issue is whether research on memory errors is any more applicable to memories for abuse than it is for memories for a childhood apparently free of abuse -- see Freyd & Quina 2000.]
In the 1990s there was a lot of press attention on the finding that some people could be convinced they had been lost in a shopping mall. For the average middle-class American now in college having been lost in a shopping mall is plausible. Getting hugged by Bugs Bunny at Disneyland is probably equally plausible in the ways that matter psychologically to the average middle-class American now in college.
What is not plausible for the average middle-class American now in college is having been slapped or fondled by Mickey Mouse at Disneyland. And I expect - not that anyone should actually do this experiment as it would not be ethical, but please do the thought experiment - that that memory would be fundamentally harder to implant.
Yet, despite these fundamental issues of event plausibility that constrain the generalizability of remembering Bugs Bunny in Disneyland, the media was apparently delighted to present the findings without any cautionary remarks. The headline to the Denver Post story was "Planting 'memories' is simple, studies say." The Boston Globe AP story began: "A study presented yesterday shows just how easy it can be to induce false memories in the minds of some people." Simple? Easy? Nowhere in either story was there a caution that the research might not generalize to memories for sexual abuse. Nowhere was there a suggested limitation of applicability of the research. No comments were provided by those who might interpet the findings in different ways or offer alternative viewpoints. Why were the newspaper stories so biased on this issue? Why do some in the media apparently delight in maligning human memory in the context of memory for sexual abuse?
I hope that students, researchers, and journalists take the time to look more closely at research on memory before applying it to memory of child sexual abuse. A closer, considered look should help all of us refrain from trivializing memory for abuse. We will only begin to prevent child sexual abuse when we, as a society, take it seriously.
Associated Press (2003) Studies link memories, suggestions. As published in the Boston Globe on February 17, 2003. Retrieved February 19, 2003 from http://www.boston.com/dailyglobe2/048/nation/Studies_link_memories_suggestionsP.shtml
Braun, K.A., Ellis, R., & Loftus, E.F. (2002) Make my memory: How advertising can change our memories of the past. Psychology & Marketing, 19, 1-23. Retrieved February 20, 2003 from http://faculty.washington.edu/eloftus/Articles/BraunPsychMarket02.pdf
Dye, L. (2001) Malleable meory: Study featuring Bugs Bunny shows it's easy to alter memory. ABCNEWS.com, June 27, 2001. Retrieved February 22, 2003 from http://abcnews.go.com/sections/scitech/DyeHard/Dyehard010627.html
Freyd, J.J. (2003). What about Recovered Memories? Retrieved February 22, 2003 from http://dynamic.uoregon.edu/~jjf/whatabout.html
Freyd, J. J. & Quina, K. (2000) Feminist ethics in the practice of science: The contested memory controversy as an example. In M. Brabeck (Ed) Practicing Feminist Ethics in Psychology (pp. 101-124). Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.
Loftus, E.F. (2003) Our changeable memories: legal and practical implications. Nature, 4, 231-234. Retrieved February 20, 2003 from http://faculty.washington.edu/eloftus/2003Nature.pdf
Pezdek, K., Finger, K., & Hodge, D. (1997). Planting false childhood memories: The role of event plausibility. Psychological Science, 8, 437-441.
Schmidt, E. (2003) Planting 'memories' is simple, studies say: False recollections can spur trauma symptoms. Denver Post, February 17, 2003. Retrieved February 19, 2003 from http://www.denverpost.com/Stories/0,1413,36%257E53%257E1185028,00.html
Freyd, J.J. (2003). "Commentary: Response to 17 February 2003 Media Reports on Loftus' Bugs Bunny Study." Retrieved April 1, 2003 from http://dynamic.uoregon.edu/~jjf/bugs.html