Loftus testified at the trial about the fallibility of memories but could not say whether she had ever studied repressed memories such as Eileen Franklin was maintaining. George Franklin was convicted, and Loftus went back to the lab.
After doing some research, she became convinced a therapist might have led Eileen Franklin to suspect her father in the murder. Therapists were essentially guiding patients to remember false events, Loftus believed -- asking leading questions and telling their patients to imagine an event that might have happened.
For example, if a woman came in with an eating disorder, her therapist might say "80% of patients with an eating disorder were abused. Were you?" Then the therapist might ask the patient to think about who might have abused her and when.
While Loftus couldn't definitively prove that repressed memories weren't real, she could show that it was possible to implant a memory of a traumatic event that never happened.
Loftus recruited 24 students and their close family members for her 1995 study "The Formation of False Memories." She asked each family member to provide her with three real childhood memories for their student, and then sent these memories in a packet, along with one false memory, to the study participants. The false memories were about getting lost on a shopping trip and included real details, such as the name of a store where they often shopped and siblings they were likely with.
The students were told all four memories were real and had been supplied by their family member. After receiving the packet, the students identified whether they remembered each event and how confident they were that it had happened to them. In follow-up interviews the researchers asked them to recall details from the events they remembered.
Seven of the 24 students "remembered" the false event in their packets. Several recalled and added their own details to the memory.
"It was pretty exciting to watch these normal, healthy individuals pick up on the suggestions in our interviews, and pick up the false information that we fed them," Loftus says.
Loftus continued her experiments, convincing study participants they had broken a window with their hand, witnessed a drug bust, choked on an object before the age of 3 and had experienced other traumatic events. And she continued to testify in cases involving repressed memories.
"I don't think there's any credible, scientific support for this notion of massive repression," Loftus says. "It's been my position that, you know, we may one day find (the evidence), but until we do, we shouldn't be locking people up."
Loftus soon began to wonder if she could influence other behaviors. What if she could convince people they had a negative experience with unhealthy food as a child? Would they eat less of it as an adult?
Using her finely tuned "recipe" for memory implantation, she guided study participants to believe they had gotten sick eating strawberry ice cream as children.
A week later, researchers asked about the ice cream incident. Many participants had developed a detailed memory -- what Loftus calls a "rich false memory" -- about when they had gotten sick. Subsequent studies showed this memory affected the participant's actual eating behavior.
It seemed obvious to Loftus that there was potential here to fight obesity. Therapists couldn't lie to their patients, but parents could convince kids that they didn't like ice cream or other fattening foods. Critics raged that she was advocating lying to children.
"Which would you rather have?" Loftus replied simply. "A kid with obesity, heart problems, shortened lifespan, diabetes -- or maybe a little bit of false memory?"
Schacter, who also studies memory, objects to the term "playing around" with someone's mind. He, Loftus and others like them are simply trying to understand what's going on in our memories, he says. "We're assessing the limits of memory, the accuracy of memory. ... Almost by definition we think we're remembering accurately, even though we're not."
Already this year Loftus has co-authored studies on false memories related to alcohol, politics and stressful events. In one, called "Queasy Does It," Loftus' team took the same methods they used to persuade people to eat less ice cream and applied them to vodka or rum. Loftus says this research could potentially be used to help addicts in the future.
Her lab at the University of California Irvine is also working to identify the individual differences that make people more or less susceptible to memory alteration.
Sometime Loftus worries about crossing into unethical territory -- like when she created false memories in military personnel who were training to survive as prisoners of war. When the study published, she feared "we were going to basically be giving (our enemies) a recipe for how to do bad things to other people and then contaminate their memory."