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What the science of memory can tell us about the UVA rape story

The Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house on the University of Virginia campus where an alleged gang rape took place.
The Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house on the University of Virginia campus where an alleged gang rape took place.
Jay Paul/Getty Images

On November 19, Rolling Stone magazine ran a disturbing story about the alleged gang rape of a student named Jackie on the University of Virginia campus.

In the weeks that followed, journalists and pundits picked the story apart. The Washington Post, in particular, ran a lengthy piece detailing some of the discrepancies in the rape account: that Jackie's friends say she told them different details about that harrowing evening, and that no man matching the description of her alleged attacker was part of the fraternity where she says she was raped. 

Rolling Stone's managing editor Will Dana has since apologized for the story, saying the magazine made a mistake placing its trust in Jackie. Critics have attacked the magazine, wondering why journalists there didn't do their due diligence, fact checking and corroborating every detail of Jackie's account.

This becomes an especially pressing question since it's clear that the reporter relied on Jackie's memory — and decades of research have demonstrated that memories are are malleable, fragile, flawed. Memories can be twisted by time. Misinformation can skew people's memories of events, and completely fabricated memories can even be planted in people such that they weave them into the narrative of their lives.

"Just because someone is telling you something in a lot of detail and with a great amount of confidence," says Elizabeth Loftus, a cognitive psychologist and one of America's preeminent researchers on memory, "doesn't mean it happened."

This isn't to say Jackie's story is true, or isn't. I haven't talked to her, and don't know what did or didn't happen that night. But, assuming Jackie was the victim of gang rape at UVA as she alleges, it isn't all together surprising that details of her story might be inconsistent and flawed when you consider the science of memory.

The "misinformation effect" and false memory

In a 2003 article in the journal Nature, Loftus summarized her findings on what has been dubbed the "misinformation effect" — or errors in memory that can happen after exposing people to misleading information.

Through subtle suggestion or persuasion, she and her co-investigators have been able to plant completely fabricated memories in people during "guided imagination exercises."

They'd ask study participants to imagine being in their houses, hearing a noise outside, running toward a window, and then tripping and breaking the window with their hands. To get participants really thinking through the experience, they'd ask questions like, "What did you trip on?" and "How did you feel?"

A quarter of the participants who imagined the broken-window scenario, Lofus wrote, later reported increased confidence in the idea that the event actually happened.

Just imagining something made it more familiar, more plausible.

In one study, Loftus asked participants to watch footage of a car accident. Some subjects were then asked the question, "About how fast were the cars going when they smashed into each other?" With other groups of participants, the word smashed was replaced with less dramatic verbs — collided, bumped, contacted, or hit. The people in the "smashed" group gave higher speed estimates compared to the rest. A week later, they also agreed that they had seen shards of broken glass at the scene, though there were none in the film.

In a British study on false memories, adults were led to imagine that they underwent a medical procedure that never took place: it involved a nurse removing a skin sample from their fingers.

They then asked the participants about the surgery, as well as other events that were common in childhood (i.e. a tooth extraction). Study participants who imagined the events — as opposed to just reading about them — were more likely to believe they occurred, with about 30 percent reporting that they underwent the impossible surgery in detail such as, "There was a nurse and the place smelled horrible." Through imagination, the study authors concluded, people can create vivid memories.

How context and sleep distort memories

Harvard researcher Dan Schacter has written about contextual associations and memory distortion. Contextual information about where an event took place can help us organize memory, but it can also skew our memories.

In one study, participants were asked to remember items in the offices where they had just been working. They brought up objects that are typically found in offices, but many of which weren't actually in their offices that day. So context caused them to alter their memory.

More recently researchers have been looking at the effect of sleep on memory. In one study, participants were asked to look at photos of a crime and then later retell the events they saw. The people who were sleep deprived were more likely to misremember details.

Between the time of the alleged UVA attack (2012) and the reporting of the story this year, Loftus said, "You could certainly expect memory to fade, to potentially be contaminated, even if not from external suggestion."

Trauma memories — like a brutal rape — can be stored differently, perhaps erroneously. But that's no different from regular memories, Loftus added.

As Vox's Libby Nelson points out, there were reasons Rolling Stone reporter, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, didn't want to pry too much into Jackie's horrendous assault. "[She] seems to have thought she was respecting Jackie's boundaries by not interviewing her alleged rapists. She has said that Jackie asked her not to reach out to the supposed assailant, and Erdely says she complied."

But perhaps, if Erdely thought more about the tricks memory plays, she would have worked harder to verify the facts — no matter how sensitive. If you understand that memory is a foggy patchwork or synthesis of events and exposures in our lives — and some memories aren't real — you would probably hesitate before relying solely on a person's memory.

"It’s very compelling to believe someone's memory," said Loftus, "especially when they cry. But I've seen people cry over false memories, as well as over real ones."

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