Lost in the Mall

Topics: Repressed memory, Memory, Elizabeth Loftus Pages: 17 (5017 words) Published: May 1, 2013
"Lost in a Shopping Mall"�A Breach of Professional Ethics

Lynn S. Crook
Richland, WA

Martha C. Dean
Sydney, Australia

ABSTRACT: The "lost in a shopping mall" study has been cited to support claims that psychotherapists can implant memories of false autobiographical information of childhood trauma in their patients. The mall study originated in 1991 as 5 pilot experiments involving 3 children and 2 adult participants. The University of Washington Human Subjects Committee granted approval for the mall study on August 10, 1992. The preliminary results with the 5 pilot subjects were announced 4 days later. An analysis of the mall study shows that beyond the external misrepresentations, internal scientific methodological errors cast doubt on the validity of the claims that have been attributed to the mall study within scholarly and legal arenas. The minimal involvement�or, in some cases, negative impact�of collegial consultation, academic supervision, and peer review throughout the evolution of the mall study are reviewed.

Key words: research ethics, false memories, mall study, autobiographical memory

[Note: Footnotes are listed at the end of the main text, before the references.]

The "lost in a shopping mall" study (Loftus & Pickrell, 1995) originated as five single-participant "pilot" experiments conducted at the direction of University of Washington researcher Elizabeth Loftus. Loftus (L oftus & Ketcham, 1994) described the study in terms that suggest that proper research guidelines were not followed in these pilot experiments. The results of the mall study continue to be misrepresented in the media in sworn testimony and in scholarly publications. The roles of mechanisms currently in place to ensure the integrity of such research are reviewed here.


Loftus (Loftus & Ketcham, 1994) provided a revealing account of the evolution of the mall study. In August 1991, Loftus attended a talk (Ganaway, 1991) that blamed recovered memories of sexual abuse on media exposure and psychotherapists� expectations (Loftus & Ketcham, 1994, p. 89). After this talk, Loftus wondered if she "could provide a theoretical framework...showing that it is possible to create an entire memory for a traumatic event that never happened" (Loftus & Ketcham, 1994, p. 90). As Loftus explained: "I wanted to �scar� the brain with something that never happened, creating a vivid but wholly imagined impression. I just couldn�t quite figure out how to do it" (Loftus & Ketcham, 1994, p. 92).

Loftus described her dilemma to a group of University of Washington graduate students and psychology majors:

The trick was to design a study powerful enough to prove that it is possible to implant a false memory while also winning the approval of the university�s Human Subjects Committee, which reviews proposed research projects to ensure that they will not be harmful to participants. (Loftus & Ketcham, 1994, p. 91)

In October of the same year, Loftus discussed the memory-implantation hypothesis with a colleague from the University of Georgia during a drive to the Atlanta airport. During this discussion, Loftus decided to base her study on getting lost in a shopping mall. Still, Loftus wondered if "we could get the idea through the Human Subjects Committee. Maybe" (Loftus & Ketcham, 1994, p. 94).

Pilot Subject 1

Shortly after the University of Georgia trip, Loftus attended a party where she participated in the creation of the first false mall memory (Pilot Subject 1). Although not a pilot study in the strictest sense, the results of this interaction were included in what has been referred to as a "pilot study" (Goleman, 1992) and as "pilot subjects" (Loftus, 1992). At this party, Loftus asked a friend: "Do you think it might be possible to convince [his daughter] that she was lost in a shopping mall when she was five years old?" (Loftus & Ketcham, 1994, p....
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