Lost in the mall technique

The "Lost in the Mall" technique, or the "lost in the mall" experiment,[1] is a memory implantation technique used to demonstrate that confabulations about events that never took place – such as having been lost in a shopping mall as a child – can be created through suggestions made to experimental subjects that their older relative was present at the time. It was first developed by Elizabeth Loftus and her undergraduate student Jim Coan, as support for the claim that it is possible to implant entirely false memories in people. The technique was developed in the context of the debate about the existence of repressed memories and false memories (see False memory syndrome).[2]

Study methodologyEdit

Coan designed the first lost in the mall experiment as an extra-credit assignment for a course in cognitive psychology. The professor—Loftus—invited her students to design and execute an experiment implanting false memories in subjects. Coan enlisted his mother, sister and brother as subjects. He assembled booklets containing four short narratives describing childhood events, and instructed them to try to remember as much as possible about each of the four events, and to write down those details over the course of six days. Unknown to the participants, one of the narratives was false; it described Coan's brother getting lost in a shopping mall at around the age of 5, then being rescued by an elderly person and reunited with his family. During the experiment, Coan's brother unwittingly invented several additional details of the false narrative. At the conclusion of the experiment during a tape-recorded debriefing when told that one of the narratives was false, Coan's brother could not identify which one was false and expressed disbelief when told. Coan later refined the study methodology for his senior thesis.[3]

In a follow-up experiment, Elizabeth Loftus and Jacqueline Pickrell adapted the methods Coan had used on his brother in a formal study with 24 participants, about 25% of whom reported remembering the false event. The memory for the false event was usually reported to be less clear than the true events, and people generally used more words to describe the true events than the false events. At the end of the study when the participants were told that one of the 4 events was false, some people (5 out of 24 according to the authors) failed to identify the lost in the mall event as the false event and instead picked one of the true events to be false. Loftus calls this study "existence proof" for the phenomenon of false memory creation and suggests that the false memory is formed as a result of the suggested event (being lost in a mall) being incorporated into already existing memories of going to the mall. With the passage of time it becomes harder for people to differentiate between what actually happened and what was imagined and they make memory errors.[4] However, it remains to be seen how an older relative verifying the lost incident applies to what might happen in therapy.

The lost in the mall experiment has been replicated using claims by older relatives and extended with different ages of subjects.[5] About 25 percent of the participants not only "remembered" the implanted memory but also filled in the missing details.[1]

Criticism of methodology and conclusionsEdit

The Lost in the Mall technique is generally accepted as a memory implantation study that is useful for investigating the effect of suggestions on memory. However some people have argued that this is not generalizable to memories for traumatic events. An article in the journal Child Development by Pezdek and Hodges described an extension of the experiment. By using the subjects' family members to do the interviewing, their study was able to replicate Loftus' findings that memories of being lost in the mall could be created and were more likely to occur in young children. However, a much smaller number of children reported false memories of another untrue incident: that of a painful and embarrassing enema.[5] Another article by Kenneth Pope in the American Psychologist suggested possible confounding variables in the study as well as questioning whether the technique's ability to generate a false memory could be compared with the ability of a therapist to create a pseudomemory of childhood sexual abuse.[6]

In 1995, Lynn Crook who had recovered memories of childhood sexual abuse, provided corroboration, and filed an ethics complaint with the American Psychological Association charging Loftus with misrepresenting Crook's successful recovered memory lawsuit in a media interview with Psychology Today ("Dispatch from the Memory War"). Loftus resigned from the APA before the complaint could be investigated. In an article (1999 in the Journal Ethics & Behavior) Lynn Crook and Martha Dean, PhD, questioned Loftus' Lost in the Mall-study, arguing that the methods used were unethical and the results not generalizable to real life memories of trauma.[7] Loftus responded to Crook and Dean's criticism claiming the "exaggerations, omissions and errors" in Crook and Dean's description of the technique and their mistakes about the study's representation in the media. Loftus did not support those claims with data. Loftus made it clear that the Lost in the Mall study and other studies using memory implantation techniques in no way tried to claim that all memories of childhood sexual abuse discovered in therapy are false, they merely try to show how relatively easy it is to manipulate human memory, again, if an older relative says they witnessed the incident. Crook and Dean critiqued Loftus's work. In turn, Loftus also accused Crook of writing the article as part of a long series of efforts to discredit her integrity as a researcher and her work. [8][9]

In 2019, Blizard and Shaw published a critique of the methodology and conclusions in Loftus and Pickrell (1995). They discussed how False Memory Syndrome (FMS), along with Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS), were developed as defenses for parents accused of child abuse as part of a larger movement to undermine prosecution of child abuse. The lost-in-the-mall study by examination of the research methods and findings of the study shows that no full false memories were actually formed. The mall study (Loftus & Pickrell, 1995) did not provide a definition of what constituted a full memory. It contains little explicit description of the methods of recruitment of subjects, experimental controls, or methods of rating full and partial false memories, and nothing on the training of investigators. While the authors report that three subjects developed partial false memories, and two others developed full ones, only one brief transcript of a response was offered to substantiate these conclusions. They do not describe any subjects in their formal study who unequivocally accepted the false story as true. Both subjects who were depicted as having formed full false memories disputed details of the false story presented.

Blizard, R.A. & Shaw, M. (2019). Lost-in-the-Mall: False Memory or False Defense? Journal of Child Custody, doi.org/10.1080/15379418.2019.1590285

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b Bessel Van Der Kolk, M.D. (2014). The Body Keeps the Score. Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. New York: Viking. pp. 191–192. ISBN 978-0-670-78593-3.
  2. ^ Loftus EF, Coan J., Pickrell, JE. Manufacturing false memories using bits of reality. In Reder, Lynne M., ed. (1996). Implicit Memory and Metacognition. Lawrence Erlbaum. ISBN 9780805818604.
  3. ^ Coan, J.A., Lost in a Shopping Mall: An Experience with Controversial Research. ETHICS & BEHAVIOR, 7(3), 271-284
  4. ^ Loftus, E.F.; Pickrell JE (1995). "The formation of false memories" (PDF). Psychiatric Annals. 25 (12): 720–725. doi:10.3928/0048-5713-19951201-07.
  5. ^ a b Pezdek, K; Hodge, D. (July–August 1999). "Planting false childhood memories: The role of event plausibility". Child Development. 70 (4): 887–895. doi:10.1111/1467-8624.00064. JSTOR 1132249.
  6. ^ Pope, K. (1996). "Memory, Abuse, and Science: Questioning Claims About the False Memory Syndrome Epidemic". American Psychologist. 51 (9): 957–74. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.51.9.957. PMID 8819364. Retrieved 2008-01-31.
  7. ^ Crook, L.; Dean, Martha (1999). "Lost in a Shopping Mall—A Breach of Professional Ethics". Ethics & Behavior. 9 (1): 39–50. doi:10.1207/s15327019eb0901_3. PMID 11657487. Retrieved 2008-01-18.
  8. ^ Loftus, E.F. (1999). "Lost in the Mall: Misrepresentations and Misunderstandings" (PDF). Ethics & Behavior. 9 (1): 51–60. doi:10.1207/s15327019eb0901_4. PMID 11657488. Archived from the original on 2010-06-19.CS1 maint: BOT: original-url status unknown (link)
  9. ^ Editorial (1996). "Dispatch from the memory war". Psychology Today.