A study published in September, 2005, suggests there is a surprising way to get people to avoid unhealthy foods: Alter their memories.

 Cognitive scientist Elizabeth Loftus of the University of California at Irvine and her colleagues asked volunteers to fill out lengthy questionnaires on their personalities and food experiences.

“One week later.” Loftus says, “we told subjects we’d fed their data into our smart computer and it spun out a profile of their early childhood experiences.”

Some profiles included one key additional detail: “You got sick after eating strawberry ice cream.” (Or in your Editor’s boyhood—peanut cookies)

The researchers then converted this plausible detail into a manufactured memory through leading questions---—Who were you with? How did you feel? By the end of the study, up to 41 percent of those given a false memory believed that strawberry ice cream once made them sick, and many said they’d avoid eating it.

When Loftus published her findings, she started getting calls from people begging her to make them remember hating chocolate or French fries. Unfortunately, it’s not that easy. False memories appear to work only for foods you don’t eat on a regular basis---—if you had one awful experience (remember your Editor here) with chocolate as a child, you’ve probably had enough positive ones since to override it.

But most important, it is likely that false memories can be implanted only in people who are unaware of the mental manipulation. And lying to a patient is unethical, even if a doctor believes it’s for the patient’s benefit.

Loftus says there’s nothing to stop parents from trying it with their obese children. “I say, wake up—parents have been lying about Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy for years, and nobody seems to mind. If they can prevent diabetes and obesity and all the problems that come with that, you might think that’s a more moral lie. Decide that for yourself.”

                                                                                                      —Rebecca Skloot



January 2006. Vol. 27 No. 1 (pg. 30)

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