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2020 Patrick Suppes Prize

The American Philosophical Society’s 2020 Patrick Suppes Prize for Experimental or Mathematical Psychology was awarded to Elizabeth Loftus in recognition of her demonstrations that memories are generally altered, false memories can be implanted, and the changes in law and therapy this knowledge has caused. 

The presentation of the prize took place at the Society's virtual April 2021 Meeting.  In the video of the award ceremony above, APS president Linda Greenhouse introduces the prize and the chair of the prize selection committee, Richard Shiffrin, presents the prize to her.  In her acceptance speech Dr. Loftus shares her experience of the tremendous backlash against her findings, including death threats, as well as the satisfaction when the benefits of her findings helped prove the innocence of people imprisoned due to false memories.

Of all the world's cognitive scientists, Elizabeth Loftus has carried out research that has had the strongest and most important impact upon society. Beth received her Ph.D. from Stanford, took faculty positions at the New School in New York and the University of Washington and then moved to the University of California at Irvine, where she is now Distinguished Professor, and member of Psychological Science, Criminology Law and Society, Cognitive Science, and the School of Law. She studies human memory. Her experiments reveal how memories can be changed by things that we experience, that we rehearse after the fact, and that we are told. She is the world's authority on the field known as false memory. She has shown how suggestions after a memory has formed can alter that memory, research that has produced growing changes in the way that police interrogations are carried out, so that initially uncertain memories are not transformed into certain ones. Even more startling, she has shown how strong, vivid and compelling memories can be formed for personal experiences that never happened. For example, someone can form a vivid and certain memory of being saved from drowning when young, although no such event ever occurred. This research led to a revolution in the way certain psychiatrists have dealt with their patients; these therapists, convinced that adult problems were often the result of childhood sexual abuse, helped their patients form vivid memories of such abuse by their parents, abuse that never took place, leading to destructive family interactions, lawsuits against innocent parents, and worse.  Dr. Loftus and her research has almost single handedly stopped these practices. 

In related research Dr. Loftus demonstrated the uncertainties and ambiguities inherent in many instances of eyewitness testimony, leading to gradual change and reform in the fundamental bases of our legal system.  It is especially appropriate for Elizabeth Loftus to receive this Prize because Pat Suppes was Dr. Loftus' thesis advisor.  If Pat were living today he would be ecstatic to see Elizabeth receive this award.

The Patrick Suppes Prize honors accomplishments in three deeply significant scholarly fields, with the prize rotating each year between philosophy of science, psychology or neuroscience, and history of science. The Patrick Suppes Prize in Psychology or Neuroscience is awarded for a body of outstanding work which consists of at least three articles published within the preceding six years.  The work in psychology is to be either in mathematical or experimental psychology.

The committee members were Richard M. Shiffrin, Distinguished Professor, Luther Dana Waterman Professor, Professor of Psychology and Cognitive Science, Indiana University; Susan T. Fiske, Eugene Higgins Professor of Psychology, Professor of Public Affairs, Princeton University; John G. Hildebrand, Regents Professor of Neuroscience, University of Arizona; Jay McClelland, Lucie Stern Professor in the Social Sciences, Chair, Department of Psychology, Director, Center for Mind, Brain and Computation, Stanford University; and Elissa Newport, Director, Center for Brain Plasticity and Recovery, Professor of Neurology, Georgetown University.