1974: As part of her investigation of memory, the psychologist Elizabeth Loftus conducted an experiment in which university students watched film clips of traffic accidents.
After each clip, the students were questioned; one group was asked to estimate the speed at which the cars had “contacted” each other, a second group, the speed at which the cars had “hit” each other, and other groups, the speed at which the cars had “bumped into”, “collided with” or “smashed into” each other.
In a second experiment, participants were similarly questioned about a traffic accident and then, a week later, asked whether they had noticed any broken glass. (There was in fact none.)
The results demonstrated how language can distort the recollection of events. In the first experiment, the more intense the verb, the higher the estimate of speed, ranging from 31.8 mph for “contacted” to 40.8 mph for “smashed into”. In the second experiment, 14 per cent of those asked the “hit” question reported seeing non-existent glass, a figure that rose to 32 per cent for those asked the “smashed into” question.