I missed seeing "The Exorcist" when it debuted in 1973.
Well, to be honest, I didn't really miss it. The thought of watching a young girl develop nasty rashes and projectile vomit didn't sound very appealing. Years later, parenthood would prove me right.
The movie, of course, is about demonic possession, based on a 1971 book that was, ostensibly, based on a true story. I've never personally believed in demons or becoming possessed, but, having seen bits and pieces of the movie over the years, I may soon change my mind.
At least that's a possibility based on the results of a study by Elizabeth Loftus, a psychologist and memory expert at the University of Washington. Writing in the The Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, Loftus reports that nearly one-fifth of people who once said demonic possession was implausible and that they had never witnessed such an event later changed their minds.
Loftus and colleagues arrived at this finding after conducting a series of experiments. In the first experiment, college students filled out questionnaires rating the plausibility of various events and asking about life experiences. The students were divided into three groups for testing one month later.
Two groups were given 12 short articles to read. In Group 1, the articles included three promoting the idea that demonic possession is quite common in Italy and that many children there witness such events. The articles also described typical possession experiences. Group 2, meanwhile, was given articles that included three stories about choking. Group 3 -- the control group -- got nothing to read.
A week later, Groups 1 and 2 filled out new questionnaires about their fears, such as being afraid of spiders. They were then informed by psychologists that their individual "fear profiles" suggested that they had either witnessed a demonic possession in childhood or had almost choked. The next week, all three groups re-answered the original questionnaires about event plausibilities and life experiences. Researchers found that 18 percent of the students now reported that not only was demonic possession possible, but they might have actually seen one as kids. There was no change in the control group. Two subsequent experiments tested variations of this mental manipulation.
Loftus said the results show that when people are exposed to a series of articles describing a relatively implausible phenomenon, such as possession, a significant number come to believe the phenomenon is not just more plausible, but that they may have actually witnessed or experienced it earlier in life.
"We are looking at the first steps on the path down to creating a false memory," said Loftus. "As humans we are capable of developing memories of ideas that other people think occurred. Just being exposed to credible information can lead you down this path. This shows why people watching "Oprah" or those in group therapy believe these kinds of things happened to them. People borrow memories from others and adopt them as their own experiences. It's part of the normal process of memory."
The study, said Loftus, reinforces the idea that therapists need to be careful about using potentially suggestive procedures that could change a patient's perceived likelihood of unremembered events.
It also explains why my sons forget their homework and refused to eat cooked carrots: They're possessed.