False memory

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A false memory is a psychological phenomenon where a person recalls something that did not happen or differently from the way it happened. There is a growing body of evidence that false memories are created whenever memories are recalled.[1][2][3][4]

False memory is often considered for trauma victims[5] including those of childhood sexual abuse.[6][7][8][9] This phenomenon was initially investigated by psychological pioneers Pierre Janet and Sigmund Freud. Freud wrote The Aetiology of Hysteria, where he discussed repressed memories of childhood sexual trauma in their relation to hysteria.[10] Elizabeth Loftus has, since her debuting research project in 1974,[11] been a lead researcher in memory recovery and false memories.

False memory syndrome recognizes false memory as a prevalent part of one's life in which it affects the person's mentality and day-to-day life. False memory syndrome differs from false memory in that the syndrome is heavily influential in the orientation of a person's life, while false memory can occur without this significant effect. The syndrome takes effect because the person believes the influential memory to be true.[12] However, its research is controversial and the syndrome is excluded from identification as a mental disorder and, therefore, is also excluded from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. False memory is an important part of psychological research because of the ties it has to a large number of mental disorders, such as PTSD.[13]

Manipulation of memory recall through language[edit]

In 1974, Elizabeth Loftus and John Palmer conducted a study to investigate the effects of language on the development of false memory. The experiment involved two separate studies.

In the first test, 45 participants were randomly assigned to watch different videos of a car accident, in which separate videos had shown collisions at 20 miles per hour, 30 miles per hour, and 40 miles per hour. Afterwards, participants filled out a survey. The survey asked the question, "About how fast were the cars going when they smashed into each other?" The question always asked the same thing, except the verb used to describe the collision varied. Rather than "smashed", other verbs used included "bumped", "collided", "hit", or "contacted". Participants estimated collisions of all speeds to average between 35 miles per hour to just below 40 miles per hour. If actual speed were the main factor in estimate, it could be assumed that participants would have lower estimates for lower speed collisions. Instead, the word being used to describe the collision seemed to better predict the estimate in speed rather than the speed itself.[11]

The second experiment also showed participants videos of a car accident, but the critical thing was the verbiage of the follow-up questionnaire. 150 participants were randomly assigned to three conditions. Those in the first condition were asked the same question as the first study using the verb "smashed". The second group was asked the same question as the first study, replacing "smashed" with "hit". The final group was not asked about the speed of the crashed cars. The researchers then asked the participants if they had seen any broken glass, knowing that there was no broken glass in the video. The responses to this question had shown that the difference between whether broken glass was recalled or not heavily depended on the verb used. A larger sum of participants in the "smashed" group declared that there was broken glass.

In this study, the first point brought up in discussion is that the words used to phrase a question can heavily influence the response given.[11] Second, the study indicates that the phrasing of a question can give expectations to previously ignored details, and therefore, a misconstruction of our memory recall. This indication supports false memory as an existing phenomenon.

Unfortunately, all attempts to replicate these results have failed.[14]

Article adjustment on eyewitness report[edit]

Loftus' meta-analysis on language manipulation studies suggested the phenomenon effects taking hold on the recall process and products of the human memory. Even the smallest adjustment in a question, such as the article preceding the supposed memory, could alter the responses. For example, having asked someone if they'd seen "the" stop sign, rather than "a" stop sign, provided the respondent with a presupposition that there was a stop sign in the scene. This presupposition increased the number of people responding that they had indeed seen the stop sign.

Adjective implications on eyewitness report[edit]

Select adjectives can imply characteristics about an object. Including said adjectives in a prompt can alter participant responses. Harris' 1973[citation needed] study looks at the differences in answers on the height of a basketball player. Respondents were randomly assigned to have either answered to, "How tall was the basketball player?" or "How short was the basketball player?" Rather than asking participants simply for the height of the basketball player, they used adjectives that had an implication for the numerical results. The difference in height averages that were predicted was 10 inches (250 mm). The adjective provided in a sentence can cause a respondent to exaggerate.

Word lists[edit]

One can trigger false memories by presenting subjects a continuous list of words. When subjects were presented with a second type of the list and asked if the words had appeared on the previous list, they find that the subjects did not recognize the list correctly. When the words on the two lists were semantically related to each other (e.g. sleep/bed), it was more likely that the subjects did not remember the first list correctly and created false memories (Anisfeld & Knapp).[15]

Staged naturalistic events[edit]

Subjects were invited in an office and were told to wait there. After this they had to recall the inventory of the visited office. Subjects recognized objects consistent with the “office schema” although they did not appear in the office. (Brewer & Treyens, 1981)[15]

Response to meta-analysis[edit]

It has been argued[by whom?] that Loftus and Palmer did not control for outside factors coming from individual participants, such as participants' emotions or alcohol intake, along with many other factors. Despite criticisms such as this, this particular study is extremely relevant to legal cases regarding false memory. The Loftus and Palmer automobile study allowed for the Devlin Committee to create the Devlin Report, which suggested that eyewitness testimony is not reliable standing on its own.

Reliability of memory recall[edit]


Presuppositions are an implication through chosen language. If a person is asked, "What shade of blue was the wallet?" The questioner is, in translation, saying, "The wallet was blue. What shade was it?" The question's phrasing provides the respondent with a supposed "fact". This presupposition provides two separate effects: true effect and false effect.

True effect says that the object implied to have existed does exist. With that, the respondent's recall is strengthened, more readily available, and easier to extrapolate from. In true effect, presuppositions make a detail more readily recalled. For example, it would be less likely that a respondent would remember a wallet was blue if the prompt did not say that it was blue. False effect is that the object implied to have existed never was present. Despite this, the respondent is convinced otherwise and allows it to manipulate their memory. It can also alter responses to later questions to keep consistency. Regardless of the effect being true or false, the respondent is attempting to conform to the supplied information, because they assume it to be true.[citation needed]

Construction hypothesis[edit]

Construction hypothesis has major implications for explanations on the malleability of memory. Upon asking a respondent a question that provides a presupposition, the respondent will provide a recall in accordance with the presupposition (if accepted to exist in the first place). The respondent will recall the object or detail. The construction hypothesis says that if a true piece of information being provided can alter a respondent's answer, then so can a false piece of information.[16]

Skeleton theory[edit]

Loftus developed the skeleton theory after having run an experiment involving 150 subjects from the University of Washington.[17] The skeleton theory explains the idea of how a memory is recalled, which is split into two categories: the acquisition processes and the retrieval processes.

The acquisition processes are in three separate steps. First, upon the original encounter, the observer selects a stimulus to focus on. The information that the observer can focus on compared to the information in the situation is very small. In other words, a lot is going on around us and we only pick up on a small portion. Therefore, the observer must make a selection on the focal point. Second, our visual perception must be translated into statements and descriptions. The statements represent a collection of concepts and objects; they are the link between the event occurrence and the recall. Third, the perceptions are subject to any "external" information being provided before or after the interpretation. This subsequent set of information can alter recall.

The retrieval processes come in two steps. First, the memory and imagery is regenerated. This perception is subject to what foci the observer has selected, along with the information provided before or after the observation. Second, the linking is initiated by a statement response, "painting a picture" to make sense of what was observed. This retrieval process results in either an accurate memory or a false memory.

Relational processing[edit]

Memory retrieval has been associated with the brain's relational processing. In associating two events (in reference to false memory, say tying a testimony to a prior event), there are verbatim and gist representations. Verbatim matches to the individual occurrences (i.e. I do not like dogs because when I was five a chihuahua bit me) and gist matches to general inferences (i.e. I do not like dogs because they are mean). Keeping in line with the fuzzy-trace theory, which suggests false memories are stored in gist representations (which retrieves both true and false recall), Storbeck & Clore (2005) wanted to see how change in mood affected the retrieval of false memories. After using the measure of a word association tool called the Deese–Roediger–McDermott paradigm, the subjects' moods were manipulated. Moods were either oriented towards being more positive, more negative, or were left unmanipulated. Findings suggested that a more negative mood made critical details, stored in gist representation, less accessible.[18] This would imply that false memories are less likely to occur when a subject was in a worse mood.

Therapy-induced memory recovery[edit]

Recovery strategies[edit]

Memories recovered through therapy have become more difficult to distinguish between simply being repressed or having existed in the first place. Therapists have used strategies such as hypnotherapy, repeated questioning, and bibliotherapy. These strategies may provoke the recovery of nonexistent events or inaccurate memories.[8][19][20][21] A recent report indicates that similar strategies may have produced false memories in several therapies in the century before the modern controversy on the topic which took place in the 1980s and 1990s.[22] Elizabeth Loftus writes about how easy it is for her as a therapist to mold people's memories, or prompt them to recall a nonexistent broken glass.[23]

For her there are different possibilities to create false therapy-induced memory. One is the unintentional suggestions of therapists. For example, a therapist might tell their client that, on the basis of their symptoms, it is quite likely that they had been abused as a child. Once this "diagnosis" is made, the therapist sometimes urges the patient to pursue the recalcitrant memories. It is a problem resulting from the fact that people create their own social reality with external information.[24]

Laurence and Perry conducted a study testing the ability to induce memory recall through hypnosis. Subjects were put into a hypnotic state and later woken up. Observers suggested that the subjects were woken up by a loud noise. Nearly half of the subjects being tested concluded that this was true, despite it being false. Although, by therapeutically altering the subject's state, they may have been led to believe that what they were being told was true.[25] Because of this, the respondent has a false recall.

A 1989 study focusing on hypnotizability and false memory separated accurate and inaccurate memories recalled. In open-ended question formation, 11.5% of subjects recalled the false event suggested by observers. In a multiple-choice format, no participants claimed the false event had happened. This result led to the conclusion that hypnotic suggestions produce shifts in focus, awareness, and attention. Despite this, subjects do not mix fantasy up with reality.[10]

Therapy-induced memory recovery is a prevalent subcategory of memory recall prompting discussion of false memory syndrome. This phenomenon is loosely defined, and not a part of the DSM. However, the syndrome suggests that false memory can be declared a syndrome when recall of a false or inaccurate memory takes great effect on your life. This false memory can completely alter the orientation of your personality and lifestyle.[10]

The "lost-in-the-mall" technique is another recovery strategy. This is essentially a repeated suggestion pattern. The person whose memory is to be recovered is persistently said to have gone through an experience even if it may have not happened. This strategy can cause the person to recall the event as having occurred, despite its falsehood.[26]

Legal cases[edit]

Therapy-induced memory recovery has made frequent appearances in legal cases, particularly those regarding sexual abuse.[citation needed] Therapists can often aid in creating a false memory in a victim's mind, intentionally or unintentionally. They will associate a patient's behavior with the fact that they have been a victim of sexual abuse, thus helping the memory occur. They use memory enhancement techniques such as hypnosis dream analysis to extract memories of sexual abuse from victims. According to the FMSF (False Memory Syndrome Foundation), these memories are false and are produced in the very act of searching for and employing them in a life narrative. In Ramona v. Isabella,[citation needed] two therapists wrongly prompted a recall that their patient, Holly Ramona, had been sexually abused by her father. It was suggested that the therapist, Isabella, had implanted the memory in Ramona after use of the hypnotic drug sodium amytal. After a nearly unanimous decision, Isabella had been declared negligent towards Holly Ramona. This 1994 legal issue played a massive role in shedding light on the possibility of false memories' occurrences.

In another legal case where false memories were used, they helped a man to be acquitted of his charges. Joseph Pacely had been accused of breaking into a woman's home with the intent to sexually assault her. The woman had given her description of the assailant to police shortly after the crime had happened. During the trial, memory researcher Elizabeth Loftus testified that memory is fallible and there were many emotions that played a part in the woman's description given to police. Loftus has published many studies consistent with her testimony.[16][27][28] These studies suggest that memories can easily be changed around and sometimes eyewitness testimonies are not as reliable as many believe.

Another notable case is Maxine Berry. Maxine grew up in the custody of her mother, who opposed the father having contact with her (Berry & Berry, 2001). When the father expressed his desire to attend his daughter's high school graduation, the mother enrolled Maxine in therapy, ostensibly to deal with the stress of seeing her father. The therapist pressed Maxine to recover memories of sex abuse by her father. Maxine broke down under the pressure and had to be psychiatrically hospitalized. She had her tubes tied, so she would not have children and repeat the cycle of abuse. With the support of her husband and primary care physician, Maxine eventually realized that her memories were false and filed a suit for malpractice. The suit brought to light the mother's manipulation of mental health professionals to convince Maxine that she had been sexually abused by her father. In February 1997 Maxine Berry sued her therapists[29] and clinic that treated her from 1992-1995 and, she says, made her falsely believe she had been sexually and physically abused as a child when no such abuse ever occurred. The lawsuit, filed in February 1997 in Minnehaha Co. Circuit Court South Dakota, states that therapist Lynda O'Connor-Davis had an improper relationship with Berry, both during and after her treatment. The suit also names psychologist Vail Williams, psychiatrist Dr. William Fuller and Charter Hospital and Charter Counseling Center as defendants. Berry and her husband settled out of court for an undisclosed amount of money.[citation needed]

Although there have been many legal cases in which false memory appears to have been a factor, this does not ease the process of distinguishing between false memory and real recall. Sound therapeutic strategy can help this differentiation, by either avoiding known controversial strategies or to disclosing controversy to a subject.[8][10][30] In each case, the recovered memory therapy was declared inadmissible and not scientifically sound. The fact that recovered memories cannot necessarily distinguish between true and false meant the quality of evidence was weakened and the cases concluded against the therapists. The objection to therapeutic recovery techniques has been argued by comparing the ethics of memory elimination techniques such as electroconvulsive therapy.[21]

Harold Merskey published a paper on the ethical issues of recovered-memory therapy.[30] He suggests that if a patient had pre-existing severe issues in their life, it is likely that "deterioration" will occur to a relatively severe extent upon memory recall. This deterioration is a physical parallel to the emotional trauma being surfaced. There may be tears, writhing, or many other forms of physical disturbance. The occurrence of physical deterioration in memory recall coming from a patient with relatively minor issues prior to therapy could be an indication of the recalled memory's potential falsehood.[30]

Trend in Psychiatry for Recovered Memories[edit]

In psychiatry, confabulation is a memory error defined as the production of fabricated, distorted, or misinterpreted memories about oneself or the world, without the conscious intention to deceive.

Therapists who subscribe to recovered memory theory point to a wide variety of common problems, ranging from eating disorders to sleeplessness, as evidence of repressed memories of sexual abuse.[31] Psychotherapists tried to reveal “repressed memories” in mental therapy patients through “hypnosis, guided imagery, dream interpretation and narco-analysis”. The reasoning was that if abuse couldn’t be remembered, then it needed to be recovered by the therapist. The legal phenomena developed in the 1980s, with civil suits alleging child sexual abuse on the basis of “memories” recovered during psychotherapy. The term “repressed memory therapy” gained momentum and with it social stigma surrounded those accused of abuse. The “therapy” led to other psychological disorders in persons whose memories were recovered.

In children[edit]

If a child experienced abuse, it is not typical for them to disclose the details of the event when confronted in an open-ended manner.[32] Trying to indirectly prompt a memory recall can lead to the conflict of source attribution, as if repeatedly questioned the child might try to recall a memory to satisfy a question. The stress being put on the child can make recovering an accurate memory more difficult.[6] Some people hypothesise that as the child continuously attempts to remember a memory, they are building a larger file of sources that the memory could be derived from, potentially including sources other than genuine memories. Children that have never been abused but undergo similar response-eliciting techniques can disclose events that never occurred.[32] If one concludes that the child's recalled memory is false, it is a type I error. Assuming the child did not recall an existing memory, it is a type II error.

One of children's most notable setbacks in memory recall is source misattribution. Source misattribution is the flaw in deciphering between potential origins of a memory. The source could come from an actual occurring perception, or it can come from an induced and imagined event. Younger children, preschoolers in particular, find it more difficult to discriminate between the two.[33] Lindsay & Johnson (1987) concluded that even children approaching adolescence struggle with this, as well as recalling an existent memory as a witness. Children are significantly more likely to confuse a source between being invented or existent.[34]

Memory Distortions[edit]

Once memories are successfully transformed from a short-term memory to a long-term memory, the memory is then classified under either being an implicit or an explicit memory. If the action is physically performed, it would be classified as an implicit memory. Implicit denotes that the memory is not part of one's consciousness, rather is formed through behaviors, such as riding a bike, skateboarding, also known as muscle memory. Alternatively, explicit memories are those of facts that one can subconsciously remember and recall.[35]

Bias has many avenues, such as gender bias. Egocentric bias, which is essentially glorifying ones “achievements”. Finally, there is hindsight bias, in which one allegedly knew the outcome of a predicament, but only after the fact. Meaning that during which said predicament took place, the certainty was not as prevalent.[36]

Misattribution occurs when one mistakenly confuses the source of information, this may occur with simply confusing two people or a time mix-up.<[36]

Suggestibility is the effects of misinformation from external sources that leads to the creation of false memories. Incredibly similar to misattribution however, the main difference is misattribution is a muddled false memory fabricated by one, where as suggestibility is when someone else is offering specific, almost accusatory questions or comments.[36]

Brain Structures Associated with Memory[edit]

Three parts of the brain constitute where memories are stored:[37] Amygdala—Regulates emotion and is a part of memory consolidation, which is the method of shifting new learning into a long-term memory. When a memory is especially emotionally charged, the amygdala is better able to encode memories.

Hippocampus—Involved with both normal recognition and spatial recognition, any damage to this area of the brain may lead to the inability to develop new explicit memories.

Cerebellum—Processes procedural, or implicit, memories. That is tasks performed just below being consciously aware.

How Memory Works in the Brain[edit]

The cerebrum, or forebrain, makes up the largest part of the brain, and it is covered by a sheet of neural tissue known as the cerebral cortex, which envelops the part of our brain where memories are stored. Glutamate and GABA (two amino acids), act as the yin and yang of the brain, steering emotions by determining whether nerve cells are excited or inhibited (calm). Under normal conditions the system is balanced. But when individuals get hyper-aroused and vigilant, glutamate surges. Glutamate is also the primary chemical that helps to make it easy to remember memories stored in the brain. "Procedural memory, the unconscious memory of skills, for example, knowing how to ride a bike, is dependent upon repetition and practice and will operate automatically like muscle memory. Declarative memory, 'knowing what,' is memory of facts, experiences and events."[38]

How Traumatic Memories Hide in the Brain[edit]

Memories of traumatic experiences hide deep in the brain, causing psychiatric problems. The memory of early childhood abuse can be forgotten and remembered with more or less accuracy. “It’s difficult for therapists to help these patients, Dr. Jelena Radulovic, the Dunbar Professor in Bipolar Disease at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine said, because the patients themselves can’t remember their traumatic experiences that are the root cause of their symptoms.”[38] A special mechanism of the brain has been discovered to store stress related memories. If the brain registers an overwhelming trauma, then it can essentially block that memory in a process called dissociation or detachment from reality. "The brain will attempt to protect itself".[38] The same way the body can wall-off an abscess or foreign substance to protect the rest of the body, the brain can dissociate from an experience. In the midst of trauma, the brain may wander off and work to avoid the memory.[38]

Commonly held false memories[edit]

The Bologna station clock, subject of a collective false memory

Similar false memories are sometimes shared by multiple people.[39][40] One such false memory is that the name of the Berenstain Bears was once spelled Berenstein.[41][42] Another example consists of false memories of a 1990s movie titled Shazaam starring comedian Sinbad as a genie, which may be a conflation of memories of the comedian wearing a genie costume during a TV presentation of Sinbad the Sailor movies in 1994,[39][43] and a similarly named 1996 film Kazaam featuring a genie played by Shaquille O'Neal.[39]

A 2010 study examined people who were familiar with the clock at Bologna Centrale railway station, which had been damaged in the Bologna massacre bombing in August 1980. In the study, 92% falsely remembered that the clock had remained stopped since the bombing; in fact, the clock was repaired shortly after the attack but was again stopped 16 years later as a symbolic commemoration of it.[40]

In 2010 the phenomenon of collective false memory was dubbed the "Mandela effect" by self-described "paranormal consultant" Fiona Broome, in reference to a false memory she reports of the death of South African leader Nelson Mandela in the 1980s (when he was in fact still alive), which she claims is shared by "perhaps thousands" of other people.[44][45][46][47] Broome has speculated about alternate realities as an explanation, but most commentators suggest that these are instead examples of false memories shaped by similar factors affecting multiple people,[48][49][39][50][42][51][52] such as social reinforcement of incorrect memories,[53][54] or false news reports and misleading photographs influencing the formation of memories based on them.[55][54]

Susceptibility to False Memories[edit]


Greater creative imagination and dissociation are known to relate to false memory formation.[56] Creative imagination may lead to vivid details of imagined events. High dissociation may be associated with habitual use of lax response criteria for source decisions due to frequent interruption of attention or consciousness. Social desirability and false memory have also been examined.[57] Social desirability effects may depend on the level of perceived social pressure.[58]

Individuals who feel under greater social pressure may be more likely to acquiesce. Perceived pressure from an authority figure may lower individuals' criteria for accepting a false event as true. The new individual difference factors include preexisting beliefs about memory, self-evaluation of one's own memory abilities, trauma symptoms, and attachment styles. Regarding the first of these, metamemory beliefs about the malleability of memory, the nature of trauma memory, and the recoverability of lost memory may influence willingness to accept vague impressions or fragmentary images as recovered memories and thus, might affect the likelihood of accepting false memorie.[59] For example, if someone believes that memory once encoded is permanent, and that visualization is an effective way to recover memories, the individual may endorse more liberal criteria for accepting a mental image as true memory. Also, individuals who report themselves as having better everyday memories may feel more compelled to come up with a memory when asked to do so. This may lead to more liberal criteria, making these individuals more susceptible to false memory.


A history of trauma is relevant to the issue of false memory. It has been proposed that people with a trauma history or trauma symptoms may be particularly vulnerable to memory deficits, including source-monitoring failures.[60]

Possible associations between attachment styles and reports of false childhood memories were also of interest. Adult attachment styles have been related to memories of early childhood events, suggesting that the encoding or retrieval of such memories may activate the attachment system. It is more difficult for avoidant adults to access negative emotional experiences from childhood, whereas ambivalent adults access these kinds of experiences easily.[61] Consistent with attachment theory, adults with avoidant attachment styles, like their child counterparts, may attempt to suppress physiological and emotional reactions to activation of the attachment system. Significant associations between parental attachment and children's suggestibility exist. These data, however, do not directly address the issue of whether adults' or their parents' attachment styles are related to false childhood memories. Such data nevertheless suggest that greater attachment avoidance may be associated with a stronger tendency to form false memories of childhood.

Sleep Deprivation[edit]

Sleep Deprivation can also affect the possibility of falsely encoding a memory. In two experiments, participants studied DRM lists (lists of words [e.g., bed, rest, awake, tired] that are semantically associated with a non-presented word) before a night of either sleep or sleep deprivation; testing took place the following day. One study showed higher rates of false recognition in sleep-deprived participants, compared with rested participants.

Sleep deprivation can increase the risk of developing false memories. Specifically, sleep deprivation increased false memories in a misinformation task when participants in a study were sleep deprived during event encoding, but did not have a significant effect when the deprivation occurred after event encoding.[62]

Inducing false memories[edit]

A NOVA documentary entitled “Memory Hackers” aired on PBS in February 2016, featuring a segment with forensic psychologist Dr. Julia Shaw. Her work explores complex autobiographical memories, seeking to answer the question “How false are our memories?” To do so, Shaw created one of the most elaborate studies on false memories, recruiting over 100 participants for a study they believe is about their childhood memories, but it is actually intended to see whether they can believe they committed a crime that never happened. [63] Shaw gives a six part “recipe” for implanting false memories. First is creating an atmosphere of trust by establishing expertise and authority. Follow with interviewing the participant about real memories, reinforcing and encouraging vivid recollection upon the next session. The third step is to introduce a false memory. The fourth step is to commence imagination inflation, where subjects are guided to focus attention on retrieving a memory using actual details from their past. The fifth step is to apply social pressure indicating that the technique works for most people, thus making the subject try harder to recall details. Finally, ask leading questions. [64]

In the 2015 article on constructing rich false memories, Shaw and Colleague Stephen Porter explain that imagined memory elements regarding what something could have been like transmit to what an event would have been like and eventually what it actually was like.[65]Findings indicate three debriefing sessions resulted in 76% of subjects recalling a false emotional event and 70% recalling a fictional crime. Shaw and colleague Stephen Porter found no distinguishing personality traits of false confessors and no way to identify individuals who are the most susceptible. False memories may actually be recalled similar to the way true memories are retrieved, so it can prove very difficult to differentiate between the two.[66]

Ethical considerations[edit]

There are four principles by which all psychologists are required to act, including respect for the dignity of personals and people, competent caring for the well-being of persons and peoples, integrity, and professional and scientific responsibilities to society. [67]However, some people emphasize the ethical dilemmas arising in relation to three main areas: the survivor's relationship with the therapist, with other family members, and with the alleged abuser. The issue here is “that when one person intervenes in a conflict between two other persons, perhaps to help the one at a disadvantage, he or she enters into the dynamic relationship between the original parties, becoming embroiled in the drama, and in the emotions it has generated. The other parties involved can then turn upon him or her, and roles can rapidly reverse.”[68]This becomes further complicated when a “social worker initially intervenes to rescue children from alleged abuse; the parents and media portray this as persecution of innocent people; the social worker as rescuer quickly becomes seen as the persecutor of the family; the alleged persecuting parent then becomes seen as the victim of interference by professionals”.[69]

Public Opinion[edit]

Some people are concerned that implanting false memories in therapy and research may adhere to ethical principles, but in fact be immoral. A 2016 study focused on public attitude regarding deceptively implanting false memories gave interesting insights regarding this issues. People were most concerned with the consequences, with 37% saying it was overly manipulative, potentially harmful or traumatic. Their reasons against are that the ends do not justify the means (32%), potential for abuse (14%), lack of consent (10%), practical doubts (8%), better alternative (7%), and free will (3%). Of those who thought implanting false memories would be acceptable, 36% believed the end justified the means, with other reasons being increasing treatment options (6%), people need support (6%), no harm would be done (6%), and it’s no worse than alternatives (5%).[70] An article published in the journal entitled Applied Cognitive Psychology, indicated that the public has mixed sentiments about implanting false memories to improve eating habits, with 41% saying it would be generally unacceptable and 48% saying it woud, 25% think it completely unethical while 10% believe the opposite.[71]

Skepticism of the Theory[edit]

False Memory Syndrome has been described as a widespread social phenomenon where misguided therapists cause patients to invent memories of sexual abuse (McCarty & Hough, 1992). The syndrome was described and named by the families and professionals who comprise the False Memory Syndrome Foundation (see Freyd, March 1993, p. 4), an organization formed by parents claiming to be falsely accused of child sexual abuse.

Since its establishment in 1992, the False Memory Syndrome Foundation has received 14,000 reports of sexual abuse accusations based on recovered memories.

Proponents of the syndrome claim that it is occurring at epidemic levels, and some have gone so far as to characterize it as the mental health crisis of the 1990s (e.g., Gardner, 1993, p. 370). Critics, on the other hand, have suggested that the syndrome is based on vague, unsubstantiated generalizations, which do not hold up to scientific scrutiny (e.g., Page, 1999), and that the syndrome's primary purpose is to discredit victims' testimony (e.g., Murphy, 1997). This article critically examines the assumptions underlying the concept to determine whether there is sufficient empirical evidence to support "False Memory Syndrome" as a valid diagnostic construct. Epidemiological evidence is then examined to determine whether there is data to support claims of either a public health crisis or epidemic.

Experts have described recovered memory theory as "either the most fascinating psychological discovery of the 20th century or the centerpiece of the most embarrassing mistake modern psychiatry and psychotherapy have ever made." Recovered memory theorists believe that individuals repress memories of traumatic events deep in the psyche.

The American Psychiatric Association (1993) in a statement on the issue of false memories, stated that repression did occur, but was unable to provide convincing references. On examination of a list of 31 references none adequately demonstrated that it took place. Meanwhile, studies in cognitive psychology have shown very clearly that memory is highly malleable and is a reconstructive process, not to be compared with the replaying of a disc or the review of an engraving or a videotape. The hypothesis that memory – so subject to attrition with time and so liable to revision by motive – can be recovered in a pristine form or even in a 50% accurate state after years of neglect, inattention or suppression becomes untenable.

Benefits of false memories[edit]

Several possible benefits associated with false memory arrive from Fuzzy-trace theory and gyst memory. Valerie F. Reyna, who coined the terms as an explanation for the DRM paradigm, explains that her findings indicate that reliance on prior knowledge from cyst memory can help individuals make safer, well informed choices in terms of risk taking.[72]Other positive traits associated with false memory indicate that individuals have superior organizational processes, heightened creativity, and prime solutions for insight based problems. All of these things indicate that false memories are adaptive and functional.[73]False memories tied to familiar concepts can also potentially aid in future problem solving in a related topic, especially when related to survival related. [74]

False Memory Syndrome in Popular Culture

False Memory Syndrome has become so widespread, it has led to TV shows and movies about the phenomena and similar spin-offs. For example, the Netflix series “The Sinner” touches the idea of recovering forgotten memories. The show focuses on a woman who kills a seemingly random man on the beach one day for playing a song that triggered a traumatic event from her past, which she has temporarily forgotten. Throughout the first season, we watch as detectives try to trigger her memory and find a motive for her actions. This is an example of automatic behavior; when a person purposelessly acts. However, in the show’s case, she was injected with narcotics, to repress her memory.

See also[edit]

  • False memory syndrome, a condition in which a person's identity and relationships are affected by strongly believed but false memories of traumatic experiences.
  • Source-monitoring error, an effect in which memories are incorrectly attributed to different experiences than the ones that caused them.
  • Misinformation effect, false memories caused by exposure to misleading information presented between the encoding of an event and its subsequent recall.
  • Confabulation, the production of fabricated, distorted, or misinterpreted memories without the conscious intention to deceive.
  • Repressed memory, the idea that traumatic memories can be repressed and also potentially brought back through therapy.
  • Jamais vu, the feeling of unfamiliarity with recognised memories.
  • Cryptomnesia, a memory that is not recognised as such.


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Further reading[edit]