False memories (Forensic Science)
The concept of false memories arose in the context of criticism of the alternative concept of repressed and recovered memories. Sigmund Freud originated the concept of repression around 1900, asserting that people react to disturbing thoughts, feelings, impulses, and experiences by removing them from conscious awareness, or repressing them. Such repressed materials continue to fester, however, and manifest themselves in anxiety and neurotic symptoms until the underlying conflicts are uncovered in psychotherapy.
In the last decades of the twentieth century, it became evident that instances of sexual abuse of children by parents and other caretakers are more common than earlier generations had believed. Whereas earlier psychoanalysts would have dismissed as fantasy patients’ expressed thoughts involving themes of sexual interactions between children and parents, some psychotherapists in the late twentieth century, especially those most sensitive to women’s issues, concluded that the expression of such thoughts reflected factual memories of abuse in childhood and that such abuse is a primary cause of emotional distress. Many psychotherapists worked with patients to “recover” memories of abuse that they believed the patients had repressed, as they believed this was important to relieve the patients’ distress. Those who accepted the memories of abuse recovered in therapy as valid memories often instigated civil lawsuits to seek damages...
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Contrasting Views (Forensic Science)
From the beginning, Dr. Elizabeth F. Loftus and other cognitive psychologists were skeptical of the validity of “recovered” memories. Much experimental work had already demonstrated that memory is vulnerable to distortion by suggestion and that a person’s confidence in a memory and the vividness of a particular memory do not always correlate with its accuracy. Experimental work had documented how profoundly interviewers can alter the accounts of eyewitnesses through suggestions introduced unintentionally during questioning. The influence of new erroneous information slipped into interrogations by suggestive questioning had become widely known as the “misinformation effect.”
Loftus and her colleagues attacked the concept of repressed and recovered memories with several types of arguments. First, they sought to produce evidence that would establish that such “memories” could be created through suggestion. Second, they sought to establish that such suggestions are often made in psychotherapy settings. Third, they showed that some so-called recovered memories contain themes that are wildly improbable. Finally, they attacked the basis of these memories in the concept of repression, which Loftus called a “myth.”
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Evidence for False Memories (Forensic Science)
Loftus and her colleagues first sought to gather evidence that fictitious events can be implanted as “memories” through suggestion. Beginning in 1994, these researchers successfully instilled such false memories in laboratory subjects. In a series of experiments, false memories were implanted by the subjects’ cooperating family members. Each designated family member was given a written description of a plausible event that supposedly happened to the subject in childhood; the family member verified that the event had never occurred. The fictitious events included being lost in a shopping mall, being the victim of a vicious animal attack, almost drowning at the beach, and spilling punch on the parents of the bride at a wedding reception. In a session in which the subject and the family member “reminisced about childhood experiences,” the fictional story and some true personal stories were discussed.
In these experiments, a significant minority of subjects, usually about a third, came to accept the fictitious stories as memories of “real” episodes from their own experience. In the most successful cases, the subjects embellished the false memories with descriptive details. In some cases, the “memories” were accompanied by appropriate emotional reactions; for example, subjects who accepted as memories contrived reports of bad childhood digestive upset caused by hard-boiled eggs later refused...
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Repression, Forgetting, and Memory (Forensic Science)
The final contention made by Loftus and her colleagues is that the concept of repression behind the theory of “repressed trauma” is flawed. The thrust of modern research findings is that although certain implications of the concept of repression are valid, others are seriously misleading.
The implication that forgetting is selective—for example, memories of happy and flattering experiences are retained in memory more easily, and unhappy and humiliating experiences are more easily dismissed from memory—is supported by much current research. Much forgetting seems to involve a sort of crowding of humiliating and painful experiences out of the focus of consciousness as people become involved in more reinforcing activities and roles. Most human beings like to interpret their pasts favorably; they dislike reminding themselves of painful experiences in the past, so they reinterpret those experiences to present themselves and their loved ones in more flattering ways. That such unpleasantness as sexual abuse can be dismissed from mind for periods of time is not, therefore, surprising.
For this reason, some recovered memories are likely to be valid memories of real episodes of abuse. In some documented cases, the original abuse has been confirmed by other evidence and the recovery of the memories occurred outside therapy. In many such cases, the confirmed abuse occurred for only a brief period of time...
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Legal Issues (Forensic Science)
People who recover memories of abuse and betrayal by caretakers they once respected and trusted typically feel angry and betrayed, and many seek redress through legal action. Litigation based on recovered memories, whether accurate or false, presents special challenges for the legal system, first, because any actual damages were inflicted years and perhaps decades before they were exposed, and second, because the legal system increasingly acknowledges that some recovered memories reflect real abuse and others are the misleading products of suggestion. Whether a memory is “recovered” or “false” can be decided with certainty only in cases confirmed by other evidence. The delay in initiating litigation in such cases was the easiest problem to solve: approximately three-fourths of U.S. states have adjusted their statutes of limitation on child sexual abuse charges to begin counting from the date of the memory recovery rather than from the date of the offense.
Since 1990, when George Franklin was sentenced to prison on the basis of the hypnotically refreshed memory of his daughter, courts have become increasingly aware of the fallibility of recovered memories. Criminal cases are rarely initiated based on uncorroborated recovered memories because “reasonable doubt” can easily be established. Even in civil cases, which have looser standards of proof, judges may be required to warn juries about the unreliability of such...
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Further Reading (Forensic Science)
Bass, Ellen, and Laura Davis. The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse. 3d ed. New York: HarperPerennial, 1994. Argues that the sexual abuse of female children is pervasive, that this abuse is quite commonly repressed and forgotten, and that this is the primary cause of a variety of neurotic, interpersonal, and physical problems.
Conway, Martin, ed. Recovered Memories and False Memories. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. Collection of papers taking a variety of views concerning the recovered versus false memory debate. Introduction orients the reader to each of the other ten papers. The last integrating chapter, titled “Taking the Middle Line,” is valuable for the balanced perspective it offers.
Davies, Graham M., and Tim Dalgleish, eds. Recovered Memories: Seeking the Middle Ground. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2001. Collection of papers that try to get beyond the polemics of the recovered versus false memory controversy of the 1990’s. Strong first chapter describes the view of Freud, who considered such recovered material as fantasies symptomatic of emotional conflicts rather than memories of actual experiences. Subsequent chapters deal with the personal, social, and legal consequences of the issue.
Leavitt, Frank. “Iatrogenic Recovered Memories: Examining the Empirical Evidence.” American Journal of Forensic Psychology 19...
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False Memories (World of Forensic Science)
False memory syndrome (FMS), as defined by John F. Kihlstrom (psychology professor at the University of California, San Francisco) and utilized by the False Memory Foundation, is a condition in which a person's identity and interpersonal relationships are centered on a memory of a traumatic experience that is objectively false, but one that the person strongly believes. Note that the syndrome is not characterized by false memories as such. Almost everyone has memories that are inaccurate. Rather, the syndrome may be diagnosed when the memory is so deeply ingrained that it orients the individual's entire personality and lifestyle, in turn disrupting all sorts of other adaptive behavior. The analogy to personality disorder is intentional. False memory syndrome is especially destructive because the person diligently avoids confrontation with any evidence that might challenge the memory. Thus, it takes on a life of its own, encapsulated and resistant to correction. The person may become so focused on that memory that he or she may be effectively distracted from coping with the real problems in his or her life.
False memories are often of childhood sexual abuse (CSA) or satanic ritual abuse (SRA). The syndrome has been reported since the late 1980s; at that time, psychotherapeutic use of hypnosis and the concept of recovered memories were also becoming widely publicized. Persons with FMS typically report that they have suddenly remembered events of past abuse and, thus, feel compelled to confront their alleged perpetrators. The memories of the alleged abuse are typically reported to have been awakened during the course of some form of therapy. The response of the accused perpetrator is generally one of shock and disbelief, followed by adamant denial of its occurrence, and of the accusation. Adult children with FMS who accuse parents or other relatives (or other persons formerly close to them) often become estranged from their families. The accusers sometimes seek lawyers and the involvement of the legal system.
There is a cluster of characteristics associated with the development of FMS. Clients are typically adult females who seek psychotherapy because of significant negative life stressors, including relationship difficulties or dissolution, job dissatisfaction or loss, birth or death in the immediate family, addiction, or eating disorders. The nature of the presenting symptoms often prompts the therapist to search for memory of a childhood, or early life, trauma that could have acted as a catalyst for the current symptoms, generally at the expense of dealing with "real-time" problems while focusing on (real or imagined) past events. Patients experiencing FMS generally blame all current difficulties on the remembered past abuse, and adapt their identities to those of abuse survivors. They typically become increasingly dependent on the therapist, who professes belief in their abuse allegations, and they estrange themselves from those who either disagree with their new self-identification or attempt to prove them wrong.
One reported abuse survivor confronted her family with memories of repeated instances of incest occurring between the ages of three and eight with her father as the alleged perpetrator. She further asserted that the sexual abuse occurred in the attic of their home. She claimed she was taken to the attic via a back stairway. Her parents responded to the accusations by insisting that the home they lived in during that time had only one floor, no attic, and no staircase. They offered to bring the client (and the therapist) to the former home, to show her that the memory was incorrect. The daughter refused and cut off all further contact with her parents.
From a forensic psychiatry perspective, the issue of FMS is a challenging one. It is virtually impossible to distinguish between real and recovered or false or imagined memories, and it is difficult to validate early childhood memories via the use of objective data. Plus, it is difficult to base a legal or criminal case on recovered memory data as a result. The cost (both emotional and financial), when the memory is actually false, can be enormous, to the individual with FMS, to the accused family member (or other former close associate), and to the legal system.
SEE ALSO Crime scene reconstruction; Ethical issues; Frye standard; Physical evidence.