By Kenneth S. Pope
Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice Fall, 1995 vol. 2, #3, pp. 304-315.
Book Review: The Myth of Repressed Memory: False Memories and Allegations of Sexual Abuse. By Elizabeth Loftus and Katherine Ketcham.
- 1. The bogus event was traumatic. Just as false memory syndrome involves apparent recovery of traumatic memories, the experiment had to induce recovery of a traumatic autobiographical memory. As Loftus (1993) emphasized, "the lost-in-a-shopping-mall example shows that memory of an entire mildly traumatic event can be created" (p. 532).
- 2. Chris, the experimental subject, was not an adult. Had Chris been an adult, it is unlikely that anyone would have viewed this experiment as remarkable, meaningful, or persuasive. There would be no way to ensure that adults took such an experiment seriously and would be any less prone to be truthful with the experimenters than the experimenters were truthful with them. Media coverage of decades of deception research eroded the assumption that adult subjects are naive. Adults can appreciate the opportunity to have a little fun with experimenters, those so-called experts of the mind who recount in print and television shows how easily they fool their subjects. They may give whatever answers they think the experimenter wants. They may give whatever answers will get them out of there as soon as possible, wondering why experimenters expect much work or commitment for such a relatively low hourly wage. But a trusted older relative experimenting on the mind and memory of a minor still living at home was to many a convincing analogue. This design echoed the therapeutic relationship, a relationship of sometimes great importance to the patient, a relationship often reflecting trust, dependence, and the expectation of honesty. Someone only 8 or 14 years old and an older relative, like therapist and patient, have a relationship that is not solely that of researcher and experimental subject. A young child or teen may have great trust in older family members, looking to them for the safe reliability and honesty that cannot always be expected from strangers (e.g., those who conduct psychology experiments), but may be similar to the trust that patients may place in therapists. Certainly the brief, limited relation-ship between experimenters and adult volunteers (some of them college students who are even more aware of deception research) signing up for a university experi-ment does not reflect much at all the deeper seriousness, investment, and involvement that a patient has in therapy and the trust that a patient invests in a therapist. Those less than 15 years old are less likely to be aware that experimenters sometimes do not tell research subjects the truth, and are more likely to be truly naive subjects.
- 3. The manipulation of autobiographical memory seemed convincing. When debriefing led Chris to consider that the relative who had referred to a narrative as true was now saying it was false, he was not quite able to believe it (p. 98). The media have emphasized that the mildly trau-matic memory seemed more real to Chris than memory of actual events. "Chris . . . refused to relinquish his false memory even after he was told it never happened. His implanted recollection ... had become realer than his memory of some actual events. Chris had become, to borrow a term, an honest liar" (Boss, 1994).
- 4. The false memory still seemed real a year later. The experiment showed how persistent a false memory implanted by a trusted figure can be and the difficulty or perhaps impossibility of convincing a minor that what he or she clearly remembers as part of the authentic history of the self is complete fiction. In a videotaped interview conducted a year after debriefing, Chris says that the false memory "still seems like it really happened" (Loftus, 1994). The presentation of data spanning more than a year tends to be much more convincing than what are often called "quick and dirty" experiments.
- 5. The experiment relied on apparent realism. Loftus identified a validity problem in memory research. This prob-lem arises when experimental subjects are aware that the materials they try to remember are stimuli of a memory study (Loftus & Loftus, 1976, p. 110). When subjects sign up for a "memory experiment" and know that the materials to be remembered are stimuli in a memory experiment, the findings may lack validity beyond an atypical, laboratory setting. When an older, trusted family mem-ber, supposedly present when the pseudoevent occurred, presents the bogus event in the form of "Do you remember when . . . ?", the experiment avoids artificiality that can undermine both validity and generalizability.
Memories that may cause us great unhappiness if they were brought to mind often appear to be 'forgotten." However, are they really lost from memory or are they simply temporarily repressed as originally suggested by Freud (1922)? Repression is the phenomenon that prevents someone from remembering an event that can cause him pain and suffering. One way that we know that these memories are repressed and not completely lost is that the methods of free association and hypnosis and other special techniques used by psychotherapists can be used to bring repressed material to mind and can help a person remember things that he has failed to remember earlier. (Loftus & Loftus, 1976, p. 82).