From: Todd I. Stark
To: All Nov-19-93 03:16PM
Subject: RE: sci.skeptic FAQ on False Memory
Organization: Digital Equipment Corporation
From: email@example.com (Todd I. Stark)
[follows article 15610 in sci.psychology, 56949 in sci.skeptic]
Subject: re: Sci.Skeptic FAQ review request
Here is my first attempt to come up with a FAQ on the subject of
"false memory," per Paul's request.
(I didn't try to address the reliability of memory in general here, it
seemed like a little too broad a topic for me to attempt).
10.1 What is "False Memory Syndrome ?"
There is currently no such standard medical diagnosis in the U.S. as
"False Memory Syndrome." "False Memory Syndrome" is a term coined by a
support and advocacy group based in Philadelphia, Pa. in the U.S., the
False Memory Syndrome Foundation, Inc., to publicize and dramatize the plight
of parents, alleged pedophiles, and other adults who feel they have been
unjustly accused of child abuse. The initial membership of the FMS consisted
of 202 families who had contacted psychologist Ralph Underwager, a frequent
advocate for accused sex offenders. The current executive director is Pamela
The basic premise of the FMS idea is that :
under conditions of therapy,
a child's (person's) recollection of past events may be distorted,
and that convincing evidence of of psychological trauma and detailed
false testimony against an innocent person may be _manufactured_ by
the (unwitting) facilitation of a therapist,
who is motivated to find abuse where there is none.
Underwager's work has been criticized on the same basis as criticism
of the FMS itself, that he appears biased against children alleging sexual
abuse (Salter). This is of course met by the symmetric claim from FMS
advocates and others, that some percentage of therapists seem to specialize in
finding abuse, and are unfairly biased against the accused adults. Various
examples of popular psychology literature are often quoted to support
(and sometimes symbollize) this contention. _The_Courage_to_Heal_ is
an example of this genre, suggesting that forgotten abuse is so likely that
any woman who has any suspicion at all of having been abused probably was.
The issue around "False Memory" is then the degree to which the therapist
may have (unwittingly or deliberately) contributed to a remembrance of
serious abuse which did not occur, or may have exaggerated the incidence
or severity of the abusive behavior.
There seems to be sufficient evidence, both from clinical tradition and from
experimental data on human memory, to establish that there is a possibility
for the client of a strongly motivated therapist to be influenced by the
expectations of the therapist, even to the point of forgetting or
distorting important life events, or manufacturing them. (See examples in
Goldstein, 1992; general comments by Loftus, 1993; and descriptions by
Ofshe and Tavris cited in the references).
The use of hypnosis has been particularly controversial since
it involves an unusually intimate form of both verbal and non-verbal
communication. In hypnosis, the client is highly motivated to respond with
historical reconstructions at the request of the therapist, even if they do
not have sufficient details to reconstruct past events accurately. This is
related to what is called the 'response criterion problem' in experimental
hypnosis research. (Klatzky and Erdely, 1985).
Hypnosis also has some notoriety in this regard because of the clinical
phenomenon for which Milton Erickson coined the term 'vivification,' where
vividly imagined events are difficult or impossible to distinguish from
ongoing sensory perceptions or from recollections, and the possibility
that such a vivid imagining could be remembered as a veridical life event.
Some experimental research also appears to confirm the potential
for hypnotic suggestion to radically alter even the ongoing sensory perception
of good hypnotic subjects (Spiegel, 1989). Canadian Psychiatrist
William Sargant (see his work on political and religious conversion,
Sargant, 1959) also did some classic work in which he demonstrated the
therapeutic value of "abreaction," or in this case, vividly imagined 'false'
events, with the help of hypnosis or sometimes ethyl ether.
It is sometimes claimed that distortions introduced with the
help of hypnotic suggestion can be picked up with standardized
tests. A test for whether cult members had been "brainwashed" was used with
some claimed success (Verdier, 1977). More recently, research
into picking up stable dissociative tendencies has shown some promise.
There appear to be some general groupings of traits which may correlate with
unusually vivid imagery and extremely active fantasy life in some
individuals (Wilson & Barber, 1983), which has been hypothesized to be related
to the need to dissociate mentally in order to avoid severe anxiety.
This would theoretically allow "false memory" to occur more readily in these
individuals, (though it would at the same time also raise the question of
what early anxiety-provoking event may have triggered the dissociation) and
also provide a plausible mechanism for the claims of repressed memories.
There may also be some neurological similarities (Persinger, 1992), and some
common early life experiential triggers.
There is no known reliable way at this time to verify whether a particular
recollection was actually introduced as a so-called "false memory."
The most promising research in this area seems to point to the
possibility that we may someday be able to more reliably pick out the
'fantasy prone,' at least as a relative number on a scale,
but this still leaves the question open as to cause and effect. Did a
severe early trauma provoke the need for escape into a rich inner fantasy
world, or was the remembrance of a traumatic past solely the result of a
therapist taking advantage of "fantasy proneness ?"
So, one of the more useful functions of an advocacy group such as the FMS
is to educate the public to the possibility that even the most real
seeming and vivid memories could possibly have been fabricated or
exaggerated by interaction with a therapist.
One of the less useful results of a group like the FMS is to cast
aspersions and additional frustrating doubt on the claims of an already
desperate child who is having a difficult time understanding and recovering
from a traumatic experience.
Klatzky and Erdely, 1985, "The response criterion problem in tests of
hypnosis and memory," International Journal of Clinical and Experimental
Hypnosis , 33, 246-257.
Ofshe, Richard, 1992, "Inadvertent Hypnosis During Interrogation,"
International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis , 11:125-155.
Goldstein, Eleanor, 1992, Confabulations , Boca Raton, Fla:Social Issues
Loftus, Elizabeth, June 27,1993, "You Must Remember This ... ... or do you ?
How Real are Repressed Memories ?" Washington Post .
Ofshe, Richard and Ethan Watters, (March, 1993), "Making Monsters,"
Tavris, Carole, (Jan 3,1993), "Beware the Incest-Survivor Machine," N.Y.
Times Book Review.
Persinger MA. "Neuropsychological profiles of adults who report 'sudden
remembering' of early childhood memories: implications for claims of
sex abuse and alien visitation/abduction experiences." Perceptual &
Motor Skills. 75(1):259-66, 1992 Aug.
Wilson and Barber, "The Fantasy Prone Personality : Implications for
understanding imagery, hypnosis, and parapsychological phenomena," in
Imagery ,Current Theory, Research , and Application , from Wiley Press, 1983.
Paul A. Verdier, "Brainwashing and the Cults, an expose on capturing the
mind," 1977, Wilshire Books.
William Sargant, "Battle for the Mind, a physiology of conversion and
brainwashing," 1959, N.Y.: Harper and Row
John Marks, "The Search for the 'Manchurian Candidate,' The CIA and Mind
Control," 1979, N.Y.: New York Times Book Co. pp. 190
D. Spiegel et al, 1989, "Hypnotic alteration of somatosensory perception,"
American Journal of Psychiatry
"A conversation with Pamela Freyd, Ph.D. Co-founder and executive
director, False Memory Syndrome Foundation, Inc" by David Calof in
Treating Abuse Today, Vol 3(3), 25-39
"There are four basic types : the cretin, the imbecile, the stupid, and
the mad. Normality is a balanced mixture of all four." Umberto Eco
From: Darlene Viggiano
To: All Msg #2, Nov-22-93 12:49PM
Subject: FMS lit.
Organization: Stanford University/ASO
From: firstname.lastname@example.org (Darlene Viggiano)
Re: T.I. Stark's post --
I'm with your balanced view 100% and appreciate your research. I must add
a bit of my own, however, that may seem unbalanced.
1) Dr. Eliana Gil, a noted therapist for survivors, recently gave a talk at
Stanford Children's Hospital in which she cited an article by Underwater
that was clearly pro-pedofile in nature. It appeared in a Danish psych
journal, I believe, for which Gil had an English version of the article.
2) Gil cited a study by J. Herman done in '87 saying that while 64% of a
sample of abused women didn't have full recall of abuse, 75% coul get
collaboration or validation of the event.
3) She also cited a study by Briere and Conte (Briere is noted for his
studies in this field) saying that in a study of 420 females and 30 males,
59% couldn't remember the abuse suffered in childhood until after age 18 --
and that the predictive factors of this repression were molestation at an
early age, long duration of abuse and violent abuse.
4) Another study she cited was by Linda Meyer Williams, in which 100 women
who were seen in the emergency room as children to treat injury from the
abuse were asked if they remembered being in the E.R. 38% said no although
the records of them being there were substantiated.
5) The Loftus study saying that Loftus was able to produce false memories
of being lost in a shopping mall had a suject number of 5 -- even at 100%
is that statistically valid? Is being lost in a shopping mall comparable
to being raped by a relative?
6) David Spiegel told me in a personal interview that hypnosis does Not
guarantee true memories by Any means, but neither does claiming false
memory guarantee that a pedofile isn't being protected. He had some choice
names for people who engage in this, so my guess is that he stands with
Stark and me on demanding balance.
I've posted this to broaden the picture on the references cited in Stark,
which I'm glad he posted.
Organization: University of California, Berkeley
From: email@example.com (Suzanne Patricia Johnson)
In article ,
Darlene Viggiano wrote:
>Re: T.I. Stark's post --
>1) Dr. Eliana Gil, a noted therapist for survivors, recently gave a talk at
>Stanford Children's Hospital in which she cited an article by Underwater
>that was clearly pro-pedofile in nature. It appeared in a Danish psych
>journal, I believe, for which Gil had an English version of the article.
I believe the name is Underwager, as in Ralph. What does "clearly pro-
pedophile" mean? Could you be more specific? The phrase as it stands
sounds a little inflammatory.
>2) Gil cited a study by J. Herman done in '87 saying that while 64% of a
>sample of abused women didn't have full recall of abuse, 75% coul get
>collaboration or validation of the event.
>3) She also cited a study by Briere and Conte (Briere is noted for his
>studies in this field) saying that in a study of 420 females and 30 males,
>59% couldn't remember the abuse suffered in childhood until after age 18 --
>and that the predictive factors of this repression were molestation at an
>early age, long duration of abuse and violent abuse.
The Herman and Schatzow study (Psychoanalytic Psychology 4(1):1-14, 1987)
defined "full recall" as having always remembered the abuse in detail and
recovering _no_ new memories in therapy. H&S defined amnesia as ranging
from having no gaps in memory but recovering additional memory (ies)
during treatment, to not being able to remember childhood at all very well,
to having recently recovered new memories. The severe memory deficit
portion of this group (28%) fell into the latter two categories.
Probably no one, other than Borge's Funes, has full recall for any distant
event. If we focus on severe impairment of memory (as rated by H&S on the
basis of their clinical records), we still cannot be sure whether we are
looking at people with poor memory, period, or people who have dissociated
and repressed (or whatever: the H&S paper isn't too clear about why the
memories would be repressed, or what the mechanism is) experiences of
childhood sexual abuse.
While one of the explicit goals of this study is to "lay to rest, if
possible, the concern that such recollections might be based upon fantasy,"
it doesn't directly address this question. Aside from the problem with
how amnesia is operationalized, little data is given on what evidence
constituted corroboration of abuse. Moreover, a comparison between degree
of "amnesia" and nature of corroborating evidence -- which might have
constituted a telling test of the "fantasy" hypothesis -- was not attempted.
For reasons like these, the H&S and Briere and Conte studies have failed to
swing the balance in debates over false memories. (The B&C study uses
a similarly ambiguous survey item to get at an inadequately specified
concept of memory repression; see B&C, J Traumatic Stress 6(1):21-31
1993, Loftus in Am Psych 48(5):518-537 p.521, and your local survey
>5) The Loftus study saying that Loftus was able to produce false memories
>of being lost in a shopping mall had a suject number of 5 -- even at 100%
>is that statistically valid? Is being lost in a shopping mall comparable
>to being raped by a relative?
Loftus was trying to use evidence to demonstrate that false memories of
a sort can be created. Small N's are the norm in alot of psychological
research, particularly of a clinical nature. The more relevant question
you raise is the later one. From applied research, we do know that it is
possible to get people to believe in and act in consistence with false
memories for highly traumatic personal experiences. Since it would be
completely unethical to reproduce this in research settings, this kind of
thing tends to get studied after the fact. However, the questions of
when and why people come to believe in false autobiographical traumas are
as yet unknown, as is the prevalence of this phenomenon.