Figure 613

Speed of recall of negative childhood memories by high-anxious, defensive high-anxious, low-anxious, and repressor groups. Data from Myers and Brewin (1994).

Repression

Freud (1915, 1943) emphasised the importance of emotional factors in forgetting. He argued that very threatening or anxiety-provoking material is often unable to gain access to conscious awareness, and he used the term repression to refer to this phenomenon. According to Freud (1915, p. 86), "The essence of repression lies simply in the function of rejecting and keeping something out of consciousness." However, Freud sometimes used the concept to refer merely to the inhibition of the capacity for emotional experience (Madison, 1956).

Freud's ideas on repression emerged from his clinical experiences, with the repression he claimed to have observed mostly involving traumatic events that had happened to his patients. Researchers cannot produce such repression in their participants for obvious ethical reasons. However, attempts have been made to study a repression-like phenomenon in the laboratory. The evidence has come from studies on normal individuals known as repressors, having low scores on trait anxiety (a personality factor relating to anxiety susceptibility) and high scores on defensiveness. Repressors describe themselves as controlled and relatively unemotional. According to Weinberger, Schwartz, and Davidson (1979), those who score low on trait anxiety and on defensiveness are the truly low-anxious, those high on trait anxiety and low on defensiveness are the high-anxious, and those high on both trait anxiety and defensiveness are the defensive high-anxious.

All four groups were studied by Myers and Brewin (1994). Repressors were much slower than the other groups to recall negative childhood memories (see Figure 6.13). This did not happen because repressors had enjoyed the happiest childhoods: semi-structured interviews indicated they had experienced the most indifference and hostility from their fathers.

Childhood trauma

There is also non-experimental evidence of repression, with large numbers of adults apparently recovering repressed memories of sexual and/or physical abuse they suffered in childhood. There has been a fierce and bitter controversy between those who believe that these recovered memories are genuine and those who argue that such memories are false (see Shobe & Kihlstrom, 1997, and Nadel & Jacobs, 1998, for different views on this issue). The issues are complex, and no definitive conclusion is possible.

Those who believe in repressed memories of childhood traumatic events cite evidence such as that of Williams (1994). She interviewed 129 women who had suffered acts of rape and sexual abuse more than 17 years previously. All of them had been 12 or younger at the time, and 38% had no recollection of the sexual abuse they had suffered. Williams (1994, p. 1174) concluded as follows: "If, as these findings suggest, having no recall of sexual abuse is a fairly common event, later recovery of memories of child sexual abuse by some women should not be surprising." In fact, 16% of those women who recalled being abused said that there had been periods of time in the past when they could remember the abuse. There was one finding that did not fit with Freud's repression hypothesis: he would have expected those women who suffered the most severe abuse to show the worst recall, but the opposite is what was actually found.

Those who believe that recovered memories are false point out that there is often no concrete evidence to confirm their accuracy. They focus on research showing how easy it is for people to be misled into believing in the existence of events that never happened. For example, Ceci (1995) asked preschool children to think about a range of real and fictitious but plausible events over a 10-week period. The children found it hard to distinguish between the real and the fictitious events, with 58% of them providing detailed stories about fictitious events that they falsely believed had occurred. Psychologists who were experienced in interviewing children watched videotapes of the stories, and could not tell which events were real and which were false.

Brewin, Andrews, and Gotlib (1993, p. 94) argued that it was important to consider the ways in which children or adults are asked about traumatic events. According to Brewin et al. (1993, p. 94), "Provided that individuals are questioned about the occurrence of specific events or facts that they were sufficiently old and well placed to know about, the central features of their accounts are likely to be reasonably accurate." However, the final word should go to the American Psychological Association (1995): "At this point it is impossible without further corroborative evidence, to distinguish a true memory from a false one."

Interference theory

The dominant approach to forgetting during much of the 20th century was based on interference theory. It was assumed that our ability to remember what we are currently learning can be disrupted or interfered with by what we have previously learned or by what we learn in the future. When previous learning interferes with later learning, we have proactive inteference. When later learning disrupts earlier learning, there is retroactive interference. Methods of testing for proactive and retroactive interference are shown in Figure 6.14.

Interference theory can be traced back to Hugo Munsterberg in the 19th century. He had for many years kept his pocket-watch in one particular pocket. When he started keeping it in a different pocket, he often fumbled about in confusion when asked for the time. He had learned an association between the stimulus, "What time is it, Hugo?", and the response of removing the watch from his pocket. Later on, the stimulus remained the same, but a different response was now associated with it. Subsequent research using the methods such as those shown in Figure 6.14 revealed that both proactive and retroactive interference are maximal when two different responses have been associated with the same stimulus; intermediate when two similar responses have been associated with the same stimulus; and minimal when two different stimuli are involved (Underwood & Postman, 1960). Strong evidence for retroactive interference has been obtained in

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