Repression and Contemporary Research on Memory

It is easy to find conflicting opinions among respected psychologists on the issue motivated repression. One review of the clinical literature on motivated repression concluded "the evidence for repression is overwhelming and obvious" (Erdelyi & Goldberg, 1979, p. 384). Another review of the same literature concluded "the concept of repression has not been validated with experimental research" (Holmes, 1990, p. 97).

Elizabeth Loftus, a professor of psychology and world-renowned memory researcher , has perhaps conducted the most research on the authenticity of recovered memories. In her article entitled "The Reality of Repressed Memories" (Loftus, 1993), she discusses many cases of individuals who suddenly recover memories of important events: some of these turn out to be true memories, whereas others are false or inaccurate accounts, which are later recanted. However , she ar gues that we should not conclude that all recovered memories are false memories, just because some, such as Holly Ramona' s, have turned out to be apparently false. Similarly, we should not assume that all recovered memories are true, just because some, such as Ross Cheit' s that we explored in Chapter 9, have turned out to be true. Loftus believes that what is important is being aware of the processes that may contribute to the possible creation of inaccurate or false memories. Loftus (1992, 1993) suggests that many variables contribute to the construction of false memories.

One factor that might influence people to have false memories is th popular press. There are many books currently on the market that purport to be guides for survivors of abuse; these are undoubtedly of some comfort to people who have been living with painful memories of abuse. For those who have no such memories, these books often provide strong suggestions that abuse could have happened, even if there is no memory of the abuse. For example, a popular book in this category is The Courage to Heal (Bass & Davis, 1988), which states:

You may think you don't have memories. . . . To say, "I was abused," you don t need the kind of r ecall that would stand up in a court of law . Often the knowledge that you wer e abused starts with a tiny feeling, an intuition. . . . Assume your feelings ar e valid. . . . If you think you wer e abused and your life shows the symptoms, then you wer e. (p. 22)

This quote is a powerful suggestion that may lead some persons to conclude falsely that they must have been abused. A person who starts with this idea may embellish this suggestion by filling in details to make a convincing or consistent story of abuse If he or she is led further along these lines by a questioning therapist, his or her false memories may become more and more convincing. Loftus (1993) has demonstrated in the lab that subjects questioned in a leading manner after watching a video of a car accident can be led to conclude that one car ran a stop sign, even though there was no stop sign in the video. And, with more leading questioning, subjects increase their confidence that one car is to blame because it ran the stop sign. The quote from The Courage to Heal can act as a powerful suggestion to the person to conclude that psychological symptoms are the result of memories of abuse that have been for gotten.

What are some of the symptoms The Courage to Heal suggests indicate a person is likely to have been abused? The book lists, among other things, low self-esteem, self-destructive thoughts, depression, and sexual dysfunction. This book, and others like it, provides a strong message that, even in the absence of a specific memor , many people should conclude that they have been abused. However , there are many causes of low self-esteem, depression, and sexual dysfunction. In addition, these symptoms are associated with many other psychological disorders, such as phobias and anxieties, and these disorders certainly can occur without a history of abuse.

Another factor that may contribute to false memories is the behavior of some therapists. Loftus tells of a woman who wrote to her after the woman' s therapist had

Professor Elizabeth Loftus testified in the Ramona trial and has contributed a good deal of scientific information to the debate over repressed memories.

concluded that her depression was caused by childhood sexual abuse. The patient stated that her therapist was certain of that diagnosis, even though the patient had no memory of the abuse. The patient further stated that she could not understand how something so terrible could have happened without her being able to remember the event. Loftus tells of another case of a man who went to a therapist because he was distraught over his father's suicide. The patient talked about painful events in his life, but the therapist kept suggesting that there must be something else. Not knowing what this "something else" was, the patient became even more depressed. Then, during a therapy session, the therapist stated that "you display the same kinds of characteristics as some of my patients who are victims of . . . ritualistic abuse" (cited in Loftus, 1993, p. 528).

A variety of techniques are used in therapy that encourage patients to reflect o their childhoods. Hypnosis is one technique used to get patients to recall freely childhood experiences within the protection of a relaxed, suggestion-induced, trance-like state. An extensive scientific literature, howeve , shows that hypnosis does not improve memory (Nash, 1987, 1988). This explains why hypnotizing witnesses is not allowed in courts of law; hypnotized witnesses do not recall facts with any greater accuracy than nonhypnotized witnesses (Wagstaff, Vella, & Perfect, 1992). In fact, hypnosis may be associated with increased distortions in memory (Spanos & McLean, 1986). In one case, a highly suggestible man was led under hypnosis to develop "memories" for crimes that had not even been committed (Ofshe, 1992). Under hypnosis, people are often more imaginative, more spontaneous, and more emotional and they often report unusual bodily sensations (Nash, 1988). After being taken back to childhood through hypnosis, people have been known to recall being abducted by alien creatures with fantastic spaceships (Loftus, 1993). It is unknown to what extent hypnosis allows fantasy and imagination to creep into consciousness and be interpreted as memories.

Loftus and colleagues have recently pointed to specific techniques in psy chotherapy that can contribute to the creation of false memories (Loftus, 2000; L ynn, Lock, Loftus, Krackow, & Lilienfeld, 2003). These include the use of hypnosis, suggestive interviewing, the interpretation of symptoms as signs of past trauma, pressure from an authority figure to recall trauma, and dream interpretation. Such practices ca be used to foster the recollection of events that did not actually happen (T sai, Loftus, & Polage, 2000). In laboratory studies, Loftus and colleagues have shown that having persons imagine various events can lead them to later rate those events as more familiar, leading subjects to have a more elaborate memory representation, which in turn leads them to rate those imagined events as likely to have happened (Thomas, Bulevich, & Loftus, 2003). This effect is called the imagination inflation effect and it occurs when a memory is elaborated upon through imagination, leading the person to confuse the imagined event with events that actually happened. For example, by showing people an advertisement suggesting that they shook hands with Mickey Mouse as a child, those people later had higher confidence that they had personally shaken hand with Mickey as a child. Another study had persons imagining shaking hands with Bugs Bunny and produced a similar ef fect (Braun, Ellis, & Loftus, 2002). Having persons imagine something, even something as unusual as shaking hands with Bugs Bunny, can lead them to have a false confidence that it actually may have happened Loftus and others have pointed out the implications of this research for the admissibility of allegedly repressed memories in courts (Hyman & Loftus, 2002; Loftus, 2003).

Why would some therapists suggest false memories to their patients? Many therapists believe that ef fective treatment must result in a patient' s overcoming repressed memories and reclaiming a traumatic past. They believe that the road to wellness requires bringing traumatic memories into consciousness and having the patient

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