Controversial False Memory Syndrome

Few issues within psychology have been so hotly debated as that of false memory syndrome. False memory syndrome is the notion that illusory and untrue memories of earlier childhood abuse can be recalled by adult clients during therapy. According to the American Psychiatric Association, false memory is a person’s recollection and belief of an event that did not actually occur. On July 20, US District Judge Breyer dismissed a claim by George Franklin for financial compensation that he claimed was due following the quashing of his 1990 conviction for murder of an 8-year-old girl in 1969. The jury’s finding relied heavily on his daughter’s unreliable repressed memory. She had testified that she had seen her father smash in the girl’s skull with a rock. Franklin spent six and a half years in prison before he was released and has since filed claims against his daughter’s therapist, the prosecutors, detectives, and expert witnesses. This case has fuelled the debate on the concerns about repressed-memory, recovered memory, or false memory syndrome, although the syndrome is more usually targeted at recovering alleged cases of childhood sexual abuse.

Repressed-memory syndrome therapy was named by Richard Ofshe, a forensic psychologist. The therapy is rooted in Freudian psychoanalysis and a belief that the mind blocks distressing information, he says. Through the use of hypnosis, a therapist encourages a patient to experience a fantasy, like a nightmare, and then suggests to the patient that the experience really happened, according to Ofshe. This is said to release the repression and free the memory.

In 1992 the False Memory Syndrome Foundation (FMSF) was founded in Philadelphia because many people appeared to be developing false memories in a common way. The modal form of false memory syndrome usually affected a woman who had entered psychotherapy because of problems such as depression, anxiety, an eating disorder, alcohol abuse, difficulties after a divorce, and so on. In the hands of therapists who believed in searching for repressed memories of childhood abuse, the patient was encouraged to recall such events. If memories did not come quickly, more pressure was exerted. Once a memory developed, the patient was told to stay away from family members until they acknowledged their wickedness and guilt. Lawsuits might be launched to pay for the damage done and for further therapy. Families were being torn apart on uncorroborated evidence. In 1993 the American Psychiatric Association warned in a position paper that repressed memories could be false, especially when therapists were involved in the recovery.

In an increasingly polarized debate, extreme positions have been adopted, on the one side by those believing that recovered memories nearly always represent actual traumatic experiences, on the other side, by those describing a growing epidemic of false memories of abuse which did not occur. Proponents of the latter position draw upon findings from laboratory studies of the fallibility of memory and are critical of the methods used by therapists, which they believe to promote the creation of false memories. In response, those who believe that recovered memories are likely to be genuine provide evidence from research on those known to have suffered earlier sexual abuse and propose putative mechanisms, which may account for any subsequent delay in recall of the abuse.

Proponents of false memory syndrome have utilized the findings from laboratory studies of the suggestibility of memory to support their stance. A long history of research on human memory documents the extent to which misleading suggestions can distort the recall of events. In a classic study, psychology professor, Elizabeth Loftus, led five subjects to believe over a period, with the use of misleading and suggestive questioning, that they had been lost in a shopping mall as a child. Loftus concluded that it is possible to implant false memories, which can be as vivid, internally coherent and detailed as true memories, and that repetition of erroneous suggestions can lead to an acceptance by the subject of their truth. Loftus coined this phenomenon the “misinformation effect” and found such memory for nonevents and the subjects’ staunch belief in their reality to be far from rare.

In order to support the view that it is possible for pseudo-memories to be created, psychology professors Stephen Lindsay and J. Don Read cite examples of bizarre and unlikely memories which have been recovered during therapy. Read and Lindsay conclude that even their critics now concede that false memories can be implanted by therapists, and maintain that the debate has shifted from the possibility of therapy-induced false beliefs to their prevalence. The specific attitudes and behavior of therapists has been cited by false memory proponents as a factor contributing to this. Even eminent, experienced therapists use techniques likely to create false memories. Similarly, a significant number of doctoral therapists regularly apply methods involving leading suggestions which may have potential risk.

In light of the evidence of the fallibility and suggestibility of memory, it is conceivable that there are occasions when individuals develop false memories of childhood sexual abuse. However, the evidence suggesting that it is also possible to forget and later recall sexual abuse indicates that recovered memory for real events is also a genuine phenomenon. It is, therefore, possible to incorporate both positions, as the two stances are not mutually exclusive. The extreme positions adopted are, therefore, not tenable and to claim that either false memories are never created or that genuine abuse is never forgotten cannot be justified in view of the evidence. A more rational position is to accept that both may be possible. The reality is that child abuse does occur in all too many cases, and efforts must be taken to eliminate it.


Baker, R. ed. (1998). Child sexual abuse and false memory syndrome. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books.

Ceci, S.J. & Loftus, E.F. (1994). Memory’s work: a royal road to false memories? Applied Cognitive Psychology. Special Issue. 351-364.

Lindsay, D.S. & Read, J.D. (1994). Psychotherapy and memories of childhood sexual abuse: a cognitive perspective, Applied Cognitive Psychology, 8, Special Issue, 281-338.

Loftus, E.F. (1993). The reality of repressed memories. American Psychologist, 48, 518-537.

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