False Memory Syndrome

views updated

False Memory Syndrome

False memory syndrome refers to a memory disorder in which the individual has come to believe fantasies, usually invoked during hypnotism or while undergoing psychotherapeutic counseling, are real. The term "false memory syndrome" has come to replace "survivor syndrome" or "incest survivor syndrome" as the name given the set of symptoms that led the individual to try hypnotism or therapy in the first place.

During the 1970s, two different but structurally similar stories began to be told by individuals. One story was related by individuals who claimed that at some point in the past they had been confronted by beings from outer space. They were taken aboard their spacecraft and physically examined. The examination was physically intrusive, personally embarrassing, and often painful. Afterward, they had no memory of what had occurred, though occasionally they had the sense that they had lost several hours of their life. One of the more famous cases concerned Barney and Betty Hill, who later under hypnosis told a very similar story of their abduction while driving home in the early morning hours on a New Hampshire highway. In some cases, such as the famous account by Whitley Strieber, further exploration revealed multiple accounts of abductions.

Then in the 1980s, beginning with the book Michelle Remembers (1980) by Michelle Smith, women began to emerge telling the story of their recovered memory of having been involved in a Satanic cult in their childhood. The stories claimed that parents were introducing their daughters into the cult and the child was being forced to participate in a variety of rituals and was sexually abused. After a period of time, usually a few years, the child was allowed to leave and continue her life as if nothing peculiar had ever happened to her. Their friends and peer group at school were never aware of their Satanic ritual abuse.

As the number of cases increased, their veracity was apparently bolstered by contemporary stories of children who were being forced into abusive situations with Satanic parents. The most famous case concerned the McMartin Dayschool in Manhattan Beach, California. Beginning from a single accusation of sexual abuse directed at one of the school's employees, the town's police chief sent out a letter to several hundred parents whose children were attending the school or had attended it in the past. The letter, leaked to the press, created a community-wide panic and eventually several hundred children were inter-viewed by psychologists, who diagnosed more than 300 as victims of abuse. During the interviews, as the story developed, it moved from a case of child abuse to a case of multiple child abuse to a case of ritual child abuse. A child questioned on a number of occasions would begin to agree with suggestions made by the psychologists and then elaborate on the story. Children told of being forced to participate in the making of child pornography movies, watching animal sacrifices, and being involved in Satanic rituals in an elaborate tunnel complex below the school. The accusations resulted in the longest criminal trial in California history and resulted in no convictions. However, the extended proceedings contributed greatly to the belief in the existence of widespread Satanism.

The stories of UFO abduction and Satanic ritual abuse grew up side by side but were rarely associated. The stories of abduction were initially pursued by UFO investigators, who were assisted by hypnotists. They were then joined by psychological professionals, some of whom had a prior interest in either UFOs or in past life therapy. They were also different from the Satanic cases in that the actual abduction event was ascribed to extraterrestrials and thus had no implications for law enforcement. The entities accused of doing what were unquestionably illegal acts were not available for arrest. Those who argued for the genuineness of the abductions had the additional task of convincing skeptics of the existence of UFOs.

Such was not the case with reports of Satanic abuse. While never a large phenomenon, Satanism undoubtedly existed. There were several quite public Satanist groups (such as the Church of Satan and the Temple of Set ), and several incidents of small informal Satanist groups that had committed various violent acts, including murder. The more informal groups, whose existence was usually discovered when a crime was traced to them, also verified that Satanic groups were operating sub rosa in the society.

As the cases of Satanic ritual abuse multiplied, people were called out as the perpetrators of crimes, usually rape and/or child abuse. In the first cases, male parents were accused of abusing their now-grown daughter when she was a child. These were joined by ex-spouses accusing former mates who had retained custody of their children of abuse. Cases in which the accusation carried no occult content mixed with cases of ritual abuse. By the end of the 1980s the number of cases had grown into the thousands. From North America (the original case was Canadian), the idea migrated to the United Kingdom and Continental Europe, Australia, and New Zealand.

The idea of Satanic ritual abuse rested upon a series of hypotheses that had been suggested by psychologists operating within the larger child protection movement that was attempting to ferret out cases of child abuse and change public perceptions about its widespread existence in the culture. At the beginning of modern psychotherapy, Sigmund Freud had noted the existence of suppressed memories. As early as 1978, psychologist Roland Summit had authored a paper suggesting that children should be believed when they told stories of abuse, no matter how incredible they sounded. The spread of this opinion among child psychologists led credence to accounts of Satanic abuse when they were told by children.

The existence of Satanic groups and the belief in the accusations of children that they had been involved in Satanic rituals, made the stories of adult women of childhood involvement in a Satanic cult highly believable to many, especially among conservative Christians possessed of a strong personal belief in the existence of the Devil. Through the 1980s, psychologists emerged who specialized in treating people with what were believed to be repressed memories of childhood involvement in a Satanic cult. At the same time, police who had an interest in occult-related crime began to offer professional training seminars on Satanic crimes. Several cities, such as Los Angeles, California, organized groups to study and make recommendations for action on Satanic cult activity.

By the end of the 1980s thousands of cases of Satanic ritual abuse had emerged and observers realized that society was entering a major state of panic about the existence of Satanic groups throughout the English-speaking world. The panic was becoming visible in the spread of popular literature advocating the growth of Satanism, the reallocating of law enforcement funds to investigate accusations of Satanic activity, and a series of civil and criminal court cases with individuals standing trial for events that reputedly occurred several decades earlier. The primary evidence in these cases was the recovered memory of the accusing offspring. Where actual court cases did not occur, many families were torn apart by adult children accusing their parents of abuse, breaking relations with them and asking their siblings to join them.

The accusations of ritual abuse had a variety of problems. As the number of cases multiplied, they described the existence of a vast underground Satanic network that had existed for several generations, yet, prior to the 1980s was completely unknown. Other stories that emerged through the 1980s described rituals and activities largely based upon and similar to those described by Michelle Smith in her book. Then, it was discovered that her book was a hoax and that the rituals had actually been copied from some traditional African practices. The discovery of the Michelle Smith hoax followed the discovery of several other fictionalized accounts being offered by other self-confessed survivorsmost notably Lauren Stratford and Rebecca Brown.

Most importantly, in the early 1990s, a series of reports on the investigations of accusations of Satanic abuse concluded that investigators had been unable to find any collaborating evidence. The lack of hard evidence to verify either ritual abuse or the existence of the Satanic network has made most police departments very skeptical of further reports of Satanism.

In the early 1990s, psychologists, especially those who had been called upon to counsel parents who had been accused of abuse by their children based upon recovered memories, became concerned over the practice of recovered memory therapy by their colleagues. They encouraged the formation of parent support groups and in 1992 led in the formation of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation. They proposed that the so-called survivors of ritual abuse were really suffering from a memory disorder that they termed the false memory syndrome. They suggested that recovered memory therapy was based upon a false understanding of memory and its malleability. Rather than recovering memories, they were by their therapy assisting their clients in the creation of false memories. Through the 1990s, a number of therapists whose patients had recovered memories of abuse and subsequently accused their parents of abuse, found themselves in court defending their actions.

The understanding of the false memory syndrome as it exists in Satanic cases has had a rebound affect on UFO abduction reports. Structurally they are very like the Satanic reports and like them, there is little collaborating hard evidence of the abduction accounts. In the wake of the action taken against therapists who promoted Satanic ritual abuse, psychologists have also criticized those of their colleagues who have championed therapy with UFO abductees as also generation of a false memory syndrome in their clients.


Goldstein, E., and Kevin Farmer. Confabulations: Creating False Memories, Destroying Families. Boca Raton, Fla.: Upton Books, 1995.

Hicks, Robert. In Pursuit of Satan: The Police and the Occult. Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1991.

Hochman, John. "Recovered Memory Therapy and False Memory Syndrome." Skeptic 2, 3 (1994): 58-61.

Loftus, Elizabeth, and Katherine Ketchum. The Myth of Repressed Memories: False Memories and Allegations of Sexual Abuse. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1996.

Nathan, Debbie, and Michael Snedeker. Satan's Silence: Ritual Abuse and the Making of a Modern American Witch Hunt. New York: Basic Books, 1995.

False Memories

views updated


False memories may be full-blown memories of events that were never experienced or (perhaps more commonly) memories that are distorted (i.e., the event one is remembering actually occurred, but it did not occur in the way that is being recalled). Even though memory can foster an illusion of reliving an experience, it is actually a reconstruction and hence subject to departures from objective facts. This entry focuses on false episodic memories, or inaccurate memories of episodes in one's past, which can be distinguished from false semantic memories, which include inaccurate knowledge (e.g., erroneously believing that the capital of Russia is St. Petersburg).

For example, when conveying anecdotes in casual social interactions, people sometimes embellish them to make them more interesting, often spicing them with fresh details in subsequent retellings to assure the desired pungency. Although innocent in intent, such embellishments can actually alter the teller's own memory of the event. Even though the raconteur might be fully aware of the fictional enhancements at the time, he or she may in time come to think of them as actual components of the original event (Tversky and Marsh, 2000).

We distinguish here between two broad classes of episodic false memories: those that arise from internal processes (e.g., the example regarding embellishments) and those that arise from external events (e.g., from hearing other peoples' erroneous accounts of an event). In the former case, people's own thoughts, associations, or inferences cause them to misremember the past, whereas in the latter case, the false memories arise from someone else's overt suggestion or misleading statements.

False Memories Arising from Internal Processes

In everyday conversation, listeners often make inferences that stretch the meaning of the speaker's explicit words. For example, if a colleague told you that his infant had "stayed awake all night," you might infer that the baby had cried. Such inferences often insinuate themselves into memory. Indeed, when asked later, one might be likely to recall the statement as having been "the infant cried all night" (Brewer, 1977; Bransford and Franks, 1971).

The literature on the role of schemas (or general world knowledge) on memory also sheds light on the influence that inferences can have on memory. This work is rooted in studies by Bartlett (1932), who demonstrated that when English students were presented with an American Indian folktale that they found difficult to comprehend, the flaws in their memories of the folktale often betrayed British cultural influences.

More recent experimental investigations into internally generated false memories include studies in which people are given short lists of about fifteen related words to remember (e.g., bed, rest, awake, tired, dream). When given an immediate free recall test after such a list (and told to recall every word that is remembered in any order but without guessing), people often recall sleep, a related (but not presented) word (Roediger and McDermott, 1995). This approach, which allows the rapid implanting of numerous mini false memories, enables researchers to manipulate various independent and subject variables in order to observe their effects on false recall (and false recognition) probabilities (Roediger and McDermott, 2000). This work shows not only that people recall and recognize the nonpresented, related words but that they also claim to remember the precise moment of presentation of these (nonpresented) words. In addition, the forgetting function for the related, nonpresented words is less steep than the forgetting function for studied words.

Another recent line of research has investigated the role that imagination can play in distorting memory. The mere act of imagining an event can inflate the probability that a person will come to have a full-blown recollection of the (nonexistent) prior event. This phenomenon has been dubbed imagination inflation (Garry, Manning, and Loftus, 1996; Goff and Roediger, 1998).

Not only can imagining an event that did not previously occur create memories for that event, but also describing an event that did indeed occur can color memory for that event. For example, if expert wine tasters describe a wine they just sampled, it does not change their memory for the wine; if, however, intermediate-level wine tasters attempt to describe the wine just enjoyed, the descriptions skew their later memory of the wine (Melcher and Schooler, 1996). This interference from attempting to verbalize an experience that is not readily amenable to accurate verbal description has been termed "verbal overshadowing" by Jonathan Schooler.

False Memories Arising from External Factors

Some of the best-known false memory work can be considered adaptations of the classic studies of retroactive interference, in which a subsequent event can interfere with memory for a similar, prior event (McGeoch, 1932). In its more modern manifestation, subjects might be presented with a slide show or videotape depicting a car crash and later be exposed to misleading information about this event either through a narrative, suggestive questions, or both. In a classic study by Loftus and Palmer (1974), such a crash was followed by a questionnaire asking people a series of questions about the crash. The critical manipulation was a single verb in one of the questions: contacted, hit, bumped, collided, or smashed. That is, people were asked, "How fast were the cars going when they ___ into each other?" Speed estimates varied markedly as a function of the verb used; when the more dramatic verb smashed was invoked, the average estimated speed was forty-one miles per hour, whereas the verb contacted elicited an average estimate of only thirty-two miles per hour. Even more amazing was that the wording of this single question influenced peoples' memories even a week later when they were asked, "Did you see any broken glass?" Subjects were more likely to erroneously recollect broken glass if they had encountered the verb smashed a week earlier (relative to the verb hit).

Work within this tradition is often referred to as the misleading-information paradigm or sometimes the eyewitness-memory paradigm. Similar findings with respect to the role of intervening suggestions on peoples' memories have been demonstrated for police lineups among other domains. Elizabeth Loftus combined this procedure with the imagination-inflation procedures in a case study in which she created a full-blown memory of being lost in a shopping mall in a teenage boy (Chris) who was never actually lost in a mall (Loftus, 1993). Loftus prompted the false memory by having Chris's brother suggest the incident to Chris, complete with specific details. Two weeks after the initial description of the nonevent, Chris was able to "recall" minute details from this incident, including the balding head and the kind of eyeglasses worn by the man who rescued him. Ira Hyman and his colleagues have performed systematic studies of this type and explored individual differences among people that influence the likelihood of such false memories (Hyman and Billings, 1998).

Processes That Give Rise to False Memories

Many theoretical perspectives have been applied to the study of false memories. We focus here primarily on the Source Monitoring Framework, which has been espoused by Marcia Johnson and her colleagues (Johnson, Hastroudi, and Lindsay, 1993; Johnson and Raye, 1981). Accurate memory requires disentangling recollection of events from speculations, inferences, and imaginings. Achieving the seemingly simple goal is easier in theory than in practice. Simply asking people to focus carefully on whether something was experienced or only imagined or thought and to be sure to recall only what overtly occurred (and not what they inferred or thought) is not sufficient to avoid false memories and may even exacerbate them in some situations (Hicks and Marsh, 2001). Telling people before an encoding phase that they might be misled and that they should encode the information carefully so as not to confuse their thoughts with the overt event may aid them somewhat but is by no means sufficient to eliminate later false memories. Some research has shown that, relative to young adults, old adults have more difficulties in monitoring the retrieval process in order to avoid false memories.

Practical Implications

The fallibility of memory has become a contentious subject not only in psychological theory, but also as a result of its practical implications in the legal system, where the reliability of eyewitness accounts has come increasingly into question. Several conclusions can be safely reached from this research, however. Perhaps the most important point is that a full-blown, vivid recollection of a prior event is not diagnostic of its prior occurrence; it is perfectly possible to vividly recollect an event that was only previously imagined or thought about. The stories we tell ourselves and others color our memory for the object of the story. In this vein, retrieval has been described as a double-edged sword: It helps us remember what occurred previously (the testing effect), but it also can distort memory. Simple instructions to try to avoid false memories are often insufficient to do so.

Finally, memory's reconstructive nature might be considered a cognitive asset rather than a drawback. Most of our misguided recollections are fairly harmless, and many inferences about another's conversational intent are probably correct—in the foregoing example, the baby probably was crying all night. Only in the high-stakes atmosphere of, say, the courtroom or the police lineup does it become critical to disentangle the wheat of accurate memory from the chaff of imagination, inference, conjecture, and embellishment.



Bartlett, F. C. (1932). Remembering: A study in experimental and social psychology. New York: Macmillan.

Bransford, J. D., and Franks, J. J. (1971). The abstraction of linguistic ideas. Cognitive Psychology 2, 331-350.

Brewer, W. F. (1977). Memory for the pragmatic implications of sentences. Memory & Cognition 5, 673-678.

Garry, M., Manning, C. G., and Loftus, E. F. (1996). Imagination inflation: Imagining a childhood event inflates confidences that it occurred. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review 3, 208-214.

Goff, L. M., and Roediger, H. L., III. (1998). Imagination inflation for action events: Repeated imaginings lead to illusory recollections. Memory & Cognition 26, 20-33.

Hicks, J. L., and Marsh, R. L. (2001). False recognition occurs more frequently during source identification than during oldnew recognition. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition 27, 375-383.

Hyman, I. E., and Billings, F. J. (1998). Individual differences and the creation of false childhood memories. Memory 6, 1-20.

Johnson, M. K., Hashtroudi, S., and Lindsay, D. S. (1993). Source monitoring. Psychological Bulletin 114, 3-28.

Johnson, M. K., and Raye, C. L. (1981). Reality monitoring. Psychological Review 88, 67-85.

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

Loftus, E. F., and Palmer, J. C. (1974). Reconstruction of automobile destruction: An example of the interaction between language and memory. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior 13, 585-589.

McGeoch, J. A. (1932). Forgetting and the law of disuse. Psychological Review 39, 352-370.

Melcher, J. M., and Schooler, J. W. (1996). The misremembrance of wines past: Verbal and perceptual expertise differentially mediate verbal overshadowing of taste memory. Journal of Memory and Language 35, 231-245.

Roediger, H. L., and McDermott, K. B. (1995). Creating false memories: Remembering words not presented in lists. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition 21, 803-814.

—— (2000). Tricks of memory. Current Directions in Psychological Science 9, 123-127.

Tversky, B., and Marsh, E. (2000). Biased retellings of events yield biased memories. Cognitive Psychology 40, 1-38.

Kathleen B.McDermott

Jason C. K.Chan

False Memories

views updated

False Memories

False memory syndrome (FMS), as defined by John F. Kihlstrom (psychology professor at the University of California, San Francisco) and utilized by the False Memory Foundation, is a condition in which a person's identity and interpersonal relationships are centered on a memory of a traumatic experience that is objectively false, but one that the person strongly believes. Note that the syndrome is not characterized by false memories as such. Almost everyone has memories that are inaccurate. Rather, the syndrome may be diagnosed when the memory is so deeply ingrained that it orients the individual's entire personality and lifestyle, in turn disrupting all sorts of other adaptive behavior. The analogy to personality disorder is intentional. False memory syndrome is especially destructive because the person diligently avoids confrontation with any evidence that might challenge the memory. Thus, it takes on a life of its own, encapsulated and resistant to correction. The person may become so focused on that memory that he or she may be effectively distracted from coping with the real problems in his or her life.

False memories are often of childhood sexual abuse (CSA) or satanic ritual abuse (SRA). The syndrome has been reported since the late 1980s; at that time, psychotherapeutic use of hypnosis and the concept of recovered memories were also becoming widely publicized. Persons with FMS typically report that they have suddenly remembered events of past abuse and, thus, feel compelled to confront their alleged perpetrators. The memories of the alleged abuse are typically reported to have been awakened during the course of some form of therapy. The response of the accused perpetrator is generally one of shock and disbelief, followed by adamant denial of its occurrence, and of the accusation. Adult children with FMS who accuse parents or other relatives (or other persons formerly close to them) often become estranged from their families. The accusers sometimes seek lawyers and the involvement of the legal system.

There is a cluster of characteristics associated with the development of FMS. Clients are typically adult females who seek psychotherapy because of significant negative life stressors, including relationship difficulties or dissolution, job dissatisfaction or loss, birth or death in the immediate family, addiction, or eating disorders. The nature of the presenting symptoms often prompts the therapist to search for memory of a childhood, or early life, trauma that could have acted as a catalyst for the current symptoms, generally at the expense of dealing with "real-time" problems while focusing on (real or imagined) past events. Patients experiencing FMS generally blame all current difficulties on the remembered past abuse, and adapt their identities to those of abuse survivors. They typically become increasingly dependent on the therapist, who professes belief in their abuse allegations, and they estrange themselves from those who either disagree with their new self-identification or attempt to prove them wrong.

One reported abuse survivor confronted her family with memories of repeated instances of incest occurring between the ages of three and eight with her father as the alleged perpetrator. She further asserted that the sexual abuse occurred in the attic of their home. She claimed she was taken to the attic via a back stairway. Her parents responded to the accusations by insisting that the home they lived in during that time had only one floor, no attic, and no staircase. They offered to bring the client (and the therapist) to the former home, to show her that the memory was incorrect. The daughter refused and cut off all further contact with her parents.

From a forensic psychiatry perspective, the issue of FMS is a challenging one. It is virtually impossible to distinguish between real and recovered or false or imagined memories, and it is difficult to validate early childhood memories via the use of objective data. Plus, it is difficult to base a legal or criminal case on recovered memory data as a result. The cost (both emotional and financial), when the memory is actually false, can be enormous, to the individual with FMS, to the accused family member (or other former close associate), and to the legal system.

see also Crime scene reconstruction; Ethical issues; Frye standard; Physical evidence.