False Memories, Essay Example

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Essay

Abstract

Elizabeth Loftus has studied false memories and their consequences for many years and has a great amount of experience. The ideas within this paper will provide background into her work, will define false memories, will explain repressed memories, and will help the reader understand the consequences of false memories. False memories are common in individuals who have dealt with traumatic events throughout their lives and it is important to cover the essentials of false memory and why these false or repressed memories may come up later in life. Throughout this paper, we will go into specific detail in reference to false memories as it relates to child abuse, traumatic events, imagination, as well as other forms of traumatic situations such as rape, domestic abuse, and sexual abuse to name a few. This paper will give specific examples and will explain false and repressed memory to shed a little light on the issues.

Introduction

There is much to be said about the work that Elizabeth Loftus and others have done on false and/or repressed memory. Elizabeth Loftus, a psychologist who has focused a lot of time and energy on understanding false memory and how it shapes a person, is an individual who believes in false memory as well as repressed memory and helps others to understand the important consequences of the concept. There are many individuals who are skeptical about false or repressed memories and have a hard time believing that it is even possible to remember something many, many years after it has happened. This is the concept of repressed memories. According to Elizabeth Loftus (1997) in her article “Creating False Memories,” “false memories are constructed by combining actual memories with the content of suggestions received by others” (p. 74). Therefore, false memories can be defined as actual memories that take shape into something different due to suggestions that others may put into the minds of other individuals who are trying to remember the actual memories. The actual memories become confused with the suggestions and are later manipulated into being false memories because they are not completely true. It is possible for individuals to forget the source of the information. “This is a classic example of source confusion, in which the content and the source become dissociated” (Loftus, 1997, p. 74). This is something that can easily happen for someone who has blocked out horrible events in their lives; they eventually remember bits and pieces and either remembers the whole thing or tries to work through them with a therapist and then the suggestions come in. Repressed and false memories are clearly possible and many of them are very accurate; however, individuals must be careful of what is being suggested to them by others if they want to get to the bottom of the memories they are experiencing.

The formation of false memories is truly possible. Loftus and Pickrell (1995) in their article “The Formation of False Memories,” state:

As Greene has aptly noted, memories do not exist in a vacuum. Rather, they continually disrupt each other through a mechanism that we call ‘interference.’ Virtually thousands of studies have documented how our memories can be disrupted by things that we experienced earlier (proactive interference) or things that we experience later (retroactive interference) (p.720).

Our memories are able to be distorted by the things in which we have experienced and the things in which others suggest to us. Whether we have a clear memory of something that happened or not, misinformation given to us can easily help alter that memory and form a false memory. According to Loftus and Pickrell (1995), “in some experiments, the deficits in memory performance following receipt of misinformation have been dramatic, with performance differences as large as 30% or 40%” (p. 720). Loftus and Pickrell (1995) state an example of this where individuals were able to create a false memory of being lost based on misinformation or suggestions that they were given. One of the most common examples is getting lost. People may have actually been lost at some point in their lives and they could be confusing this actual event with the false memory description (Loftus & Pickrell, 1995, p. 724). This goes with what was said earlier. Many individuals may have a previous experience with something, but suggestions or misinformation allows them to falsely remember something that never happened. According to the authors, it is very easy to form a false memory and many individuals do not even know they are doing it. According to Loftus (1997), “without corroboration, it is very difficult to differentiate between false memories and true ones” (“Creating False Memories,” p. 71). There have been many investigations in which show us, that under the right circumstances, false memories are easily instilled in certain people. Yet, many false memories are authentic. Therefore, it is important to touch on how false memories are formed. Loftus (1997) states:

Research studies are beginning to give us an understanding of how false memories of complete, emotional and self-participatory experiences are created in adults. First, there are social demands on individuals to remember; for instance, researchers exert some pressure on participants in a study to come up with memories. Second, memory construction by imagining events can be explicitly encouraged when people are having trouble remembering. And, finally, individuals can be encouraged not to think about whether their constructions are real or not. Creation of false memories are most likely to occur when these external factors are present, whether this occurs in an experimental setting, in a therapeutic setting, or in everyday activities (“Creating False Memories,” p.74).

The reality of repressed memories is that it is completely possible; however, just because they are possible, does not mean that they are accurate. Many individuals experience many different things in their lives and, if they are traumatic, these individuals push these memories so deep down into their souls and so far back into their minds that they completely forget about them until they resurface later on in life. According to Loftus (1993), “the idea of repression of early traumatic memories is a concept that many psychotherapists readily accept” as repression is the foundation of psychoanalysis and these patients’ help them keep their jobs (p. 519). Many individuals who have been traumatized do not want to remember the bad parts of their lives, so they bury those emotions and memories deep down inside until they are forced to deal with them. However, some repressed memories are not authentic. It does not help that psychiatrists and psychologists also aid in this ability to create false memories. There have been many cases in which doctors have tricked their clients into false memories. Nadean Cool was one of these women. Elizabeth Loftus (1997) states:

During therapy, the psychiatrist used hypnosis and other suggestive techniques to dig out buried memories of abuse that Cool herself had allegedly experienced. In the process, Cool became convinced that she had repressed memories of having been in a satanic cult, eating babies, of being raped, of having sex with animals, and of being forced to watch the murder of her eight-year-old friend. She came to believe that she had over 120 personalities – children, adults, angels and even a dull – all because, Cool was told, she had experienced severe childhood sexual and physical abuse. (“Creating False Memories,” p. 70).

Many therapists believe that repressed memories are true and real. Yet, Cara Laney and Elizabeth Loftus (2005) feel that the evidence to support this claim is flawed. The authors feel as if much more has to go into the recovery of memories so that they can be considered authentic. Laney and Loftus (2005) put this into perspective for their readers:

Some therapists and CSA researchers have argued that, when people experience repeated horrific events, they repress these experiences into the unconscious. Later, they are able to unearth the previously repressed (or dissociated) memories and become conscious of their prior brutalization. A more specific version of this process involves the claim that, when a person (particularly a child) experiences a traumatic event (particularly CSA), the person’s psyche splits into 2 or more separate parts. One part experiences the traumatic event; the other part continues to function normally, with no awareness of the abuse. Then, it is claimed, at some point in the future when it is safe for the person to put these half-psyches back together (and this is necessary because the trauma has begun to leak out in some other way), a therapist can help the person to ‘recover’ or reconstruct memories of the original trauma (p.823).

This is a perfect example of what might happen to a person who has gone through a traumatic event. However, the problem that many researchers such as Loftus have is that the therapist has the skills to create memories that are not completely accurate during therapy. What is interesting is that many memory experts believe that traumatic events produce better, not worse, memories than the everyday events that the individual may be experiencing. Traumatic experiences are not easy situations to forget and many can suffer from PTSD for many years. Finally, it is important to note that “source misattribution occurs when individuals integrate additional information about an event into their recollections but do not remember that the information did not come directly from their original experience with the event” (Schreiber, Wentura, & Bilsky, 2001, p. 527). Many individuals that are eye witnesses in criminal cases are subject to this kind of misinformation and it does not help anyone in the process. Therefore, it is important to note that not all memories are authentic and completely accurate, but they could still be there and they could have certainly really happened. That is the ugliness of repressed memories altogether.

Though many believe that repressed memory is possible, there is still controversy on the subject. Much can also be said about repressed memory and false memory in relation to traumatic events that occur throughout a person’s life. As stated earlier, many individuals try to block out the traumatic experiences of their lives. Traumatic memories are memories that many do not want to remember or deal with; therefore, they push them so far back in their minds that they do not have to think about them until it is time to deal with them (if they ever do). This is where false and repressed memory actually comes into play. According to Gerald M. Rosen, Marc Sageman, and Elizabeth Loftus (2004), “early studies (Munsterberg, 1908) and better controlled studies in the 1970’s (Loftus & Hoffman, 1989) showed that false details of an event can be planted through suggestive questioning, or other post-event exposure. Subsequent research has demonstrated that even an entire event can be fabricated in memory” (p. 138). As suggested from this, the controversy is there. Many can have traumatic experiences and still not have authentic memories of those experiences. According to Loftus (1994), many clinicians believe that part of their work is to help patients recover from repressed memory of traumatic experiences such as sexual or physical abuse. They feel as if it is somehow their responsibility to help these patients remember some of the things that they may not want to remember. “Indeed, claims about the commonness of repressed memories and the particular accuracy of de-repressed memories are freely made. These claims are being made despite the fact that the evidence for the delayed recovery of valid repressed memories is ‘rather thin’” (Loftus, 2012, p. 444).  There are some therapists that persuade their clients that the abuse never happened; however, there are also perpetrators that convince victims that it never happened as well (Lein, 1999, p. 481). According to Lein (1999), “a very effective way of denying or muting charges of sexual abuse is to focus on the so-called false memories. A very misleading term, false memory confuses two separate measures of memory: completeness and accuracy” (p. 482). It is said that, in most cases, the gist of memories are actually quite accurate and this pertains more to traumatic memories. However, “normal memory is more malleable and subject to constructivist distortion influences” as stated by Loftus and Ketcham in 1994 (Lein, 1999, p. 482). What is interesting is that false memory does not just occur with abuse. According to Loftus, Garry & Feldman (1994), individuals forget many things throughout their lives. “For example, people (over one quarter of those interviewed) have failed to recall automobile accidents 9 to 12 months after their occurrence, although someone else in the car had been injured” (p. 1179). Other incidents have been forgotten as well, such as hospitalization and deaths. Finally, it is important to understand that false memories could be there or could happen just because “the moral memories were more emotionally arousing” and many believe that this could make people susceptible to making things up (Escobedo and Adolphs, 2010, p. 516). However, this also says that the emotions that are emotionally arousing could also be less difficult to forget as emotions play a huge role in a person’s memory. It is very hard to distinguish which memories are true and really repressed from those that are false and have been implanted into someone’s memory. This is why therapists have to be ethical in their procedures in helping others who have to deal with such memories. So, it is important to understand that just because the memories are repressed does not mean that they are not real and does not mean that they are. This is something at therapists, investigators, doctors and others need to work on so they can help individuals that are suffering from memories of abuse and many other things.

False memories can also be formed through a person’s imagination. The imagination is a force to be reckoned with. “Garry, Manning, Loftus, and Sherman (1996) demonstrated that people show increased confidence ratings that a possibly fictitious childhood event occurred after imagining an event” (Thomas & Loftus, 2002, p. 423). This is certainly possible. As children, we make up many stories and our imaginations go wild. After such imaginations work like this, the events are much more easily remembered. In support, according to Thomas & Loftus (2002) state imagination has the possibility to actually create false childhood memories, but that it can also trigger events that actually happened. To make this clear, it is possible that the triggering of a false memory could actually be something that happened in the past that has been pushed back into the unconscious mind (p. 423). Therefore, it is easy to see how imagination can be a blessing or a hindrance on the ideas of memory. It is how therapists and doctors decide to use these “images” or imaginations in order to prove or disprove a false memory. Therapists must be sensitive to this as Loftus states that they must be ethically inclined to do what is right by their patients.

False beliefs are a lot like false memories and do have behavioral consequences. According to Elke Geraerts, Daniel M. Bernstein, Harald Merckelbach, Christel Linders, Linsey Raymaekers, and Elizabeth Loftus (2008), “studies on false memories and beliefs, for example, have compellingly shown that misleading information can lead to the creation of recollections of entire events that have not occurred” (p.749). The one question, however, that many ask is whether false memories actually have an influence one someone’s short and long term behavior. According to Geraerts et al (2008), false memories do affect behavior. Geraerts et al (2008) state:

Recently, Bernstein, Laney, Morris and Loftus (2005a, 2005b) took the first steps toward and answering this question by developing a procedure for examining the effects of false childhood memories and beliefs. Their subjects received the false suggestion that they had become ill after eating a certain food (e.g., hard-boiled eggs, strawberry ice cream) when they were children. The false suggestion increased subjects’ confidence that the critical event had occurred. Moreover, the false belief resulted in decreased self-reported preference for the target food and increased anticipated behavioral avoidance of that food (p.749).

This being said, it is very easy for individuals to change how they react to something based on false memories or beliefs. If they believe bad things happened in their past, they are more apt to stay away from those things in the future. Geraerts et al (2008) completed a study to prove this idea. They used 180 first-year undergraduates for the study. For this study, they “randomly assigned subjects to one of two groups: subjects in the egg-salad group (n=120) received the false suggestion that they had gotten sick after eating egg salad as a child” (p. 750). The other 60 subjects remained in the control group and didn’t receive the false suggestion. After completion of several food-history inventories, food-preference questionnaires and party-behavior questionnaires, the researchers found the following:

Subjects were considered to have arguably true memories (a) if they both scored above the midpoint for the critical item on the food-history inventory during the first session and reported a belief or memory for the critical egg-salad event or (b) if their parents confirmed that they had gotten sick after eating egg salad as a child (p. 751).

The study truly shows that suggesting false ideas to someone can actually change the person’s behavior in the short and long term. These findings show this in this study and many others that have been done throughout the years.

In conclusion, the reader should understand the ideas and complications with memory and how many are not accurate all of the time. Examples show that therapists have the tendency and the ability to distort a patient’s memory so much that these patients believe that they were never traumatized or that they were extremely traumatized. Therefore, it is important to understand some of the things that therapists should do and not do when helping clients who may have false or repressed memories. These include helping the client open the therapeutic window to find some balance between the denial phase and the intrusive phase as well as letting the client set the agenda; the therapist should not do this. It is not up to him or her. According to Loftus (1994), clinicians should focus on functioning rather than uncovering memories, not suggest things to their clients, guard against their own personal bias as this may contaminate the session, and be cautious of hypnosis. They should also encourage the use of behavioral and pharmalogical therapies as these are there to minimize the occurrence of false memories and false diagnoses (p. 445). If clinicians are to do these things and accept patients as they are, the idea of false memories may not even have to occur. Patients may actually finally start to uncover memories that are true, concise and accurate and will eventually be able to deal with the repressed memories they have felt for so long.

References

Escobedo, J. R., & Adolphs, R. (2010). Becoming a better person: Temporal remoteness biases autobiographical memories for moral events. American psychological association, 10(4), 511-518. doi: 10.1037/a0018723

Geraerts, E., Bernstein, D. M., Merckelbach, H., Linders, C., Raymaekers, L., & Loftus, E. F.

(2008). Lasting false beliefs and their behavioral consequences. Association of  psychological science, 19(8), 749-753.

Laney, C., & Loftus, E. F. (2005). Traumatic memories are not necessarily accurate memories. Can J. Psychiatry, 50(13), 823-828.

Lein, J. (1999). Recovered memories: Context and controversy. Social work, 44(5), 481-490. doi: 0037-8046/99

Loftus, E. F. (1997). Creating false memories. Scientific American, 277, 70-75. Retrieved from http://www.vuw.ac.nz/psyc/garry/psyc322/readings.html

Loftus, E. F., Garry, M., & Feldman, J. (1994). Forgetting sexual trauma: What does it mean when 38% forget? Journal of consulting and clinical psychology, 62(6), 1177-1181.

Loftus, E. F. (1993). The reality of repressed memories. American psychologist, 48(5), 518-537.

Loftus, E. F. (1994). The repressed memory controversy. American psychologist, 49(5), 443-445. Retrieved from http://us.mg5.mail.yahoo.com/neo/launch?.Rand=fl3d6relg98hc

Loftus, E. F., & Pickrell, J. E. (1995). The formation of false memories. Psychiatric annals, 25(12), 720-725.

Rosen, G. M., Sageman, M., & Loftus, E. F. (2004). A historical note on false traumatic memories. Journal of clinical psychology, 60(1), 137-139. doi: 10.1002/jclp.10232

Schreiber, N., Wentura, D., & Bilsky, W. (2001). “What else could he have done?” creating false answers in child witnesses by inviting speculation. Journal of applied psychology, 86(3), 525-532.

Thomas, A. K., & Loftus, E. F. (2002). Creating bizarre false memories through imagination. Memory and cognition, 30(3), 423-431.

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