Repressed Memory

Repression is a psychological construct with roots in Freudian ego defenses, and repression has existed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) through prior versions and into the current DSM-IV-TR in the diagnostic criteria for dissociative amnesia. Repression emerged into prominence in psychology and the law in the 1980s and 1990s with questions about repressed memories. Most notably, although researchers considered questions about misinformation and other factors that could negatively affect the accuracy of memories, Bass and Davis (1988) published The Courage to Heal. In this work, the authors guided readers through the processes by which readers who do not have memories of abuse can recover memories of childhood sexual abuse and learn to believe these memories. Bass and Davis (1988) sought to provide additional resources to aid the healing of survivors of these tragic abuses. The intense controversy through the 1990s and into the present centered on their claim that even for those individuals who do not remember abuse but “have a feeling that something abusive happened to [them], it probably did” (p. 21). In the early 1990s, these statements, along with a growing body of media stories and court cases involving repressed memory (see Loftus, 1993), inspired the eyewitness testimony field to include the study of the formation and modification of long-term autobiographical memories. Findings from this research instigated a controversy that continues into the present.

Researchers investigating repressed memories shared concerns about the legal system. What if juries are convinced by testimony based on recovered memories? How can the law determine whether recovered memories are true?

First, juries tend to believe that witnesses’ memories are true, even if they view recovered memories as slightly less credible (Loftus, 1993). Second, memories need not accurately reflect events as they occurred (Loftus, 1996). Third, researchers can implant completely false memories in laboratory participants that will cause participants to believe these memories and even to provide rich and convincing details from their memories of these events that never occurred (Loftus & Pickrell, 1995). Fourth, archival events provide convergent validity for these claims (Loftus, 1993). For example, during interviews with police and psychologists, Paul Ingram recalled that he had sexually abused his children (Loftus, 1993). He confessed to these behaviors, he believed his confession and his recovered memories of the abuse, and he added graphic details that police believed could have only come from Ingram’s memories of participation in the alleged abuse. The prosecution hired Richard Ofshe, a sociologist, as a consultant. Ofshe used similar interviewing techniques to prompt Ingram to confess to additional abusive acts that the police knew to be false. Ingram confessed to these false acts, wrote a three-page confession full of rich detail, and believed his own confession and recovered memories about the false abuse (Loftus, 1993).

The academic disagreements over repressed memory extend to the interface between psychology and the law. At an American Psychology-Law Society convention in the 1990s, three sitting judges heard two teams, each consisting of a lawyer and a psychologist, argue for and against the admissibility of repressed memory evidence in court debate. The three judges reached three different conclusions regarding the admissibility of this testimony. One said repressed memory testimony should always be admitted because the DSM-IV diagnostic criteria for dissociative amnesia include repression of traumatic or stressful life events. The second judge said such testimony should never be admitted due to difficulties in differentiating true and false memories, and the third judge argued that decisions should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. This disagreement illustrates the difficulties inherent in assessing the influence of psychology on the legal system.

Families can be decimated by accusations of childhood sexual abuse, regardless of whether the abuse actually occurred. Even in cases of actual childhood sexual abuse, years later there may exist little physical or other evidence to support these accusations—and determining the truth value of a serious accusation is far from simple. Fundamentally and tragically, observers must note that these memories of abuse, whether objectively true or false, feel real to the individual. Concerns about human costs of recovered memories continue to guide the debate.

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