Twelve Myths about False Memories
1. False memories of
abuse are always implanted by poorly trained therapists,
usually through hypnosis
Not true. Any therapist, no matter how
highly trained, may unwittingly encourage false memory if
s/he subscribes to the belief that hidden memories of
abuse are responsible for adult problems and that the
memory can be recovered.
2. Dissociated memories
which are recovered are more likely to be accurate than
Not true. There is no more evidence for
dissociation as a mechanism of abuse memory amnesia than
repression. Some theorists prefer dissociation because it
suggests that 'part of' the client always remembered the
abuse so they cannot be false memories. On inspection,
this often turns out to mean the memory was stored in a
personality fragment called 'an alter' which is supposed
to represent a frozen stage of development. There is no
scientific basis for this construction and the process of
mapping alters and quizzing them for information is a
process of false memory formation.
3. Recovered memories are
Not true. While individual instances of
retrieved memories of an incident forgotten because it was
not that serious are often corroborated, there are no
cases known where histories of severe abuse were
corroborated after being recovered from complete amnesia.
Studies which are sometimes cited to lend support to
corroboration of recovered memories are flawed because the
evidence was either not independent of the accuser or was
not checked by the researcher.
4. Sexual abuse cases are
rarely corroborated so it is not surprising that recovered
memory cases are not
Not true. There are many cases of
corroborated sexual abuse. Forensic evidence is possible
in some cases. Obscene video recordings and photographs
are sometimes available, together with witnesses and
admissions. None of these cases involve recovered
5. Recovered memory is
more reliable if it surfaced outside therapy
Not true. Recovered memory is unreliable
whatever the cues. A climate of belief fostered by
television, self-help books or talking to other people
with similar beliefs together with anxiety can predispose
people to believe that a dream of hallucinatory experience
is a 'flashback' of reality outside a therapeutic setting.
6. It is not possible for
people to imagine being seriously abused if it didn't
Not true. Imagination is a human trait.
Some false memory victims have imagined being abused in
past lives, future lives, by aliens and satanic cults.
Research shows that people tend to imagine contexts
according to external influence. A therapist who believes
in alien abduction will discover abductee histories and so
7. Memory which is
recovered bit by bit is a normal process of remembering
Not true. Focusing on the past may result
in slight memory improvement, but effort will result in
diminishing returns. It is more likely that continued
effort will result in confabulation.
8. If the memories cause
distress, they are more likely to be true
Not true. Emotion is no guide to accuracy
of recall, but only a guide to what the person may be
feeling at the time. The thought of the abuse may cause
distress, and the person may project other sources of
distress onto the alleged abuse without their being any
objective truth in the memory.
9. If someone has always
remembered abuse, then recovered memories of further abuse
are likely to be true
Not true. Many false memory victims can
remember minor episodes of abuse which actually happened.
Treatment, which encourages them to recover forgotten
episodes, may lead them to believe in far more serious
abuse by other perpetrators.
10. If other members of a
family recover memories of abuse then it is more likely to
Not true. Recovered memory is unreliable
no matter how many people undergo the process. A false
memory victim can persuade other family members they might
have been subject to similar memory loss and this triggers
the process of memory recovery in them.
11. If sexual abuse is
indicated, it must become the focal point of therapy
Not true. Research indicates that attempts
to focus on abuse and find meaning in it have negative
therapeutic outcomes. Investigation of alleged abuse as a
criminal matter is a separate concern.
12. False memory is the
standard ruse of perpetrators in denial
Not true. Most genuine sexual offenders
confess. Before recovered memory became fashionable,
sexual offence suspects had the highest rate of admission
amongst crime suspects at 89.3 per cent. It is not
credible that all, or even the majority of those denying
recovered memory accusations are guilty when the facts are