'False Memory Syndrome'

Four views of ‘False Memory Syndrome’

Peter Harvey posts….

The dissolution of the BPS Memory and Law Group has brought the controversial issue of the so–called False Memory Syndrome back into the spotlight. We show below four quite different views about how this is presented. First, a piece by the Editor of The Psychologist; second, a letter, denied publication by that same Editor setting out a very different view of Professor Loftus’s work; third, a long article from the US publication Mad in America entitled “The False Memory Syndrome at 30: How Flawed Science Turned into Conventional Wisdom”. And finally, an example of how the concept can be used to defend those accused of sexual assault. Do we need any more evidence to support the case for the BPS rescinding its fundamentally flawed decision to disband the Evidence-based Memory Group?

An ‘adulatory’ view

Jon Sutton reports from a talk at Goldsmiths, University of London

If Professor Elizabeth Loftus had her way, the solemn oath taken before witnesses take the stand would be ‘Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, or whatever it is you think you remember?’ So far, she said with a wry smile, it hasn’t caught on.

Professor Loftus – who has been voted the most influential female psychologist of all time – was speaking at this special event presented by the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit, Goldsmiths, and the Centre for Inquiry UK. Her wit and creativity shone through as she rattled through real-life stories, wrongful convictions and ingenious research that all illuminate the faulty nature of memory.

Beginning with some classic cases of political figures reporting memories that can’t be true – such as Mitt Romney’s account of the Golden Jubilee that occurred nine months before he was born – Loftus showed that ‘all that Yale school or Harvard training doesn’t stop you having false memories’. And this has implications way beyond goofing politicians: DNA exoneration studies suggest that faulty memory is responsible for wrongful conviction in more than 75 per cent of cases.

In case the assembled audience thought they were somehow immune to this, Loftus showed otherwise with a fascinating paradigm involving photos of faces. A post-event activity that induced us to pick a wrong person led to around half of the audience subsequently picking the wrong person in the test phase. ‘You’re wrong because I made you wrong,’ said Loftus, ‘right here in the middle of a lecture on false memory’.

But that’s somewhat artificial, say the critics (and Loftus says she has had a fair few, who do not like the message of her research). OK, says Loftus, what about our new study looking at military personnel taking part in a mock prisoner phase of survival school training? Here, the provision of misinformation following four days of evasion and half an hour of interrogation led even highly trained soliders to make false IDs with high confidence.

Loftus admitted to ‘nagging concerns’ around the ethics of such findings. ‘Aren’t we putting a recipe out there that could help bad people do bad things?’ On balance, she and her collaborators feel that it’s best to get the research out there in the hope that awareness could lead to ways to overcome the problem. And there is a lot to counter: Loftus’ research has shown that false memories can be induced in a variety of ways, including the use of imagination, dream interpretation, hypnosis, the provision of false information or doctored photos, and even simple exposure to other people’s memories.

It’s a research journey that has taken some tremendous turns. I love how the way the ‘lost in the mall’ analogue – convincing participants that they got lost in the shopping mall as a child – evolved in response to the repeated insistence of reviewers that ‘maybe that really happened’. When that accusation was even levelled at a study that persuaded people that they had been licked by Pluto at Disneyland – ‘disturbingly and persistently’ – Loftus and her team simply switched to Bugs Bunny, a Warner Brothers character!

Loftus had provided ample demonstration of the repercussions of false memories, in accounts of repressed memory accusations. (‘There is no credible scientific support for the notion that memories can be massively suppressed in this way’, she concluded). But what about positive effects? If psychologists can convince adults that they got sick eating a particular food as a child, could this technique be used to help people avoid fattening foods? Yes, and others have now found that this effect lasts, and affects actual eating behaviour. Welcome to the mental diet!

Can these false memories be distinguished from true ones? Not by rated emotion, and neuroimaging reveals only small differences, with true memories showing more activity in the visual cortex and false memories showing more in the auditory. But, said Loftus, ‘we are a long long way from taking a memory, examining it in the brain scanner and saying whether it is true or not.’ Memory is malleable, concluded Loftus, and if there was one take-home message from her life’s research it was this: ‘Just because memory is expressed with confidence, detail and emotion, doesn’t mean it’s true.’

After the talk, I had the pleasure of sitting next to Professor Loftus at dinner. I very much enjoyed our chat about a potential revolution in memory, as wearable devices and large, cheap storage bring ‘memory prosthetics’ to the masses. If we all have ‘personal CCTV’, like the dashboard cam footage of the Russian meteor strike, do our own memory failings become less of an issue? The professor quickly reminded me that such footage could be doctored, potentially leading to an arms race for the truth. One thing seems undeniable: whatever the future brings for memory research and practice, Professor Loftus will be at the forefront of it for many years to come. 

See also https://thepsychologist.bps.org.uk/volume-21/edition-10/one-one-elizabeth-loftus 

and https://thepsychologist.bps.org.uk/volume-25/edition-7/interview-memory-warrior

A ‘Critical’ view

What is it about the BPS and the False Memory Syndrome (FMS) devotees?

No empirical validation has been offered for “False Memory Syndrome” as a diagnostic construct despite years of intense scrutiny; nor have its symptoms been systematically described or studied.  No professional organisation accepts it as a valid diagnosis.            . 

The leading light of the FMS lobby is Professor Elizabeth Loftus.

In the May edition of The Psychologist, the Editor, Jon Sutton, described his meeting with Professor Elizabeth Loftus (p.236).  The piece was inappropriate for several crucial reasons. Firstly it lacked objectivity. 

Dr Sutton wrote that he “had the pleasure of sitting next to Professor Loftus at dinner” and that her “wit and creativity shone through”.  I too have had the pleasure of Professor Loftus’s company for several hours, in one to one discussion, albeit some years ago. I had lots of questions for her then, and would have even more now. Here are some questions that the Editor might have asked Professor Loftus:


1. Is it true that it was the filing of two ethics complaints against you that caused your resignation from the American Psychological Association (APA) in the late 1990’s?

2.  In 2003 the APA gave you an award for Distinguished Scientific Applications of Psychology.  That’s a big change – resignation to award in a few years – what happened?

3. Are you a member of the APA today?  And what are your reasons for being (or not being) a member of the APA?

4. Memory can be unreliable in two directions – false positive (when somebody comes to believe that something happened, which did not) and false negative (where somebody comes to believe that something did not happen, that did).  False positive and false negative memory might be likened to Type 1 and Type 2 research errors, would you agree?

5. Your “lost in a shopping mall” study demonstrated that older family members play a powerful role in defining reality for dependent younger family members. You believe that it is possible that memory is so malleable that an individual could falsely recall a complex history of abuse, that in fact never occurred.    Is it equally possible that someone who was abused could be persuaded that their recall was a false memory, and that they could come to falsely believe that they had not been abused?

6. Could a perpetrator who had committed acts of abuse falsely believe that he or she was not an abuser?  (A “False Innocence Belief Syndrome” ?).


7. If the answer to this question is yes, why don’t you investigate “False Innocence Belief Syndrome” as an area of false memory?   If the answer is no, do you believe that false memories only go in one direction (false positive)?  If so, what is the evidence for that? 

8. You get some emotional reactions to your opinions.  Perhaps because it might appear to some that the direction of your work helps abusers, and disadvantages genuine victims of abuse – what would you say to that?

9. Who has benefited from your research?

10. Ted Bundy was one of America’s worst serial rapists and murderers.  He murdered 30 women in 7 states and was executed in 1989.  In an earlier article, The Psychologist reported your comments regarding Ted Bundy when you testified on his first case.  You stated: “… that was before we really knew who Ted Bundy was. He was a charming man! He was absolutely charming and obviously very sick but we didn’t really know that at the time.”  His biographer Ann Rule described him as “a sadistic sociopath who took pleasure from another human’s pain and the control he had over his victims, to the point of death.”  You have testified in many cases where people are accused of very serious crimes.  Is it possible that you may have mis-judged others, as you did Ted Bundy?   

11. False Memory Syndrome is sometimes described as a modern day pseudo-scientific version of the Oedipus complex – a way of dismissing the account of an abuse victim as fantasy, that allows our society to avoid dealing with the very uncomfortable possibility that the vast majority of allegations of sexual abuse are true.  How would you comment on that?The article in the Psychologist appeared five days before a long overdue BPS ethics committee meeting, where questions had been tabled regarding senior Society members acting as scientific advisors to the British False Memory Society, and possibly contravening the BPS Code of Ethics and Rules of Conduct under our Royal Charter.

It is unfortunate that concurrently the official journal of the BPS published a glowing and uncritical piece about one of the most controversial proponents of False Memory Syndrome. To an objective observer it could appear that this was a piece of propaganda for the FMS lobby, and raise concern that the BPS has an unhealthy bias in this arena.

Yours sincerely

Ashley Conway PhD AFBPsS

A transatlatic view

For those of us not familiar with the publication Mad in America, its Mission Statement is

…. to serve as a catalyst for rethinking psychiatric care in the United States (and abroad). We believe that the current drug-based paradigm of care has failed our society, and that scientific research, as well as the lived experience of those who have been diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder, calls for profound change.

The whole article (published 8 February 2021) is accessible here and the concluding paragraphs are these:

For too long, society turned a blind eye to the sexual abuse of children. It was a taboo subject, kept quiet within families and covered up by institutions. Soon after states finally began providing adults who remembered such childhood abuse with the legal standing to sue, the FMSF began waging a vigorous public relations campaign that discredited their memories—in both courtrooms and, to a large degree, in the public mind.

Indeed, the false memory syndrome, which was said to be grounded in cutting-edge science, regularly produced a legal—and, one might say, an epistemological—stalemate: It was the delayed memory of the accuser against the denial of the accused, and without any corroborating evidence of the abuse, it was impossible for a jury or a judge to know what had really happened.

In addition, the false memory syndrome turned those accused of abuse into “victims.” These cases were no longer simply “he said/she said,” cases, but rather “he said/she was tricked into creating false memories” cases.

However, public understanding of this dynamic has perhaps entered a new phase. There is now increasing public awareness that the sexual abuse of children is all too common. And as society assesses the claims of adults who recall memories of child abuse, it should know this about the relevant science: The false memory research provides little evidence that memories of sexual abuse are often implanted by therapists. But there is a large body of research providing evidence that dissociative amnesia is a common response to childhood trauma.

An example of how FMS can used.

From Time’s Up website of 6 February 2021 these are the introductory words to an article about the Harvey Weinstein trial

As Harvey Weinstein’s legal team mounts its defense, it has been reported that it will call at least one expert witness to the stand to testify to “false memory theory,” a tool that has been used to try to discredit survivors of sexual assault for decades.

Surely it’s time for the BPS to do the right thing and face up to its responsibilities.

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