'False Memory Syndrome', Memory and the Law Group

On memories of abuse….

The BBC website, the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail are all reporting on the trial of an alleged sexual abuser, the widow of a former High Court judge. All quote the following statement by the prosecuting QC

“He tried to bury away the memories and not to think about them”.

As is her right, we have no doubt every effort will be put into her defence, perhaps even involving the British False Memory Society.

How will any witnesses for the prosecution or the barristers involved be able to rely on a balanced, empirically based set of guidelines to argue against any claims that the accuser’s memories may be ‘recovered or false’? The short answer is that they won’t because ‘The BPS’, in its wisdom, has given up on any pretence to take this matter with the seriousness that it deserves by abandoning the revision of its Memory and The Law guidelines (see here).

We can only hope that the court is able to hear from a balanced and fully informed range of expert witnesses. It is shameful than none of the psychologists who may be in that position will be able to call on the backing and support of their professional society.

The BPSWatch Editorial Collective

'False Memory Syndrome', Memory and the Law Group

The British False Memory Society – a personal story

A quarter of a century ago information about myself and my supposed false memory was given to the British False Memory Society (BFMS) without my consent. This information has been used to construct all sorts of theories about myself and my memory. It is very bizarre as it was all third-party information. There was nothing objectively true or false about it, no court cases, and no police involvement. It was simply disputed within family conversations. I do not understand how it is ethical for psychologists to affirm that my disputed memories are false without having further evidence.

This is the reality of the experience of someone whose life has been directly affected by the controversy surrounding the accuracy of memory – away from the laboratory, away from academic debate – this is what happens to real people in real life. The quote comes from a post sent to us following our coverage of the Memory and Law debacle. The full post is here and contains important and well-researched information about the British False Memory Society, members of its Scientific Advisory Board and the tactics used by the BFMS.

One of the areas that is of particular concern to us is the reference to the Centre for Memory and Law at City University. In the absence of formal, up-to-date, evidenced-based balanced guidance for practitioners and the courts, where will lawyers go? The Centre’s title says it all, and yet it is headed by someone whose links with the BFMS are well-known. Karl Sabbagh, who was convicted of grooming of a teenage girl in 2019, remained an adviser to the BFMS until 2021 who only acted when contacted by a journalist [see here] – how can we trust them?

We continue to urge the BPS to rescind their decision to abandon the work of the Law and Memory Group; to ensure that any future group is properly representative of all the views and controversies; and that any new group is set up to included the voices of those who have experienced the machinations of organisations such as the BFMS at first hand.

Posted by BPSWatch Admin

Important Addition information (16 April 2021)

In the original version of this post a reference was made to the BFMS Archive being held at City University. We have been informed by City University that it “.. does not hold personal data for which the British False Memory Society is a data controller.  Any enquiries about this should be directed to the BFMS. Any files for which BFMS is a data controller were securely transferred to the BFMS from City in December 2017.”.

'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.

'False Memory Syndrome', Ethics

Does the BPS Care About Ethical Standards Enough to Enforce Them?

Ashley Conway writes:

Following on from my earlier post

The Charity Commission says that the BPS must follow the demands of the Royal Charter and Statutes and Rules of the Society. The Royal Charter states:  that the Society should “…maintain a Code of Ethics and Conduct for the guidance of Members and to compel the observance of strict rules of professional conduct as a condition of membership.”.

I believe that this is an area where the BPS completely fails to fulfil its obligations.

About a third of BPS members are also registered with the HCPC, and the BPS is happy to pass on responsibility for dealing with rule violations by them.  But what of the other two thirds of the membership?  The answer seems to be that the BPS does everything it can to avoid taking any responsibility, usually passing the buck to the member’s employer.  But what if they have no employer (i.e. are self-employed?) or their employer uses Non Disclosure Agreements to avoid scandal, as some universities do (see here and here)?  This could mean that ethics violations go unreported and can be repeated by a guilty individual, possibly causing great harm to vulnerable people.

I cannot find anything in either the Charity Commission requirements or the BPS Charter that says that this responsibility about ethical standards can be farmed out to third parties or ignored.

What follows is a specific example of the problem.  Elizabeth Loftus is an Honorary Life Fellow of the BPS who enjoys a high profile internationally, despite considerable controversy.  This, from The Psychologist (July 2011, 24, 490-503):

Star power arrived at the 2011 Annual Conference this year in the form of Elizabeth Loftus (University of California, Irvine), the doyenne of false memory research whos had the mixed fortune of attracting death threats and the highest academic accolades. 

However, there are, I would suggest, serious ethical questions to be raised about her conduct.

  1. As far back as 1995, complaints were made to the American Psychological Association (APA) against Loftus by Lynn Crook and Jennifer Hoult.  Both have complained that Loftus grossly mis-represented their life stories (see here and here).  Loftus resigned from the APA just before the complaints process was about to be initiated.  There were allegations that she had been tipped off about it, because for both the APA and Loftus, resignation was the best way to avoid the investigation and unwanted publicity.  
  2. She has come in for strong criticism from judges for the nature of her expert witness testimony.  In the case referenced in her TED talk described below, referring to Loftus’s actions in question (Loftus falsely claiming to be a clinician’s supervisor to gain personal information for her use), the court stated  “In our view, intentionally misrepresenting oneself as an associate or colleague of a mental health professional who has a close personal relationship with the person about whom one is seeking information would be a particularly serious type of misrepresentation …” .  In another case Judge John Fedora dismissed Loftus’s opinion as “Having been rendered after an uncritical review of an absurdly incomplete record carefully  dissected to include only pieces of information tending to support Appellant’s repressed memory theory …”.
  3. In her TED talk there is further evidence of possible ethical breaches.  (i) She reveals the name of a victim of abuse who was promised anonymity, when her very personal story was used as a case study by respectable psychologists;  (ii) Loftus states:  “She accused her mother of sexual abuse based on a repressed memory” without informing us that actually the person in question had made revelations of abuse as a little girl, which had videotape and verbatim documentation.  So the accusations were based on much more than an adult’s “repressed memory”, and the truth goes very much against the false memory hypothesis that Loftus is seen to support.  (iii) Loftus states: “I became part of a disturbing trend in America where scientists are being sued for simply speaking out on matters of great public controversy.”.  But the litigation issue was not about speaking out on matters of great public controversy.  The real reason that she was being sued was for  “… for defamation and invasion of privacy…” as she herself reveals in this same talk.
  4. There have been important questions raised over the validity of the data in her famous “lost in the mall” study.

I have raised this issue of Loftus’s behaviour on a number of occasions with the BPS.  This year I wrote to the CEO about this and related issues three times.  I received no reply, which I now know has been the experience of many others.  I did, finally, get something back from a very senior member of the BPS who said “In relation to Prof Loftus, election as an Honorary Life Fellow confers membership of the Society so the member conduct rules would apply, as they do to all members. I would draw your attention to the fact that, since the Society is no longer a regulator, it normally requires ‘allegations to first have been determined using other appropriate procedures’ such as by the appropriate regulatory body.’” I genuinely do not understand this response.  What would be an appropriate procedure and who would be an appropriate body for Loftus?  The complainants above did not find one.  Where in the Charity Commissions rules for the Society, or the Royal Charter, does it say that the Society is no longer a regulator?  If this really means that the BPS takes no responsibility for enforcing its Conduct Rules or Code of Ethics, what is the point in having them?  

And BPS – how does this fit in with the requirement to “… compel the observance of strict rules of professional conduct as a condition of membership.”?  

I think that the BPS owes us all an answer to this question.