"The Psychologist", 'False Memory Syndrome', Academic freedom and censorship, Expulsion of President-Elect, Gender, Governance, IAPT, Memory and the Law Group, Prescribing Rights

The British Psychological Society: Failing the Public

Pat Harvey posts….

Because of their acknowledged expertise, Psychologists enjoy professional autonomy; responsibility is an essential element of autonomy. Psychologists must accept appropriate responsibility for what is within their power, control or management. Awareness of responsibility ensures that the trust of others is not abused, the power of influence is properly managed and that duty towards others is always paramount.

Statement of values: Psychologists value their responsibilities to persons and peoples, to the general public, and to the profession and science of Psychology, including the avoidance of harm and the prevention of misuse or abuse of their contribution to society.

BPS Code of Ethics and Conduct, 2018.

A dysfunctional Society

The British Psychological Society’s serious governance dysfunction, the central concern of BPSWatch (1) has important consequences, not only for the way it behaves towards its own membership, but ultimately in how it functions in relation to its responsibilities to the wider community. A Royal Chartered Charity, (2) its formal Objects may not explicitly state that it has that latter duty and responsibility to wider society, but the second Object requires it to have a Code of Ethics and Conduct (3). That Code includes the statement shown above and only a legal weasel or a BPS bureaucrat might, if pushed into a corner, attempt to deny that the Charter does not require a duty to the public at large. 

The growing awareness of the organisational dysfunction and the wilful withholding of information about this brought us together to form BPSWatch and the associated Twitter account @psychsocwatchuk. Whilst we and others have as yet failed to create sufficient pressure to see the ongoing involvement of the Charity Commission with the BPS over its governance problems escalate into a full Statutory Inquiry, we have helped to get information out into the mainstream and other media: The Times, The Telegraph and Third Sector. They will no doubt renew and sharpen their interest as anticipated legal cases become public. Meanwhile the individual concerns initially brought to us about specific policy topics which have been mishandled remain unresolved. It is our contention, and that of the complainants who have contacted us, that each of these is a matter of public concern and public protection.

 Unbalanced Views and Member Complaints

Psychology is, and should always be, alive and comfortable with controversy and debate. Members have a right to expect an open facilitative climate, where the best of psychological research, practice and policy formation would be supported and discussion promoted.  We, and others, think the BPS is failing to do this and efforts to complain about such failures have led to our focus on the actual suppression of viewpoints and the active censorship of controversies including  

Gender

Memory-Based Evidence

Prescribing Rights

IAPT

These impact directly on practitioners and the people and services they work with, but they also impact upon discussion in public life. They are matters of concern to the mental well-being of individuals who are vulnerable and finding themselves in threatening situations in their communities, in a clinic or in court. They are psychological matters still open to alignments of differing viewpoints.  We believe the BPS has a duty to address these, elucidate their conflictual aspects, review and weigh the evidence base and its adequacy, and specify remaining questions. 

Since this has not happened, members have tried to complain. They have often been ignored or met resistance.  A network of disparate, dissatisfied complainants discovered each other by word of mouth and email chains, and we were encouraged by this to set up BPSWatch.  The writer came into this originally due to what I believed to be grossly inadequate and incomplete BPS guidelines on gender for practitioners (4) which I had discovered in connection with a high profile childcare case which went to court.  I considered the guidelines totally unfit for purpose and was minded to complain. I then came across a statement made by a key player in their construction. This person’s formal presentation as an expert psychologist was recorded at an academic forum which was posted in an online video. They made a categoric statement that, based on what they held to be definitive research findings, the question of psychological outcomes of gender reassignment surgery was closed, stating “…the debate is shut. There is not a debate about that anymore…”. This is not a statement that any Chartered Psychologist should be making either in form or in content. It constitutes what will be taken by audience and viewer as authoritative summation of the current evidence base on outcomes of surgery. It misrepresents how psychologists should talk about scientific enquiry, and is actually untrue. It is, therefore, unethical. Furthermore, as a ‘take-away message’ in that forum and online, with the implied weight of the British Psychological Society behind that person’s position and reputation, it is seriously irresponsible. That message had the potential to impact directly, if heard, upon people making life-changing choices.

The BPS complaints team batted the complaint about the statement away. The first response (stage 1), was a blithe and ironic “…we are a broad church…”. I persisted, with references, and this aspect of my complaint, whilst taken more seriously and addressed in more detail, was rejected. They stated “…Although there will always be some dissenting voices, the idea that this represents a real schism in the scientific community [note, this misrepresents my precise concern] … is incorrect…”. In fact, subsequent reputable research publications (5) have strongly supported my contention that the jury was still out on this, and the debate is, and should, remain open. Uncertainty about those outcomes remains, and needs to be the subject of much more adequate data collection, follow-up and methodologically sound research. The psychologist I complained about was peddling certainties, taking a protagonist/activist position in the guise of the science, and the BPS was wrong to continue to support that. Vulnerable people, their families and their rights are ill-served by false certainties coming from supposedly highly authoritative sources, backed by the BPS

Conflict Avoidance

I have cited the above to illustrate not only the tortuous experience of trying to make a complaint to the BPS but also to illustrate how poor is the quality of the Society response. In the case of another of the topics listed above, Memory-Based Evidence, the BPS took a different tack – they dumped the challenge half-way through. The BPS’s previous out-dated guidance on this area was deemed to have been skewed at the time (2008, 2010) by the impact of the false memory/recovered memory lobby (6). The BPS had seemed, over the years and in the pages of The Psychologist, to have had stars in its eyes around a famous and foremost proponent, Elizabeth Loftus (7). She had been made an Honorary Fellow of the Society and lauded for her subsequent awards. Not all members were happy about this (8). For the interest of the reader, an admirable and informative account of the journalistically styled ‘Memory Wars’ can be found outside the pages of academic journals and The Psychologist in the link below (9). Such informed coverage puts the BPS house journal to shame. During the of writing this article, a US jury have shown limited sympathy with the defence case for which Loftus gave her usual form of evidence (10) and Robert Durst has been found guilty of a murder committed 20 years ago.

 A BPS-appointed Task and Finish group was set up to revise their outdated guidance. There was a good deal of demand for this from practitioners who appear in court in connection with many kinds of trauma, particularly in the context of historical child abuse allegations.  Well into its work, the working group was unexpectedly closed down (11). The Psychologist published a statement from the Chair of the Research Board suggesting this was an amicable and consensual decision – we have been directly informed by participants it was not.  As one comment amongst the many to The Psychologist stated “…I am a member of the Memory Based Evidence Group and I would like the right of reply to respond about some of what has happened in this Group, which was tasked on writing a document on Memory and the Law. I am unhappy about the Research Board’s decision to disband the group, and I do not think that there has been a satisfactory answer to why such a decision was made; this decision was made without consultation with the group members, nor with the wider Society….“(11). The announcement in The Psychologist was made with this statement “Unfortunately, the standards of evidence for the report and the need for consensus and a convergence of evidence from experimental work and clinical practice, [my emphasis] as defined within the Terms of Reference for the group, could not be met.”. (11)

Contained within this statement, one which might immediately raise the questions: “Who set those terms of reference?” and “Isn’t the contentiousness the very reason for these guidelines?” is a clue to where some of the underlying and poorly managed tensions may originate. Academic/practitioner conflicts have dogged other psychological associations; for example the American Psychological Association and the Association for Psychological Science in the USA (12). As someone from a practitioner background, my view would be that there are serious drawbacks to research which sets out to answer questions arising from the clinical environment using crudely artificial analogues. Memory based evidence is one topic illustrating the drawbacks in using research set up in staged non-personal settings to discredit the opinions (in the legal sense) of practitioners working in non-analogous trauma related circumstances.  If you have any doubts about the dire need for an authoritative dispassionate view on this particular controversy to protect individuals on both sides in an adversarial court environment, consider what the absence of that psychological balance does – it leaves courts wide open to the machinations of the British False Memory Society. How it actually goes about doing its work is described in detail in this video (13).  A balanced view from the BPS could surely weigh the concerns about false positives and false negatives within the context of BFMS strategies, the applicability of academic research to traumatic memory, and social context of the serious underreporting of child sexual abuse (14). This would greatly assist in the court setting which itself attempts, as does a practitioner, a case-by-case assessment of veracity. The BPS Research Board have in effect kicked the revision of the guidelines into the long grass, the old guidelines having been archived.  These, however, are still available to be cited and used on the uninformed if you know where to look online. 

The BPS Working for the BPS?

Further discussion of these topics, and also of the implications of the BPS failings on Prescribing Rights and IAPT, can be found in specific articles on the blog (15, 16, 17). They illustrate a systematic failure to conduct proper consultation over key concerns in service provision models and health service professional practice. Why and how is this happening? 

The BPS, it seems, has an opaque system and uses equally opaque criteria for choosing its preferred advisors and for what policies are to be discussed with government departments and the NHSE. Feedback to members is minimal or non-existent. We have been reliably informed that a BPS CEO felt quite free to negotiate with NHSE without the presence of any psychologist. This leaves the room for a Society with an ever more rapacious in-house business agenda to be sucked into any government ideology where a shared vested interest may appear. The wider views of members working in the field may well be sidelined or completely ignored. The alleged current government agenda on privatising health care/moving to insurance models is open to facilitation by the self-interest of particular voices who manage to gain favour. In that context, note the latest BPS attempts to convince the NHSE and PSA that the Society can regulate an influx of less qualified younger members who will bring in fees and subscriptions to swell the coffers. There is little reason to think this will go well. In contrast to welcoming ever wider groups for membership, senior members seem to be regarded as a nuisance – maybe more trouble than they are literally worth, unless they are securely corralled within the system’s tent and staying ‘on script’ with the assistance of the Society’s Comms team – being one of the ‘cronies’.

Cronyism and Its Ills

We arrived at the term ‘serial office holder’ to describe how some psychologists have made a parallel career from being a BPS ‘apparatchik’. These psychologists move from one office to another over years (sometimes decades), sometimes elected, sometimes appointed. They make a virtue of their extended contributions. They are able to use the BPS logo on their websites and list the many impressive offices they have held on their CVs. Thus their BPS career is likely to enhance their professional reputation. They like to give each other honorary lifetime memberships and even when that is done in an AGM on Zoom in 2021, you may be expected to stamp your feet under your desk in approval.

 It would seem highly likely that a regime where cronyism is a norm will lead to complacency, lack of critical reflection, closing ranks, and resistance to newcomers taking important roles. An extreme example of this was the opposition to, and the action taken against, the President Elect 2020-21, Dr Nigel MacLennan. He was elected on a reforming mandate and then expelled. The expulsion was heralded in a vilifying YouTube video for all to see even before he had chance to appeal. We know many members thought that horrible and immoral, and one can only shudder at the extent to which living in the BPS bubble has distorted the judgement and the personal morality of those implicated in, and complicit with, show trial tactics. The person chosen to conduct his ‘appeal’, far from being independent of the previous proceedings and personnel involved, described himself in an interview with The Psychologist, on assuming his own presidential office, as “…a BPS Junkie since 1984…”. He has been around the corridors, real and virtual, of the BPS for more than 30 years, the BPS and he being ‘in each others’ DNA’ so to speak. 

Not all serial office holders are treated well in the BPS, however, particularly if they start to question how things are being done. They too may be attacked and threatened like MacLennan. We have heard how some become very distressed, visibly so in meetings, but then increasingly conform; others resist but remain peculiarly defensive of some idealised notion of the organisation and its capacity for change despite all evidence of its malign dysfunction. These patterns are reminiscent of what has been called Stockholm Syndrome. It is pertinent to consider how an unhealthy organisational environment where the main focus is self-perpetuation might allow for another form of organisational capture, by activism. Any would-be activist moles would be well-advised to get their feet under the table by not rocking the organisational boat and to volunteer for taking on work others don’t want. Then they just need to wait for their policy agenda to float into view and haul it in.

Psychologists, Psychology and Activism

The writer has been a lifelong political activist and vigorously supports, in her personal life, action on climate change, poverty, inclusivity and world peace. I took to the streets in the 1970s when my town elected National Front/National Party councillors. I was part of the making of a World In Action TV programme on that racist environment. Those passionate views had to be put on mute in my clinical work. I currently hold strong views about many of the contentious topics in psychology, but our focus at BPSWatch is to ensure that no partisan view – including my own – within an area of ongoing scientist/practitioner debate captures the BPS. Some activists had assumed because we criticised BPS bias that we supported their ‘side’ of a particular argument, hence we have revisited and set out our agenda (19) – good governance, not certain ‘causes’.

We argue in BPSWatch that gender, memory-based evidence, prescribing rights and IAPT are amongst the topics that have been captured by a particular viewpoint and its activists. What follows capture is that debate is shut down, information restricted. Certain topics are being precluded from teaching and some psychologists are being maligned. Deeply unfair accusations of transphobia, sexism, racism, classism (the list grows daily) are never challenged by the BPS. This is aided and abetted by The Psychologist which actively fails to give balanced coverage to all legitimate views. Members have told us how their contributions have summarily been spiked in the in-house publications. It is not for the BPS to enter party politics and campaign, for example, on specifics such as Universal Credit. Rather, it should be making available the best research on poverty in relation to child development, adult mental health, crime and suchlike, and vigorously bringing this to the attention of politicians and decision makers. The same applies, as with the topics covered above and numerous others, to public awareness of the best evidenced range of views within which individual people are making the kinds of choices that many face and which will often change the course of their lives. This does not include rushing to be a signatory to a range of worthy campaigns (and how is the decision to sign – or not – made?). These psychological matters are serious.

The Results of Misgovernance are Failing the Public

The well-staffed, wealthy but seriously misgoverned charity that is the current British Psychological Society continues to fail its members and the public on the most crucial of standards, and for this we will continue to hold it to account.  We have hoped to see moves for radical change which would enable open communications with the large membership, bottom-up consultations and an inflow of new actively welcomed volunteers.  We hope to see new healthy structures at the top of the organisation, independent lay people as trustees. We believe it is only then that the BPS will serve the membership and the public as it should. Sadly, it just is not happening and there are no signs, despite the recent talk of ‘crossroads’, change programmes and tinkering with governance, that the change will come from genuine reflection within. Perhaps, therefore, it must come from without.

**************

Notes and Links

  1. Why the blog and why now? Charity Commission to Blog Author: “We are currently engaging with the society over a number of issues and have found deficiencies in some areas of operation” https://bpswatch.com/2020/11/20/why-the-blog-and-why-now/ 
  2. https://www.bps.org.uk/sites/www.bps.org.uk/files/How%20we%20work/BPS%20Royal%20Charter%20and%20Statues.pdf
  3. https://www.bps.org.uk/sites/www.bps.org.uk/files/Policy/Policy%20-%20Files/BPS%20Code%20of%20Ethics%20and%20Conduct%20%28Updated%20July%202018%29.pdf
  4. https://www.bps.org.uk/news-and-policy/guidelines-psychologists-working-gender-sexuality-and-relationship-diversity 
  5. https://ajp.psychiatryonline.org/doi/10.1176/appi.ajp.2020.1778correction 

“The results demonstrated no advantage of surgery in relation to subsequent mood or anxiety disorder-related health care visits or prescriptions or hospitalizations following suicide attempts in that comparison. Given that the study used neither a prospective cohort design nor a randomized controlled trial design, the conclusion that “the longitudinal association between gender-affirming surgery and lower use of mental health treatment lends support to the decision to provide gender-affirming surgeries to transgender individuals who seek them” is too strong”.

  1. https://thepsychologist.bps.org.uk/volume-30/august-2017/positives-negatives-and-empirical-reasoning 
  2. https://thepsychologist.bps.org.uk/volume-26/edition-5/news
  3. https://thepsychologist.bps.org.uk/volume-30/february-2017/no-congratulations-here
  4. https://www.thecut.com/article/false-memory-syndrome-controversy.html 
  5. https://www.courttv.com/title/8-4-21-the-jinx-murder-trial-intense-cross-examination-of-memory-expert/
  6. https://thepsychologist.bps.org.uk/volume-34/april-2021/not-good-look 
  7. https://behavioralscientist.org/long-winding-road-125-years-american-psychological-association/ 
  8. See Dr. Kevin Felstead, Communications Director, British False Memory Society reveal their strategy at I hour 4 minutes in https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1WsY-AqM4Y8 
  9. https://www.theguardian.com/society/2021/sep/02/millions-children-religious-groups-vulnerable-abuse-england-and-wales
  10. https://bpswatch.com/category/false-memory-syndrome/
  11. https://bpswatch.com/category/prescribing-rights/
  12. https://bpswatch.com/category/iapt/
  13. https://bpswatch.com/2021/09/07/bps-bullshit/ 
  14. https://bpswatch.com/2021/09/14/what-this-blog-is-about-a-re-statement/ 
'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.