In 1995 the recovered memory debate was near its most vociferous height. Hundreds of people were recovering memories of childhood sexual abuse (CSA), sometimes in therapies where it was believed that repressed or dissociated memories had to be recovered in order for the person to ‘heal’. Many of the people who recovered these memories confronted the person whom they remembered abusing them, and some cases ended up in the criminal courts with successful prosecutions.
In 1995 the recovered memory debate was near its most vociferous
height. Hundreds of people were recovering memories of childhood sexual
abuse (CSA), sometimes in therapies where it was believed that
repressed or dissociated memories had to be recovered in order for the
person to ‘heal’. Many of the people who recovered these memories
confronted the person whom they remembered abusing them, and some cases
ended up in the criminal courts with successful prosecutions. However,
there were those who questioned whether all such memories should be
accepted as accurate reflections of real events (e.g. Loftus, 1993). It
was argued that some, perhaps even most, of such recovered memories
might in fact be false memories produced, at least in part, by the
therapists themselves. In response
to such concerns, bodies such as the American Psychiatric Association
and the American Psychological Association issued guidance to their
members regarding the potential dangers of unintentionally implanting
false memories in patients.
The argument is critical for the science of memory, but also for
thousands of people who have either recovered memories or have been
accused of abuse on the basis of such memories, not to mention the
families and friends of all concerned. Against this backdrop, the
British Psychological Society’s Working Party on Recovered Memories
(WPRM) published their report, recommendations, and the results of a
survey they conducted with BPS accredited practitioners (Andrews,
Bekerian et al., 1995; Andrews, Morton et al., 1995).
However, in 1995 there was little direct experimental evidence of the
impact of so-called ‘memory recovery’ techniques and the relative ease
with which some false reports can be created. Much of the evidence at
that time was based on memory studies not specifically designed to
address the recovered memory debate. Before 1995 there was much
literature showing that memories could be distorted (by misinformation,
by stereotypes, and so on), but only a couple of studies on the
creation of false memories for entire events (e.g. ‘the mousetrap
study’ by Ceci et al., 1994, and ‘lost in the mall’, cited in Loftus,
1993) and a small literature on errors in autobiographical memory (e.g.
Conway, 1990). There were also some case studies of memories for
bizarre events (biologically impossible events, alien abduction,
widespread Satanic ritual abuse).
Since the publication of the WPRM, there have been significant efforts
directed towards designing studies that are more relevant to the
recovered memory debate, and more emphasis within some case studies on
investigating firstly the veridicality of the memories and, secondly,
whether there had indeed been a period of forgetting. We focus on some
of this research conducted since the publication
of the WPRM. Owing to length constraints, this is a selective review
both in relation to the topics chosen and the studies cited. This
selectivity is guided by our own beliefs, which are not idiosyncratic
to us; many people on both so-called sides of the recovered memory
debate also share these views. We believe:
- that what appear to be newly remembered (i.e.
recovered) memories of past trauma are sometimes accurate, sometimes
inaccurate, and sometimes
a mixture of accuracy and inaccuracy;
- that much of what is recalled cannot be confirmed or disconfirmed;
- that, because of these two beliefs, reports of past
trauma based on such recovered memories are not reliable enough to be
the sole basis for legal decisions.
Our review covers four areas: adding entire events into a person’s
autobiography; forgetting memories; remembering forgetting and
forgetting remembering; and using case studies. Further, we focus on
research with non-clinical (usually student) populations. We do not
cover the large trauma/PTSD literature (for thorough reviews see
Brewin, 2003; McNally, 2003).
False reports of entire events
Before 1995 there were a couple of studies showing that false events
could be added to people’s memories. With the eventual publication of
the ‘lost in the mall’ study (Loftus & Pickrell, 1995), several
laboratories began showing that, with a little encouragement (see Ost,
2006), it was possible for participants to come to report relatively
unusual events (e.g. spilling a punchbowl at a wedding: Hyman et al.,
1995; putting slime in a teacher’s desk: Lindsay et al., 2004), events
occurring in the first few days of life (Spanos et al., 1999), medical
procedures that never happened (Mazzoni & Memon, 2003), and
negatively charged events (e.g. being attacked by a dog: Porter et al.,
1999). This even occurs with interviewers who are trained in
appropriate and non-leading interview techniques (Ost et al., 2005). It
is easier to implant a memory
for an event if the person believes that the event is physically
possible and also likely to happen (Pezdek et al., in press; Scoboria
et al., 2004). Of course, laboratory studies are limited: within
ethical constraints, making somebody think that they were attacked by a
dog as a child (Porter et al., 1999) may be about as traumatic an event
as can be added. This is an important point and is a necessary
limitation of laboratory tasks. However, the case studies we discuss
later provide strong evidence that it is indeed possible to implant
false memories of extremely traumatic events.
Many researchers have also investigated whether people differ in how
susceptible they are to such false memories (Read & Winograd,
1998). One of the most researched individual difference measures in
this area is dissociative tendencies, or having difficulties
integrating thoughts, memories, images, and so on. In lay terms, this
is ‘spaciness’ and is closely related to cognitive failures (Wright
& Osborne, 2005). People who report much dissociation are likely to
be the most susceptible to memory distortions in experiments (e.g. Ost
et al., 2005; Wright & Livingston-Raper, 2001). Clearly, further
research is needed on the link between dissociation and false
reporting, especially given that a tendency to dissociate is often
associated with a history of abuse (Brown et al., 1998).
Forgetting memories for events
The term ‘recovered memory’ implies that, at some point, the memory
must have become inaccessible to conscious awareness (as opposed to
being a ‘continuous memory’). Although this terminology is not ideal,
it is clear that people often fail to report important events, for
example known hospitalisations (Loftus, 1993). Several surveys of
people with documented childhood sexual abuse have found that some of
the people fail to report this abuse. The most recent of these surveys,
by Goodman et al. (2003), found a non-disclosure rate of around 19 per
cent. The authors suggested that a lack of willingness to disclose, as
opposed to a lack of memory, was the most parsimonious explanation for
much of the non-disclosure, but that some of the cases may have arisen
through forgetting (see also McNally, 2003, for a comprehensive
review). Their data do not support the claim that there is some special
memory mechanism responsible for forgetting about these traumas.
However, prior to 1995, two special mechanisms were generally put
forward to explain the inaccessibility of memories for some events:
repression and dissociation. Repression has historically been a
difficult concept to define, and several incompatible definitions
exist. This led to strong criticism of the concept and of the evidence
for it (Holmes, 1990). As a result, recent investigations have focused
on more precise definitions of the concept, akin to motivated
forgetting (Brewin & Andrews, 1998). As for dissociation, the
dissociative amnesia model (Brown et al., 1998) suggests that, rather
than people consciously or unconsciously ‘repressing’ memories,
individuals learn to deal with traumatic events by dissociating from
There is less laboratory work on forgetting memories (i.e. factors that
may reduce levels of reporting for witnessed events) than there is on
creating memories (i.e. factors that may lead individuals to report
events that did not occur). The two most relevant procedures are the
directed forgetting task and retrieval-induced forgetting, which can be
related to the concepts of repression and dissociation, respectively
(see papers in Wessel & Wright, 2004, for studies using both of
these procedures). We focus on retrieval-induced forgetting.
Anderson and colleagues (e.g. Anderson & Spellman, 1995) have shown
that re-presenting some associated words from lists of studied words
decreases the likelihood that other studied words will be reported.
They call this retrieval-induced forgetting. Like studies (e.g.
Roediger & McDermott, 1995) showing that people falsely report
semantically related words, the applicability of these studies to
memory for events may be limited (Freyd & Gleaves, 1996), but
important extensions have been made. For example, Barnier, Hung et al.
(2004) found evidence of retrieval-induced forgetting for positive,
negative and neutral autobiographical events. Wright et al. (2001,
2005) showed that re-presenting stories without certain critical scenes
lowered the likelihood that these critical scenes were recalled. They
argued that this situation is analogous to the situation where a
perpetrator acts as if the abuse has not occurred and that such
behaviour could make memories of the abuse less accessible.
Most of the studies examining individual differences in forgetting have
examined what is called repressor personality types. These are people
who state they are not anxious but show some of the signs of being
anxious (Myers, 2000). Some of this research, for example studies
showing that repressors are less likely to remember negative
autobiographical memories (Davis, 1987), was conducted before 1995 and
influenced the WPRM. Several laboratories are now looking at how
repressors differ on different laboratory tasks (Barnier, Levin et al.,
2004; Myers & Derakshan, 2004).
While the results are complex, it is clear that repressive coping style
is related to the failure to report negative stimuli in many
circumstances. Further research is needed on the link between the
repressive coping style and non-reporting to gain a greater
understanding of the processes involved. However, as we will now show,
conducting research assessing the extent of non-reporting is difficult,
as people generally lack a reliable metacognitive awareness regarding
Remembering forgetting and forgetting remembering
Was there any moment today when you forgot what you had for
breakfast? This is not a philosophical conundrum, but an important
question about people’s ability to make metacognitive judgments about
their own memories.
There are two aspects of these metacognitive judgments that are
important for the recovered memory debate. The first aspect relates to
a question some mental health professionals asked in order to help them
determine whether a client might have experienced trauma as a child.
They would ask if there were any periods during the client’s life for
which they had few or no memories (i.e. remembering forgetting). If a
client reported such gaps in their memory this could suggest, to some,
that some traumatic event had caused these periods of amnesia. The use
of techniques intended to uncover these supposed ‘hidden’ memories
might then appear justified.
However, Belli et al. (1998) wondered whether the way this question was
asked could increase the likelihood that people report memory gaps.
They found that participants who were asked to recall 12 childhood
memories (a difficult task) subsequently rated their overall childhood
memory as being worse than participants who were only asked to recall
four such events. Although the responses are likely to be based in part
on people’s actual autobiographical memory, they are malleable (see
also Brewin & Stokou, 2002). Thus, responses to this question are
liable to bias and are an unreliable way of showing whether an
individual really does have atypical gaps in memory compared with the
The second aspect of these metacognitive judgments is that people often
forget that they have previously remembered an event. Merckelbach et
al. (2006) have conducted one of the most important of these studies
for the recovered memory debate. They asked people to report vivid
memories for some childhood events. After either a one-hour or a
two-day delay, they were asked if they had recently thought about any
of these events and several others. Despite recalling the events either
an hour or a couple of days before, many participants reported not
having thought about the events for years. Critically, Merckelbach et
al. compared people reporting continuous memories of CSA with those who
reported recovered memories of CSA. The people reporting that they had
recovered memories of CSA were more likely to forget remembering the
recent events in their laboratory tasks. This finding has important
implications. Could it be that these people had recalled the CSA
continuously (or at least fairly often), but just forgot remembering it?
Different types of case studies have been used to illustrate the
different processes described above. Illustrating false memories is
simple. From biologically impossible events (Wagenaar, 1996) to alien
abduction claims (e.g. French, 2003), people clearly come to believe in
events that never occurred. Some well-documented case histories exist,
like retractor cases against therapists (e.g. Bennett Braun, Roberta
Sachs – see Bikel & Dretzin, 1995). These show that, without the
constraints of psychology ethics committees, it is possible to create
memories for truly traumatic and abusive events that did not occur. The
number of these case histories has increased dramatically since 1995.
For methodological reasons, case studies demonstrating recovered
memories of real events are more difficult to find. While a memory for
space abduction can be taken as prima facie evidence of a false memory,
to show a true recovered memory it is necessary to show that (a) the
event occurred, (b) the person could not remember the event for a
period subsequently, and (c) the information recovered could not have
been gained from other sources (Schooler et al., 1997).
The largest archive of cases consists of, at the time of writing, 101
cases of ‘corroborated recovered memories’ (Cheit, 2005). To be
included, the case must have ‘strong corroboration’, but this can
simply mean testimony from other witnesses (which can be problematic;
see Garven et al., 1998). Cases can also be included on the basis of
‘corroboration of significant circumstantial evidence’. In reading
through the cases, it appears being found guilty in court is another
form of corroboration. Of course, both inclusion in Cheit’s archive and
the court decision should be based on other evidence. Critical and
detailed scrutiny of many of these cases can lead to a sceptical view
of the accuracy of many of these memories. Further, Cheit does not list
not remembering the event, and evidence for this, as a criterion. This
does not mean that the all the cases on this list are not examples of
true recovered memories, only that the requirements to be in this
archive are not as stringent as, for example, in Schooler et al.
(1997). Theirs is a smaller archive, but one that we feel takes more
care to make sure, for example, that there is a period of
Still, even surpassing Schooler’s criteria does not necessarily mean
that the memory is a true recovered memory. A case discussed by both
Cheit and Schooler, and reported in Corwin and Olafson (1997), appeared
to show a water-tight case of a true recovered memory. Corwin and
Olafson provided convincing evidence of the abuse, and provided no
reason to doubt that it took place. However, when Loftus and Guyer
(2002a, 2002b) looked more closely at the case it was clear that Corwin
and Olafson had left out information that would have been useful to
most readers to decide how water-tight this case was. It is worth
reading the details (which are all available on the web) to make your
own mind up about this fascinating case. It is important to remember
that this is just a case study. If you conclude that this case is not a
water-tight example of a true recovered memory, this does not mean that
some recovered memories are not true.
How will history judge us?
Since 1995 and the BPS working party report there has been much
research on reports of memories for events that have allegedly been
recovered after a long period of non-remembering. The belief that some
of these claims are based on events that did occur, some on events that
did not occur, and some a combination of the two was held by us then,
and research over the past decade has provided much evidence to support
this view. We now know events can be implanted into a person’s
autobiography, that some people are more suggestible than others, that
particular techniques increase the likelihoods memories can be
implanted, but also that most people will not believe bizarre memories,
at least after the amount of persuasion applied in typical laboratory
studies. We also know more about forgetting.
While research over the last few decades has shown that presenting
contradictory evidence impairs memory, recent work by Anderson and
others shows that presenting related material can also impair memory.
Similarly, while 10 years ago there was relatively little work on
meta-memory judgements, a vast amount has been conducted recently. We
know not to take at face value statements like: ‘I have not thought
about that for years’, and work my Merckelbach and colleagues suggests
those people with recovered memories may have particularly unreliable
meta-memories. In summary, 10 years of data has not altered our
opinions, but has solidified them with scientific evidence. Here we
only scratch the surfaces of large and sometimes controversial areas of
Finally, it is important to consider the wider implications of the
recovered memory debate. Child sexual abuse is a large societal
problem, and children often do not disclose abuse unless specifically
asked (London et al., 2005). The debate about recovered memories should
not be used to deny these facts. What is important for the discipline
is how it has used science to inform this debate.
- Daniel B. Wright is at the University of Sussex. E-mail: email@example.com.
- James Ost is at the University of Portsmouth. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Christopher C. French is at Goldsmiths College, University of London. E-mail: email@example.com.
Recovered Memory Project: www.brown.edu/Departments/Taubman_Center/Recovmem
British False Memory Society: www.bfms.org.uk
Royal College of Psychiatry recommendations: www.fmsfonline.org/RoyalCollege.html
Discuss and debate
What evidence is necessary to show a true recovered memory?
How should the criminal courts treat recovered memories?
What role has the media played in the recovered memory movement over the past 20 years?
Have your say on these or other issues this article raises. E-mail
‘Letters’ on firstname.lastname@example.org or contribute to our forum via www.thepsychologist.org.uk.
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