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It’s Well-Established In Psychological Research That Memories Are Unreliable


In late 1990, California tried and convicted George Franklin Sr. for murder of an eight-year-old girl killed more than 20 years earlier, based on testimony from his estranged daughter Eileen’s recovered memories coaxed from therapy. Franklin’s conviction inspired a cottage industry for expanding such judicial grievances across the country.

Professor Elizabeth Loftus described conjuring such “evidence” a quarter-century ago in her exposé titled “The Reality of Recovered Memories” in American Psychologist. In her seminal article, Loftus warned against trusting therapists due to their bias towards assuming the reality of reconstructed memories.

She described psychotherapists extolling strategies of coaxing such constructions: “through unintentional suggestions from therapists.” She cited documentation of “discrepancies… between therapists’ accounts of what they have done in therapy and what is revealed in [recordings] of those same session.”

Loftus further illustrated the malleability of memory by a prompted recollection of a childhood “lost in the shopping mall” story, subsequently expanded for a formation study published in Psychiatric Annals two years later. Loftus provided four brief narratives during his or her childhood to each of twenty-four adults. One of those events—having been lost in a mall at age five—had been confirmed to be untrue by the subjects’ family members. After interviews, however, five subjects (more than a fifth) accepted the implanted memory as genuine, and invented details.

Lots of Research Shows Memories Are Highly Malleable

While not everyone seems inherently susceptible to such manipulation, a non-trivial proportion of humanity appears to have memories vulnerable to influence by “Inception”-like manipulation (sans visual effects). Ira Hyman investigated mental imagery for inventing false childhood memories, explaining his results in Journal of Memory and Language. He tested subjects’ memory of a non-incident of playing at a wedding reception and spilling the punch bowl on the bride’s parents—an emotionally evocative but non-disturbing circumstance.

Other studies indicate that recalled memories thus cannot be relied upon for accurate information. Cognitive psychologists developed a semantic test called the Deese-Roediger-McDermott (DRM) paradigm. Researchers present to DRM subjects a list of related words for subsequent recall. The test further asks whether the subject recalls the “lure”—an associated but non-presented term.

Susan Clancy published a false recognition study in Psychological Science, comparing DRM recall between groups of women, including: a control group with no history of sexual abuse, a group with continuous memory of always remembering childhood sexual abuse (CSA), and a group with recovered memory with delayed CSA recollection. The recover group exhibited a lower threshold (i.e., a greater propensity) for erroneous recollection of semantic associates than the others did, while also remembering the actually listed words. She concluded: “women who report recovered memories of sexual abuse are more prone than others to develop certain types of illusory memories.”

Recognizing the possibility of actual CSA in the recovered memory group, Clancy subsequently undertook a memory distortion study for subjects who reported having been abducted by space aliens, compared with more prosaic controls. Same result. In Journal of Abnormal Psychology, she concluded: “the data are consistent with the hypothesis that [such] individuals… are also more likely to develop false memories of experience that were only suggested or imagined.”

In a fantasy proneness study published in Consciousness and Cognition, Elke Geraerts addressed memory impairment comparison between emotionally evocative terms and descriptive words. She observed that “women reporting recovered CSA memories are more susceptible than other participants to this memory illusion… for both neutral and trauma-related word lists.”

So Take Recalled Memories With a Slab of Salt

In her “Reality” article, Loftus cautions that “uncritical acceptance of uncorroborated trauma memories… has been used to promote public accusations by alleged abuse survivors. If such memories are fabricated, this will of course lead to irreparable damage to the reputations of potentially innocent people.” As an epilogue, George Franklin was sentenced to life imprisonment in January 1991. He was released six years later, following reversal by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals that ruled recovered memories inadmissible as evidence.

In the aftermath of the Senate’s confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, one might charitably assume that Christine Blasey Ford remembers a traumatic teenage event after approaching four decades, and mistakenly associates the perpetrator as having long ago been the Boy Scout nominee. While studies in empirical psychology might not be dispositive regarding Ford’s allegations against Kavanaugh, the absence of objective specifics (such as date and location) cast serious doubt as to the entire professed event’s veracity, not to mention the identity of the supposed perpetrator.

This confirmation borking spectacle invites speculation that this heinous charge may constitute an attempt at politically motivated drive-by character-assassination that deserves to fail.