False Memories and Trauma

By Ofer Zur, Ph.D.

The status of recovered memory of abuse has been scrutinized closely over the past several decades by scientists and forensic experts, as there are a number of research studies assessing false memory.

False Memories Update:
  • Research on recovered memory of abuse can be traced to Freud’s theory on repression of traumatic events.
  • Extensive research over the past few decades has shown that memories can be implanted via a variety of ways, such as by a therapist, parent or investigator.
  • A highly suggestive therapist can inspire a patient to make false claims of sexual abuse for a variety of reasons. For instance, a client may be motivated to make such claims to gain the approval or sympathy of the clinician, to get attention, to explain or distract from other issues.
  • Even if the clinician does not suggest the recovered memory, damage can be done if the patient’s narrative is accepted completely as essentially accurate, with little or no attempt to confirm validity (such as exploring more deeply with the client, suggesting the client speak with other family members, etc.).
  • Forensic evaluators take a much more thorough approach than therapists in investigating claims of childhood sexual abuse (which is the most common event found in recovered memory).
  • The veridicality of therapy-assisted recovery of childhood sexual abuse has been questioned due to the power therapists can have in shaping the experience of patients and the susceptibility of some patients to that influence.
  • Hypnosis is not considered a useful tool in retrieving memories of childhood abuse.
  • If demand characteristics and therapists’ expectations intrude into the therapeutic arena, patients will have an enhanced vulnerability to suggestion.
  • Someone with a diagnosis of dissociative identity disorder will often be quicker to believe and run with their own recovered memories of childhood sexual abuse.
  • Spontaneous recovery of childhood abuse is more likely to be confirmed than memories that surface in therapy.

From the Boards:
  • The American Medical Association (AMA) considers recovered memories of childhood sexual abuse to be of uncertain authenticity which should be subject to external verification.
  • The American Psychological Association (APA) agrees that “at this point it is impossible, without other corroborative evidence, to distinguish a true memory from a false one.”

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In Summary:
  • The digital age presents more opportunities to corroborate, verify, and confirm claims of sexual abuse than ever before.
  • Forensically speaking, evidence of recovered memories of childhood sexual abuse per the Daubert criteria is not generally admissible at trial.
  • Needless to say, the controversy of how to address recovered memories, and whether they are credible, is not going to end any time soon.

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