Repressed and Recovered Memory
Elizabeth F. Loftus
University of California, Irvine - Department of Psychology and Social Behavior; University of California, Irvine School of Law
Victoria University of Wellington, School of Psychology
University of Otago
BEYOND COMMON SENSE: PSYCHOLOGICAL SCIENCE IN THE COURTROOM, Eugene Borgida, Susan T. Fiske, eds., 2007
UC Irvine School of Law Research Paper No. 2009-13
In the twentieth century, the notion of repression wormed its way deep into western culture. How? Many scholars point to Freud. Yet Freud was maddeningly vague about repression: As Crews (1995) has long noted, Freud could not decide if what becomes repressed were real events or merely fantasies, or if the repression mechanism operates consciously or unconsciously. The essence of repression is a protective process that shuttles truly disturbing memories, thoughts, or behaviors out of awareness, where they lurk, ready to reappear when the anxiety associated with them is removed through the course of therapy. Fittingly, Freud was also responsible for developing a method to uncover repressed memories - or, as Crews says, Freud "pioneered the modern memory sleuths' technique of thematically matching a patient's symptom with a sexually symmetrical 'memory'."
Although Freud eventually renounced his fuzzy theory, modern therapists repatriated it, adding their own refi nements. By the late 1980s many mental health professionals were sure that what was repressed were real memories for real events, and so what was unrepressed were accurate memories of these real events (see, for example, Briere & Conte, 1993; Herman, 1992; Terr, 1988, 1995). The generally accepted view they espoused is that victims of abusive experiences push their traumatic memories for these experiences out of consciousness for some period of time after which the memories resurface in their original, pristine format.
None of us questions the reality of physical and sexual abuse. Far too many children are abused at the hands of people whom they love and trust, and for many, this abuse leaves lasting psychological scars that may remain throughout their lifetime. But the central issue here is whether it is possible for victims of abuse temporarily to banish traumatic memories from consciousness only to have them return, in almost perfect condition, years and sometimes decades later. In our view, scientifi c research on memory sheds considerable light on the notion of repressed and recovered memories. Here, we review research on the process of forgetting. On the basis of these data, we argue that there is no empirical evidence for repression and that claims of repression (in cases where the event really happened) are merely instances of plain old everyday forgetting. We will also review research on false memories. On the basis of these data we conclude that it is possible (and, in fact, relatively easy) for people to develop memories for events that they have never experienced.
Number of Pages in PDF File: 19
Date posted: April 9, 2009 ; Last revised: August 22, 2010