Monday, 13 August 2007

Fresh doubt cast on memories of abuse recovered in therapy

Memories of child abuse, long buried, but suddenly recovered in therapy, have been a source of controversy for some time now. The fear is that such memories are false; that they are the product of suggestion, hypnosis, visualisation or other therapeutic technique.

Now Elke Geraerts and colleagues have cast fresh doubt on the reliability of these therapy-recovered memories. They found that such memories are dramatically less likely to be corroborated by third parties or other evidence, than are lost memories of child abuse recovered outside of therapy, or abuse memories that were never forgotten.

Seventy-one participants with never-forgotten memories of child abuse, and 57 participants with recovered memories responded to a newspaper advert posted by the researchers. They were interviewed in detail about possible corroborating evidence for their abuse, such as a third party who learned about the abuse soon after it happened, or another person who reported having been abused by the same alleged perpetrator.

Significant corroborating evidence was found for 45 per cent of the 71 participants who had never forgotten their memory of having been abused, and 37 per cent of the 41 participants who, at some point outside of therapy, had recovered a lost memory of being abused. But in dramatic contrast, corroborating evidence wasn't found for any of the 16 participants who recovered their memories of abuse in therapy.

And yet the groups didn't differ on many variables that might explain this difference in evidence, such as age when abused, severity of abuse, or how much they talked about the abuse with others. In fact, the only difference between the recovered-memory groups, aside from the amount of corroborating evidence, was that the participants who recovered their memories in therapy were less surprised by their newly discovered memories.

The researchers said their findings offered support for both sides of the recovered memory debate. While memories recovered in therapy appeared to be false, the corroborating evidence for memories recovered outside of therapy suggested that some discontinuous memories can be genuine.

Geraerts, E., Schooler, J.W., Merckelbach, H., Jelicic, M., Hauer, B.J.A. & Ambadar, Z. (2007). The reality of recovered memories. Corroborating continuous and discontinuous memories of childhood sexual abuse. Psychological Science, 18, 564-568. (link is to full text pdf).

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

Photo credit: Stacy Braswell


Anonymous said...

Surely the variable differentiating these groups is time spent in possession of the memories, which I'd expect to have a significant impact on the likelihood of finding others to confirm past events.

People with no memory loss will have had the possibility of finding others to support their claims at or near the time of the abuse occurring. Someone revealing a recovered memory of abuse, say twenty years after an event, is more likely to find others consolidated in denial. Facing the possibility that a member of a community is an abuser after twenty years is likely going to be harder than addressing that at the time.

Was this variable controlled for?

Unknown said...

Hi Ollie
thanks for your comment. The thing is, the notable lack of corroborating evidence was found for memories recovered in therapy only. Memories recovered outside of therapy were supported by a similar amount of corroborating evidence as never-forgotten memories. So clearly time in possession of memory wasn't a key factor here as far as corroborating evidence was concerned. Also, time in possession in memory would be very difficult to measure since it would require people not only to recover their memory, but also to recall the moment when they had lost it. This variable wasn't measured in the current study, probably for this reason. However age when abused was controlled for.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your reply, Christian. Although the memories recovered outside therapy and those never-forgotten found similar collaboration, I have to disagree that time in possession is not a factor and remain convinced that it is an important variable.

Reducing to absurdity to clarify my position: if we assume that all independently recovered memories were recovered within two months of the abuse while all memory recoveries in therapy happened twenty years later, my earlier argument about the possible consolidation of denial among potential corroborators holds. Realistically I would not expect such dramatic differences, but I hope this illustrates why I believe this variable is so important.

I agree that it could be difficult to measure, but this difficulty could be mitigated by forsaking some precision. Asking people to recall to the nearest year, or even five-year window, would probably suffice. Either could provide some evidence to back the assertion that time in possession is, or is not, a key factor.

Unknown said...

Hi Ollie,
OK, thanks, I see what you mean. Your point could be valid if memories recovered outside of therapy were lost for far less time than memories recovered inside of therapy. Is there a reason for thinking this might be the case? Anyway, I don't think the researchers looked at this. In the text they mention these variables: "Further support for the claim that therapists’
suggestions contributed to the disparity between the corroboration
rates of memories recalled in therapy and memories
recalled out of therapy comes from the finding that the recalledin-
therapy and recalled-out-of-therapy groups did not differ
with respect to a host of other variables that could in principle
contribute to differences in corroboration rate (including reported age of abuse, b 5 .13, SE 5 .08, prep 5 .81; relationship
to perpetrator
, b 5 .02, SE 5 .22, prep 5 .15; and severity of abuse, b 5 .32, SE 5 .52, prep 5 .47).

Anonymous said...

Hi Christian,

I wonder if those recovering memories outside of therapy were able to do so faster because they had less severe dissociative complications arising from their experiences. This seems reasonable, given that their dissociative defences were able to come down without therapeutic aid.

Unfortunately the paper's variables also don't include the particular traumatic complications (or their severity) arising in the two groups.

Anonymous said...

Hi! While I am not a Freudian and strongly agree with the concept of False memories, I am concerned that other variables which may not have been taken into consideration (or may have been taken into consideration by the researchers but not stated in the article) are when the abuse took place (cohort effect) and the honesty of the people asked (social desirability). i.e. It could be the 'abuse' took place at a time when talking about it was taboo or unrecognised (e.g. 1950s) or the people accused belonged to 'pillars of the community'. Thus, the lack of evidence from a 'third party' could be because:

1. Other people did know that it happened but were too frightened/ashamed to say so to the researchers due to fear of reprisal or of 'damage to someone's reputation'(social desirability bias). Also, they may have been firghtened about telling the researchers that it did happen, in case the researchers criticised them for failing to report it/support the person recovering memories of the 'abuse'.

2. As a result of 1, the 'third party' may have suffered from repression themselves as a result, esp in the case of those who were also 'abused'. i.e. They've spent so long denying that it happened that they may have convinced themselves that it did not.

Tom said...

I have a question does "memories recovered in therapy only" mean within the therapy room, or whilst having a course of therapy? I had a recovered memory (during therapy but outside the therapy room) and have no idea if it's true or not and am really struggling to find any help with this...

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