THE DARK SIDE OF FALSE MEMORIES
There’s an ongoing debate in psychology about the nature of false memories, and their implications for criminal cases. Can false memories be imagined out of thin air, or do they need some kind of ‘real-life’ seed? And if false memories can materialise out of nothing, what does that mean for the testimonies of defendants, victims and eyewitnesses?
To take one example, in the 1990s, there was a panic that psychotherapy patients were being furnished with false memories of childhood sexual abuse. Could the seeds of false memories of abuse be sown when therapists dig for forgotten childhood traumas as explanations of psychological problems in later life?
“Although some people can and do have reasonably accurate memories for childhood abuse, there are circumstances under which suggestive interviewing or therapy can create memories of abuse where there are none,” says psychologist Prof Mark Howe. In 2015, two psychologists found that interviews with volunteers using repetitive, suggestive questioning led to 70 per cent of them falsely remembering having committed a crime in early adolescence that led to police contact. Their reported memories were rich in detail, despite being demonstrably untrue.
But clinical psychologist Prof Chris Brewin of University College London questions whether reputable therapists work in such a way as to accidentally seed false memories. He also says that false memories are not easily spun out of nothing. “People probably wouldn’t be having these memories without a connection to
something,” he points out. Details might be misremembered, but Brewin says there’s usually a “grain of truth” in such recollections. The question is whether that grain of truth is an actual event or just the memory of a book, TV show or movie, or something someone told you.
This aspect of false memory remains highly contentious. Yet Brewin says that clinical specialists agree that recovered memories exist and that “they can be true, false or a mixture of the two.” He and Prof Bernice Andrews argue that “either uncritically accepting false memories, or disbelieving genuine recovered memories, has the potential to do immense harm.”