What Are False Memories? Can Infants Have Them?

Research shows “false memory theory” to be “scientifically inaccurate, damaging to survivors of physical and sexual abuse, and unhelpful to the public.” Here’s why.

“False Memory Syndrome” has Never Been Ratified by the American Psychological Association or Any Other Mainstream Psychological Diagnostic System as an Actual Diagnosis

False Memory Syndrome has Never been proven— not after 30 years of media sensationalism, a book on False Memory and many sex offenders championing the false memory narrative.

An article in the Association for Psychological Science (APS) journal Current Directions in Psychological Science includes new research demonstrating that the central claims of “false memory theory” promoted by the False Memory Syndrome Foundation “rest on shaky foundations.”

“False Memory Theory” is a Tool to Discredit Survivors of Sexual Trauma or other heinous crimes committed against children.

“False memory” gives a pseudoscientific name to the trope that survivors somehow develop entirely new memories of sexual assaults that never existed. That’s not how memory works — but it is how perpetrators of sexual violence have worked to deny accountability.

Pioneering psychologist Dr. Jennifer Freyd has found that perpetrators of sexual assault often “Deny, Attack, and Reverse Victim and Offender,” a phenomenon she calls “DARVO.” When Harvey Weinstein’s defense team introduced testimony that suggested that the survivor’s memories of assault are fabricated, or when it attempts to discredit alleged victims’ testimony by highlighting peripheral details that they do not remember, it is attempting to both deny the assault and attack the credibility of the survivor in classic DARVO fashion.

The reality is that most scientific research shows traumatic events of all kinds are often cemented in a person’s memory. Current research shows that memories of sexual assault are even more vivid than memories of other sorts of traumas, such as car crashes.

Harvey Weinstein’s Alleged Victims’ Memories are Consistent with Those of Sexual Trauma Survivors

Over 80 women in the film industry accused Weinstein of sexual assault. Weinstein himself denied “any non-consensual sex”. A New York appellate court has upheld Harvey Weinstein’s rape conviction. A woman filed a civil lawsuit against former film producer Harvey Weinstein for sexual battery, false imprisonment and other claims after he was convicted of raping her in December, 2022 in Los Angeles.

Traumatic events themselves are processed differently than peripheral information about traumatic events. With extreme emotional arousal during a traumatic event, people experiencing trauma often become narrowly focused on what is happening and are therefore more likely to remember it. In contrast, they often have incomplete and less clear memories of other aspects of the traumatic event, such as the day of the week or the clothes they were wearing at the time.

Likewise, traumatic memories often come to mind as involuntary and intrusive thoughts or ruminations replayed and rehearsed over an entire lifetime. Extraneous details and information, on the other hand, do not re-appear as intrusive thoughts or ruminations, so they become easily forgotten, especially as time passes.

Gaps in Memory and Recovered Memories Don’t Diminish the Credibility of the Underlying Memory

Research has established that it is normal for gaps to exist in a survivor’s memory of an assault due to scientifically validated reactions like dissociation or the consolidation and coding of traumatic memories.

Even in incidents where an assault has been repressed for long periods of time, several studies have found that the accuracy of recovered memories is comparable to memories that have not been repressed.

The Prominence of “False Memory Theory” Stems from a Misinformation Campaign by the Now-Defunct False Memory Syndrome Foundation, whose Founder was reported to have Sexual Abused by His Daughter. She reported it took her a long time to piece together the memories and sort it out because it began when I was 3 or 4. It was positioned as fun with the family.

“False memory theory” was championed by the False Memory Syndrome Foundation, an organization founded in 1992 that gained infamy for promoting pseudoscience not backed by the American Psychological Association with the purpose of protecting people accused of sexual abuse.

Michele Landsberg, a Toronto Star columnist, described the False Memory Syndrome Foundation founders and advisors as “people who had the motive to deny the truth.” In fact, the founder of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation, Peter Freyd, whose daughter confronted him about sexually abusing her. One of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation’s founding advisors, Ralph Underwager, was forced to resign after he was quoted as describing pedophilia as “an acceptable expression of God’s will for love.” Another advisor, James Randi, had been recorded having sexually explicit phone conversations with teenagers.

The main mechanism by which the False Memory Syndrome Foundation created distrust of survivors was through a sustained, decades-long media campaign. In 1991, over 80 percent of media coverage treated recovered memory of sexual abuse as reliable. But three years into the public relations campaign waged by the False Memory Syndrome Foundation over 80 percent of the stories on this issue focused on false accusations.

The Discredited “False Memory Syndrome Foundation” Abruptly Dissolved — Observers Point to a Lack of Support from the Scientific Community and the Public

For undisclosed reasons, the False Memory Syndrome Foundation announced its dissolution on December 31, 2019. However, close observers of the Foundation have pointed out that a number of the Foundation’s  advisors are sidelined from the scientific community today.

Despite the Foundation’s lack of scientific recognition or respect, an incredible amount of damage has been done to our cultural understanding of sexual trauma and the ability of survivors to achieve justice. As Michael Salter, a professor of criminal psychology has said, “the legacy of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation’s lies and distortions remain, alongside unanswered questions about media ethics and academic accountability.”

Published: September 4, 2022