Saturday, December 31, 2011
Waging Ghostly War on a National Level: Political Science
Former American Psychological Association Ethics Chair Dr. Kenneth Pope
and forensic psychologist Dr. Laura Brown
co-wrote a response to the ongoing False Memory Syndrome (FMS) controversy in their 1996 book Recovered Memories of Abuse
. In it they chronicled the rise of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation, and noted the impact it had on the general public (and in some cases, on mainstream psychology). Most important, they examined the context in which the FMS movement arose, and called into question the methodology and conclusions of the research that supports the FMSF’s major claims.
One of the key observations made by Drs. Pope and Brown is that the emergence of FMS did not occur in a scientific or therapeutic context. Citing Judith Herman’s 1992 book Trauma and Memory
, the authors note, “…that the study of trauma is inherently political, given that any discussion of trauma requires the uncovering of abhorrent social realities that a society may wish to minimize or deny.”
The political nature of the FMS debate originates in cultural values. The authors note that our society considers sexual offenses especially heinous. In most states, for example, parents have a legal right to exact physical violence in the form of corporal punishment, or yell at kids, or otherwise act in a threatening manner. Sexual contact between children and adults--even if not overtly violent--is illegal across the nation. This results in an extraordinary tension between the drive to protect childhood and our firm beliefs in parenting freedom. Worse, this tension rests upon an understanding that is murky, often clouded by intricate circumstances involving emotional needs and financial dependency. To compound it all, the question of childhood sexual abuse often finds reduction in two mutually incompatible narratives: “You did this to me,” as opposed to “No I didn’t.”
Under these circumstances, the public often values bottom-line answers over empirical accuracy. The tendency is to believe either that all claims of recovered memory of abuse have to be true, or that all claims of recovered memory are inherently false. As Drs. Pope and Brown wrote:
Sexual abuse of children is a highly charged topic seeming to create impatient social demands for instant clarity that may be superficial, misleading, or downright wrong, rather than patient tolerance needed until ambiguities can be carefully, adequately explored….The pull to arrive at this sort of pseudo certainty is strong when the issue is childhood sexual abuse.
Here, the authors point out that sweeping generalization in any direction could lead to severe problems for the therapist, the patient, and the accused. It is in this regard that Drs. Pope and Brown had serious reservations about the claims made by each side of this debate regarding the scope of this problem. On the one hand, some believe that as many as 38% of the population has experienced some sort of childhood sexual abuse, while some FMS advocates put the figure at 3.3 per million, or .003%. Although the authors point out that some of this disparity can be explained by differing definitions of sexual abuse (e.g., some only count heterosexual vaginal intercourse, while others include oral and anal sex, mutual masturbation, erotic kissing, or lewd behavior without physical contact), some of the disparity also originates in methodological error. In one instance, they cite FMSF co-founder Hollida Wakefield’s assertion that nine out of every ten accusations of sexual abuse by children are false They questioned how Wakefield could be so sure that was the case, since she didn’t offer any empirical studies to support the contention.
While both sides might have reached questionable conclusions, the authors note that the claims made by those supporting the FMS hypothesis were especially egregious. After all, the opponents of the FMS hypothesis had at least some empirical basis for the 38% figure.* Proponents of the FMS could not really offer anything other than the Lost in the Mall study to support a claim of false memory implantation, and even then the figures it reached would not account for the numbers cited by proponents.
In fact, Drs. Pope and Brown seemed especially dismayed by the lack of methodological rigor in the pro-FMS camp. For starters, how does one actually determine if a memory is accurate or not? In this regard, the authors cited a number of considerable number of pro-FMS sources. In this literature, they observed:
It continues to be unclear if the protocol of any research purporting to validate the FMS diagnosis in large numbers of persons used any criterion other than the decision-rule that all recovered memories of abuse are inherently false. Statements by some FMSF proponents have seemed to characterize recovered memories of trauma as objectively false per se. FMSF Scientific and Professional Advisory Board member Harrison Pope and his colleague James Hudson….emphasized that ’[t]raumatic experiences are memorable’…; asserted that there has never been a confirmed case of ’noncontrived amnesia among neurologically intact individuals over the age of 6 who experienced events sufficiently traumatic that no one would be expected to simply forget them’…; and asserted that trauma survivors in scientifically valid studies unanimously remembered the events….’: Founding FMSF Scientific and Professional Advisory Board members Hollida Wakefield and Ralph Underwager…wrote, “People who undergo severe trauma remember it….” Martin Gardner…asserted that ’[b]etter-trained, older psychiatrists do not believe that childhood memories of trauma can be repressed for any length of time, except in rare cases of actual brain damage….And there is abundant evidence that totally false memories are easily aroused in the mind of a suggestible patient….’ FMSF…itself published the claim: ‘Psychiatrists advising the Foundation members seem to be unanimous in the belief that memories of such atrocities cannot be repressed. Horrible incidents of childhood are remembered…..’**
Drs. Pope and Brown also take to task other claims made by the FMSF and supporters, among them the contention that sexuality between adults and children is usually either benign or beneficial to the child. In that regard, they cited a 1994 paper written by Stephen Ceci, Mary Lyndia Crotteau Huffman, Elliot Smith and Elizabeth Loftus titled “Repeatedly Thinking about a Non-Event: Source Misattributions among Preschoolers” (Consciousness and Cognition
It is not clear that fondling or even fellatio are experienced by infants and young children as assault; they may at times be pleasurable or neutral, thus not carrying the psychic trauma needed for repression.
The authors also quoted a NY Times
article about Rev. Dr. Ralph Underwager where the minister/shrink asserted “….‘scientific evidence’ showed 60% of women sexually abused as children reported that the experience had been good for them.” Underwager further contented that the same could be true for boys too.
Once again, we have a figure (60% of women), an invocation to “scientific evidence,” with no empirical studies offered to substantiate that claim. As to the claim made by Loftus et al that young children undergoing rape not involving penetration might not carry sufficient enough trauma for repression, that could very well be true. Such children could even recall the experience as neutral or pleasurable. But as was the case with Children of God founder David Berg
, even if remembered fondly, the molestation can harm the child. And in Berg’s case, the negative consequences of his nostalgic memories of abuse damaged the lives of literally thousands of people.
Perhaps the most serious question raised by Recovered Memories of Abuse
is the relevance of prior (and future) research of false memory to the issue so central to the FMSF. The most glaring fallacy in the FMS hypothesis is the conflation of two distinct issues: “false” memory, and memory distortion. Psychologists, by and large, have understood for many years that distortion in memory takes place. Many a layperson could tell you the same thing. It’s commonsense, really. But does forgetting specific details in a story such as “The War of the Ghost,” a story that the subject has read twice, in a non-stressful situation, that is also outside his conceptual framework, constitute a “false memory”? As Drs. Pope and Brown wrote:
The use of the terms ‘false memory’ and ‘true memory’ are problematic in light of research and theory about memory. Most paradigms seem to suggest that ‘true’ and ‘false’ are naive or misleading labels when applied to memory, which tends toward a mixture of the accurate and inaccurate. Additionally, a review of the research on this topic finds a confusion of meanings; a ‘false memory’ in one study refers to the inclusion of the wrong word in a list…., while in another it might describe a complex series of interactions that have been deceptively suggested to a research participant by a family or friend…., or by a researcher who represents the information as coming from the research participant’s parent…. In the popular literature, such terminology often reflects the standpoint of the writer, and the writer’s assumptions about whether a reported memory is valid or not. In such instances, the label ‘true’ or ‘false’ may have little or nothing to do with the validity or invalidity of the reported memory and reflect instead the writer’s response to the political pressures in this area.
Moreover, the authors raised questions about the application of research done on memory distortion to the issue central to the FMSF’s core reason for existing: namely, the defense against untrue allegation of childhood sexual abuse made by adults who recovered memories of the crime during therapy. They levy four major criticisms of the research cited in the last five posts as it specifically applies to recovered memory of childhood sexual abuse. In the next few posts, I will revisit the research, the examples and conclusions presented in the last five.
*That figure came about in the course of a 1994 study done by University of New Hampshire psychology professor Dr. Linda Meyer Williams titled “Recall of Childhood Trauma: A Prospective Study of Women’s Memories of Child Sexual Abuse” (Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology
, v. 62). In this study, Williams followed up on 129 women who had actually suffered childhood sexual abuse, as documented at the time by hospital and police records. Forty-nine women (37.9%) responded to a list of questions. The flag question asked if they were sexually abused as a child. For those women who recalled the abuse, 16% acknowledged that they had in fact forgotten it at one time in their lives, but eventually remembered it.
Dr. Meyer Williams’ methodology has since been called into question, and its clear in Drs. Pope and Brown’s recitation of the study that they have some skepticism about it too. If someone answered no to a flag question, for example, it could be that they just don’t want to talk about it, or admit it to strangers (especially researchers). That doesn’t necessarily mean that all of those women forgot the abuse. Rather, it means that there is no good way of determining how many were simply denying the abuse, and how many honestly couldn’t remember.
**The sources cited in this passage:
Gardner, Martin. 1993. “The False Memory Syndrome.” Skeptical Inquirer
, v. 17
Loftus, Elizabeth. 1988 (1980). Memory: Surprising New Insights into How We Remember and Why We Forget
. NYC: Ardsley House.
Loftus, Elizabeth, Maryanne Garry & Julie Feldman, 1994. “Forgetting Sexual Trauma: What Does It Mean when 38% Forget?” Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology
, v. 62,
Pope, Harrison & James Hudson. 1995. “Can Individuals ‘Repress’ Memories of Childhood Sexual Abuse? An Examination of the Evidence.” Psychiatric Annals
Wakefield, Hollida & Ralph Underwager. 1994. Return of the Furies: An Investigation into Recovered Memory Therapy
. Chicago, IL: Open Court.
To read earlier posts in this series, click here.
Labels: FMSF, FMSF2, psychology
Saturday, December 24, 2011
Waging Ghostly War on a National Level: The Malling of America
Arguably the most widely cited study demonstrating the implanting of false memory was conducted by FMSF Scientific Advisory Board member Dr. Elizabeth Loftus. As she has written in a number of pieces over the years, and has spoken about publicly in the national media, her inspiration for the experiment came from a couple of sources. As a memory expert, her research on memory distortion began as a young scholar back in the 1970s. But the “germ” of the idea, as she called it, came about during a 1991 birthday party. Also in attendance were a friend and his twelve-year old daughter. As Loftus described the subject matter of her studies, the friend called over his child and nonchalantly asked if she had remembered the time she got lost in the shopping mall as a little girl. After some “prodding,” the daughter not only recalled the incident in front of Loftus, but elaborated on it in great detail.
Only one problem: according to Loftus’ friend, the incident never occurred.
That fall, Dr. Loftus extended her research by offering extra-credit to undergraduate students in her cognitive psychology course who could implant false memories on people they knew. As she wrote in a paper titled “Lost in the Mall: Misrepresentations and Misunderstandings” (Ethics and Behavior
, v. 9, n.1, 1999):
I would typically give my class an extra credit homework assignment along these lines: I told them to go out and try to distort a memory or to create in someone’s mind a ‘memory’ for something that did not exist. My hope was that they would discover how relatively easy or hard this could be, depending on the conditions, and that once a memory was acquired in this way, it can seem as real to a person as a memory that is a result of one’s own ordinary perceptual sensations.
Some of the students who took up the extra-credit offer came back with stunning results, among them Linda Binet, who convinced her daughter that she’d gotten lost on a ranch, and Jim Coan, who convinced his younger brother Chris that he, in fact, had gotten lost in a local shopping mall. For good measure, he recorded the interview.
Coan, who would later go on to do graduate work in psychology at the University of Arizona, admitted that at the time he took the cognitive psychology course it was only “tangential” to his real goal of attending medical school. In a 1997 paper titled “Lost in a Shopping Mall: An Experience with Controversial Research” (Ethics and Behavior
, v. 7, n.3, 1997), he chronicled his meteoric rise from undergrad with tangential interest to academic superstar when Loftus played the recording Coan brothers's conversation for the media. As he wrote:
Only months before, I had been a completely unknown undergraduate student in Psychology among hundreds. I had been unable to enter the University of Washington without first receiving an Associates Degree from a community college due to my poor high school grades. I had wanted to go to medical school, but did not believe it was possible. Suddenly, I was working closely to one of the biggest names in psychology [namely, Dr. Loftus], and seeing my name appear in the New York Times.
Extra-credit assignments and party conversation offer anecdotal evidence, of course. But in order for anyone in the academic world to take the concept seriously, Dr. Loftus and her colleagues would need to embark on a formal study. Trouble was, getting the approval from the university, for it risked violating ethical standards. Aware of this, Loftus explained in her 1994 book The Myth of Repressed Memories
The trick was to design a study powerful enough to prove that it is possible to implant a false memory while also winning the approval of the university’s Human Subjects Committee, which reviews proposed research projects to ensure that they will not be harmful to participants.
Normally, when dealing with field research of any kind, academics have to learn and test on (and in my case become certified in) issues pertaining to human subject experimentation. The reasons for this are long and historic. But to cut to the chase, universities around the US instituted such procedures after a number of experiments (often psychological ones) actually traumatized or harmed volunteer subjects. For this reason, studies done on trauma and memory require highly specialized experts (e.g., Dr. James Chu, Harvard Medical School) who can examine patients in vivo
, or as the traumatic situation arises. After all, it would be unethical to induce trauma artificially in order to observe its effects on the volunteer. Here, Dr. Loftus is intending to impose a "mildly" traumatic memory onto someone, or to get them to believe that something that something stressful happened to them in the past.
approved by the University of Washington consisted of (1) an interview with parents or relatives of subjects about childhood incidents, (2) the selection of three such incidents, (3) the inclusion of these three incidents and a fourth one about getting lost in a shopping mall, and (4) the subject’s response. The researchers gave twenty-four subjects (ages ranging from eighteen to fifty-three) the four narratives (the three supplied by family, and the shopping mall story) and asked them to respond to each one. If they didn’t remember an incident, they were instructed to simply say that they didn’t remember it.
The results: seven of the twenty-four, or almost 29% of the subjects said that they had a “partial or full” recollection of being lost in a mall, contrary to the recall of a parent or other relative. In a follow-up interview, 25% claimed to have still remembered the incident in whole or part.
In this research, Dr. Loftus carefully pointed out that a memory of getting lost in a shopping mall is different than, say, childhood rape. According to her, the point of the experience wasn’t so much to duplicate trauma as it was to point out that people can implant false memories on others. As she wrote for Scientific American
Of course, being lost, however frightening, is not the same as being abused. But the lost-in-the-mall study is not about real experiences of being lost; it is about planting false memories of being lost. The paradigm shows a way of instilling false memories and takes a step toward allowing us to understand how this might happen in real-world settings. Moreover, the study provides evidence that people can be led to remember their past in different ways, and they can even be coaxed into ‘remembering’ entire events that never happened.”
That last quote is particularly important, for Dr. Loftus is here qualifying the significance of the study itself. In defense of Dr. Loftus against her critics, one can fairly say that she isn’t correlating getting lost in a mall to childhood sexual abuse, but rather showing that, under the conditions she has outlined, people can have false ideas suggested to them by others. At the same time, however, the importance of this research has often been pumped up by critics and proponents of the FMS hypothesis. The latter feels that this gives concrete proof of the ability of psychologists to coerce patients into remembering wild things, hysterical things, ugly things that never happened. Furthermore, the proponents of FMS have used this study to assert that this type of suggestion is very easy to do; the doctor could, in fact, do it unconsciously.
For critics , the Lost in the Mall study typifies the ethical, methodological and reasoning problems that plague the FMS hypothesis.
To read earlier posts in this series, click here
Labels: FMSF, FMSF3, psychology
Tuesday, December 13, 2011
Waging Ghostly War on a National Level: The Suggestibility of Adults
Although Drs. Charles Brainerd and Valerie Reyna felt that children were more easily manipulated through suggestion, they gave a number of examples of adult manipulation through suggestibility in their book The Science of False Memory
. They demonstrated that the same factors that create malleable testimony in youngsters also apply to grown-ups through a number of case studies.
One study they cited dealt with the question of autosuggestion, one's tendency to manipulate his or her thoughts in deference to an overriding belief structure:
Conway and associates…have exploited this methodology to considerable advantage in some informative studies of autobiographical false memory. In the cited article, for example, two subjects, both of whom were memory researchers, kept diaries over a period of 5 months. They made diary entries for a total of 147 days, with the entries for each day being recorded either late in the evening or early the following morning. The subjects were instructed to make entries for both personal experiences and news events of the day. Diary entries for individual days were roughly six or seven sentences in length. In addition to recording true events and thoughts, subjects were asked to record altered events and thoughts and false events and thoughts. Altered events and thoughts were generated by the subjects themselves by modifying the surface form of a true event or thought while preserving its meaning….False events and thoughts were things that could have happened on a particular day, but did not.*
According to Brainerd and Reyna, suggestibility is often in deference to authority. In one example, a transcript of a legal proceeding, they illustrate not only that you can manipulate adult memory through suggestion, but that you can do so quite easily, and with almost instantaneous results.
Officer: Where’d you guys eat lunch on Saturday?
Witness: Don’t remember.
Witness: Just can’t recall.
Officer: Well, I talked to your brother’s wife, and she said that you guys ate a lunch at Burger King.”
Witness: She said that?
Witness: Yup, I remember now. It was Burger King.
Officer: You certain of that?
The authors add, ““The indicated conversation with the brother’s wife, which led this witness to ‘remember’ with absolute certainty that he and his brother ate at Burger King, never occurred.”
From this, one can only surmise that the memory was created by the court officer during questioning, using not only his authority as, well, a court officer, but also on the authority of his sister-in-law. This jibes with the third and fourth conclusion drawn by Alfred Binet (cited in previous post). The confidence exuded by the witness that he actually ate at Burger King has no bearing on whether or not he actually ate at Burger King, since the memory was apparently induced by an outside party (namely, the examining attorney). At the same time, bringing the witness’ sister-in-law into the picture expands the pool of people who can definitely place him at Burger King that Saturday. The witness now has a court officer AND a relative placing him there. Although two is the smallest group possible, we can see that plurality gives weight to the validity of a proposition.
More directly bearing on the subject of false memory in forensic examination (especially as it pertains to child abuse), the authors also cite case studies of false confessions. In one, “The Case of Mr. K,” an engineer with two kids, nine and eleven, his sons invited a friend over, who consequently complained that Mr. K fondled his genitalia.
The investigators then proceeded to Mr. K’s house to interview his wife, who also reported no knowledge of the events complained of by Mrs. L’s son. They did learn, however, that Mr. K was a heavy drinker, who was in a state of moderate intoxication during most evenings, who had been encouraged to seek medical treatment for his drinking problem, and who had been drinking on the previous evening.
.....further investigation revealed that a parent had filed a complaint four years earlier that another woman complained that Mr. K fondled the buttocks of her son. Police asked him to come to the station a second time. After grilling, and noting his alcoholic tendencies, he said ‘Well, I suppose I can’t be 100% sure that it didn’t happen….I was so blotto that maybe I can’t rule it out completely, but I sure don’t think anything like that could happen….Yeah, the boy hadn’t been drinking and I had been, so I suppose his memory of Sunday night would have to be clearer than mine.’
Here, Mr. K. has a debilitation (alcoholism) that could lead to memory blackouts. The fact that someone previously filed a charge against him, the fact that he knew he didn’t remember everything, compounded by the authority of police officers led him to speculate that he very well could have done exactly what they said he did.
In another case, Mr. E., a man characterized by the authors as “slightly retarded,” accidentally killed his infant son when he picked up the crying baby to comfort him, and then tripped over something with the kid still in his arms.
Mr. E stated in response to the researcher’s questioning that although he was sure that he could not have done such terrible things, some of the events seemed quite real to him, both at the time of the police interrogation and at the time of the forensic interview. This was particularly true of the alleged motive for the crime: being very angry toward his wife for leaving him alone with the infant when he was in a state of sleep deprivation. He further stated that at the time of the interrogation, he thought that the police interviewer’s knowledge of events must be far more accurate than his own memory and that, even now, he would be inclined to believe that some of the acts of brutality happened if it were not for the fact that he knew himself to be incapable of such savagery.
After his arrest on murder charges: "As he was taken to his cell, he complained to the attendant that the interviewer had put words into his mouth and that he had not harmed his son, which the attendant duly noted.”
Compelling forensic evidence demonstrated that Mr. E. and his child had suffered a horrendous accident, and nothing else. So despite his confession, he was released. Likewise, authorities found Mr. K. innocent. Therefore, there confessions had to have been false. The authors subsequently infer that their memories of the events were likewise false.
Bearing even more directly on the subject of recovered memories of sexual childhood abuse, Drs. Brainerd and Reyna cited the case of Dr. Diane Humenansky, a psychiatrist who suddenly found herself surrounded by patients suffering from Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID). One of these patients, Elizabeth Carlson, sued Humenansky for malpractice, stating that these multiple personalities, which included memories of Satanic Ritual Abuse (SRA), had no basis in fact, but instead were planted into consciousness by the doctor’s suggestion. Commenting on this case, Brainerd and Reyna stated:
During the initial trial, [Dr. Diane] Humenansky [M.D.] testified that she did not believe that patients could recover false memories of sexual abuse; she did not believe in the phenomenon of false memory; and her patients’ recovered memories were therefore true. However, the presiding judge ruled that the psychological theory upon which recovered-memory therapy is based--the theory of repression--does not meet an accepted standard of scientific proof and that, in consequence, expert testimony that assumes the validity of this notion could not be presented at trial. Following a 6-week trial, the jury awarded the plaintiff more than $2.6 million for medical expenses, loss of income, pain, and suffering. The patient was awarded a further $461,000 for anticipated future damages, and her husband was awarded 210,000 for loss of partnership.**
Drs. Brainerd and Reyna summarized many of the arguments made by the False Memory Syndrome Foundation, and sympathetic researchers. While not exactly defining false memory, or clarifying what it is as opposed to what it isn’t, the researchers nevertheless present a convincing case, based on the fact that memory is fallible, and subject to such things as suggestion (from authorities, peers, or the subject herself), coercion (in the case of false confessions), or just overall deficiency in how we remember things. They contended that false memories are common, everyday occurrences, that affect all aspects of remembrance. Moreover, they said that others–perhaps due to maliciousness, perhaps due to incompetence–can easily plant false memories in a subject.
At the same time, many experts have expressed grave doubts to these and similar findings based on a number of factors. To them, the evidence cited by Drs. Brainerd and Reyna neither proves the existence of false memory, nor addresses the matter of recovered memory, especially in cases of trauma. Instead, these studies and this evidence indicates something that’s a bit more complex.
*The authors appear to be citing a number of studies simultaneously, here: those conducted by Dr. M.A. Conway, and those conducted by other experts, who presumably had some professional relationship to Dr. Conway in the field of autobiographical memory. The actual study cited here was done by Dr. Craig R. Barclay (University of Rochester), and Dr. Henry Wellman (University of Michigan), and published under the title “Accuracies and Inaccuracies in Autobiographical Memory” (Journal of Memory and Language
**Without delving deeply into the case against Dr. Humenansky, or the reasons for a judge to disallow testimony obtained through recovered memory, many would point out that courts have ruled in favor of the admissibility of such evidence
because it meets the requirements of the Daubert standard
. Some experts say
that whether or not the court accepts recovered memory as evidence could depend on the jurisdiction, the nature of the statute of limitations, the specific expert witness, or court officers involved.
Labels: FMSF, FMSF3, psychology
Monday, December 05, 2011
Waging Ghostly War on a National Level: Just a Suggestion
Any schoolteacher, or developmental psychologist, could tell you about Jean Piaget. His most noteworthy contribution to science consisted of a model of intellectual development over the course of childhood. The model broke down cognitive growth into four stages: (1) sensorimotor, (2) preoperational, (3) concrete operations, and (4) formal operations. In the sensorimotor stage, a child’s primary thoughts center on control of the body and the exploration of the world through the senses. It’s in this stage that a child learns to walk, distinguish sounds and colors and so on. In the preoperational stage, the child develops a sense of self while she continues to master sensorimotor tasks. During this stage of life (between two and seven), the child has yet to become acquainted with logical thinking, and tends to see the world as operating on a magical level (e.g., belief in the tooth fairy, the Easter Bunny, Father Christmas, and so on). In the stage of concrete operations (ages seven to thirteen), children can grasp logical concepts, but only in a limited fashion. They stop believing in “little kid stuff,” but at the same time can only understand things in a very black-and-white way, and can only apply their reasoning to things that they can directly experience. (As my psyche professors often said, a number of people will never leave this stage of development, and remain will here to old age.) The fourth level, formal operations (ages thirteen-on), is the adult thinking, the ability to apply logic to abstract concepts and critique principles; formal thinkers can even critique the value of logic itself.
Despite the fame of this model, Drs. Charles Brainerd and Valerie Reyna pay closer attention to Piaget’s work in another area: suggestibility. Specifically, they point to his criticism of ‘mesmerization,’ a belief in the natural magnetic properties of animal life over inanimate matter. Developed by physician Franz Mesmer
, it eventually morphed into a crude form of hypnosis over the course of the Nineteenth Century. Piaget’s take on this was that mesmerization, or hypnosis, worked on suggestibility. In other words, the hypnotist has no power that the subject doesn’t forfeit to him or her. Or, as noted neurologist Jean-Martin-Charcot
said, hypnosis was itself “an induced hysteria--what doctors nowadays might refer to more formally as induced dissociation.
Suggestibility plays a key role in Brainerd and Reyna’s premise, because they believe that false memories come about through “spontaneous distortion processes,” or “autosuggestion.”
Specifically, autosuggestion plays a larger role in the thought processes of children, precisely for the reasons alluded to by Piaget’s cognitive development model. After all, if a child is prone to accept Santa Claus as a reality, then he or she can ascribe a number of different magical causes for observable effects, thus (according to Brainerd and Reyna) creating a false memory of causality. They back this observation up with studies of what others called ‘the long-memory improvement effect.’* In these studies, children showed more accuracy in their memories after more time had elapsed. This might, at first, seem counterintuitive. After all, for most of us, the more time passes, the less we remember. The authors concluded that for preoperational children, there is no memory of events because they simply cannot grasp the underlying logic behind events. As Brainerd and Reyna wrote:
Piaget’s second, and more crucial prediction, is what Altemeyer, Fulton and Burney (1968) dubbed the long-memory improvement effect. On the 8-month test, contrary to the commonsense prediction of forgetting-induced deterioration, the memory of children who were classified below the concrete-operational level should be better than on the 1-week test. The reason is that many children will have made the logical concept that is necessary (according to Piaget) for accurate memory.
Children also have a tendency to believe what adults tell them, even if it runs contrary to their experience. The authors make the rather commonsense observation that authority can skew the response of children, who tend to defer to adults’ version of events because they presume that they are more accurate than their own. And even if they don’t assume that, there’s little they can do to clarify or champion such matters. After all, they’re too busy struggling with their conceptual framework to challenge the confidence authority exudes.
The authors further illustrate the concept of suggestibility in children by quoting verbatim the very same transcriptions that I cited earlier, in the series on McMartin Preschool
. In this example, it should be clear to professional and layman alike that psychiatric social worker Kee McFarlane and pediatrician Dr. Astrid Heger’s aggressive questioning techniques coerced inaccurate responses from their preoperational interviewees. Brainerd and Reyna cite Alfred Binet’s
findings on memory distortion in explanation of events similar to what went on at McMartin:
On basis of his findings, Binet (1900) offered four conclusions about false-memory reports that are still significant today. First, he concluded that the memories of younger children, older children, and adults are all susceptible to memory distortion, whether by autosuggestion or by external misinformation, but that young children are most highly susceptible….Second, Binet concluded…that the nature of an interviewer’s language and the form of the questions that are posed can powerfully distort memory reports….Third, Binet interpreted his finding of a lack of relationship between confidence and accuracy as demonstrating once an erroneous response is given, it is incorporated into memory as a faithful representation of the original events….. Fourth, Binet concluded that subjects, particularly children, were more susceptible to suggestion when tested in groups than when tested individually.
The McMartin children, for example, were often cited as the fundamental source of false information, even though most adults following the trial attributed this to the manner in which questions were put to them, thus illustrating Binet conclusions one and two. Conclusions three and four, however, apply more generally to the public, and are more readily seen in adults. Later in the book, the authors illustrated these conclusions by citing actual case studies. But when we consciously make the distinction between memory and belief, one can demonstrate that Binet’s last two conclusions explain a lot about the behavior of the McMartin parents.
*Drs. Robert Altemeyer, Daniel Fulton and Kent Berney did the initial study in 1968, which they published in a paper titled “Long-Term Memory Improvement,” appearing in vol. 3, n.4 (Sep 1969) of Child Development.
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