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False Memories

Filed under: General,Law & Courts — Ministry of Men's Affairs @ 12:57 pm Tue 16th November 2010

The intense scientific and courtroom debates in the 1990’s and early 2000’s, referred to as “the memory wars”, have largely settled now because of the large amount of research demonstrating beyond doubt that, through a variety of simple influences, children and adults can easily develop memories for events that never happened and that existing memories are vulnerable to distortion (Newman & Lindsay, 2009). A number of models and mechanisms for false memory creation have been explored. The “backward causal inference error” (e.g. Lyons et al, 2010) is especially relevant to recent discussions on MENZ about “recovered memories”. Studies expose subjects to stimuli or experiences and later ask the subjects to identify which things they remember seeing or experiencing. Many subjects will confidently, resolutely report remembering seeing or experiencing things that had been totally absent, these memories based on other stimuli or experiences that represented likely consequences of the absent ones. For example, a set of photos might be presented describing a supermarket shopping situation and one of these photos might show cans all over the floor of the supermarket. Many of the subjects will subsequently feel certain that they previously saw a new photograph showing a child pulling a can out of the bottom of a stack even though that photograph had not been previously presented. It is easy to see that this mechanism for false memory creation might come into play when someone contemplates their own life problems, aware that similar problems in others have often been attributed to childhood abuse.

The large research base that has demonstrated the fallibility of memory includes both laboratory and real-life studies. For example, in Holland a large random sample of people were interviewed about 10 months after a horrible 1992 plane crash that had killed 43 people. One of the interview questions was misleading: “Did you see the television film of the moment the plane hit the apartment building?” There was in fact no such film (camera crews did not arrive until later). Nonetheless, well over half of those interviewed claimed they had seen such a film and some went on to describe specific details of what the film had shown (Crombag et al, 1996). Similar phenomena have been observed in studies into the car crash in which Princess Diana and others were killed, the sinking of the Estonia ferry in 1995 and terrorist attacks in central London in 2005 (referenced in Sjoden et al, 2009). Sjoden et al (2009) found that 64% of Swedish students who were asked if they had seen (non-existent) video footage of the stabbing of a government minister claimed they had, 19% also provided explicit details of what they had seen, while 15% retracted their initial answer when asked to recall specific details. Although various explanations exist for such findings, they undoubtedly demonstrate that mental processing by humans commonly produces confident but false or distorted memories.

Studies have observed children confidently making claims and giving vivid experiential details of experiencing events they had never experienced, such as meeting ghosts, being caught in mouse traps, going on helicopter trips and having surgery (referenced in Sjoberg & Lindholm, 2009). In one study over 70% of the child subjects were easily brought to falsely remember being abducted by a UFO, and there was no difference in the ease with which those memories were implanted compared with false memories for a more plausible fictitious event (Otgaar et al, 2009).

Such research suggests that it would be unwise to accept readily the accuracy of “recovered” memories. That is not to say that all or most “recovered” memories or “once-forgotten, now-recalled” memories have no realistic basis, but even then it would be sensible to assume that details will have been distorted through the processes of forgetting and reconstruction of those memories. However, it is also reasonable to assume that some “recovered” memories will have a poor or nonexistent basis in fact.


Crombag, H.M., Wagenaar, W. A., & van Koppen, P. J. (1996). Crashing memories and the problem of ‘source monitoring.’ Applied Cognitive Psychology, 10.2: 95-104

Lyons, K.E., Ghetti, S. and Cornoldi, C. (2010). Age differences in the contribution of recollection and familiarity to false-memory formation: a new paradigm to examine developmental reversals. Developmental Science, 13(2): 355-362

Newman, E.J. and Lindsay, D.S. (2009). False memories: What the hell are they for?. Applied Cognitive Psychology; 23: 1105-1121

Otgaar, H., Candel, I., Merckelbach, H. and Wade, K.A. (2009). Abducted by a UFO: Prevalence information affects young children’s false memories for an implausible event. Applied Cognitive Psychology; 23: 115-125

Sjoberg, R.L. and Lindholm, T. (2009). Children’s autobiographical reports about sexual abuse: A narrative review of the research literature. Nord J Psychiatry; 63: 435-442

Sjoden, B., Granhag, P.A., Ost, J. and Hjelmsater, E.R.A.F. (2009). Is the truth in the details? Extended narratives help distinguishing false “memories” from false “reports”. Scandinavian Journal of Psychology, 50: 203-210


  1. This is over my head so I will take a step back and look forward to reading other’s expertise and opinion with some/much research. I’m very grateful to have the opportunity to learn about this stuff. A few fathers adding their experiences with their children would add to the conversation, hint, hint. (how do you answer your children when they bring up events – separated mothers go through the same thing)

    Comment by julie — Tue 16th November 2010 @ 4:32 pm

  2. Thanks Hans for scholarly up to date input.
    It’s a shame it’s needed so far down the years to debunk the feminist and victim industry propaganda.

    I know I’ve mentioned this several times before at MENZ, but I think it’s relevant here too.
    As recent postings have shown with some people the highly inflated figures for abuse are still their delusional obsession. When I see the kinds of statistics they throw about to try and bolster their case that’s there’s a massive amount of abuse (mostly done by men) which goes undetected and gets estimated from samples I immediately think of an experience I had as a trainee counselor in NZ visiting a sexual abuse ‘healing center’ run by Miriam Saphira.
    As you’ll recall me saying before upon entry into one ‘therapy’ room I was confronted by the very alarming sight of dolls with MASSIVE felt cocks sown onto them.
    Of course what was one of the first things the kids left in the room being observed for signs of ‘abuse’ would want to touch? Yep, the big, red felt cock which stood out from the background of the relatively dull surroundings. Conclusion drawn by zealous feminist therapist and lead tax money-filcher Saphira and her team of ‘experts’ at the center – “Oh, that kids been sexually abused”. Chalk it up as another statistic.
    I swear I’m not making this up.
    It isn’t a false memory!
    I wish it were!

    Around the same time lots of ‘research’ came out suggesting that hundreds of symptoms existed as evidence of having been sexually abused – everything from bed-wetting through to forgetfulness, from fear of furry animals through to insomnia, you name it, it was probably associated with having been sexually abused. There was a veritable tsunami of feminist propaganda pumped out which would give the impression that being a woman you were almost certain to get raped, mugged, molested etc during your lifetime as a girl and later a woman.
    There are several observations I make about this whole phenomenon.

    Firstly it takes a long time to turn around such an oil tanker as got created with such diabolical ‘research’.
    Then I notice the Men’s movement such as it was at the time failed to speak up enough to protect men as a class from being culturally demonized. Reason to be very outspoken now!

    Then(this boggles my mind!) nobody that I know of in all the years subsequent ever said words to the effect of :

    “Gosh isn’t it very odd how with all this huge amount of abuse that females supposedly suffer during their lifetimes under ‘patriarchy’ that even being so supposedly terribly traumatised they STILL outlive men by about 7 years?”

    Comment by Skeptik — Tue 16th November 2010 @ 8:44 pm

  3. Thanks Skeptik. You’re probably aware that “anatomically correct dolls” are rarely used now because they ended up being shown to be unreliable as diagnostic tools and rejected by Courts as evidence. Yet previously they were widely used to obtain numerous confident allegations and imprisonments.

    Comment by Hans Laven — Tue 16th November 2010 @ 10:49 pm

  4. Nice work Hans.

    And this is what puzzled me about our anonymous researcher friend. He, she or it seemed to virtually bypass the body of evidence that suggests that it doesn’t take a great deal to plant the seed of a memory, thus rendering a good deal of the cited research a bit ummm dodgy.

    Comment by Grant Waghorn — Wed 17th November 2010 @ 3:28 pm

  5. Thank-you very much for sharing this first-hand experience.

    Of course what was one of the first things the kids left in the room being observed for signs of ‘abuse’ would want to touch? Yep, the big, red felt cock which stood out from the background of the relatively dull surroundings.

    Can I ask, “How old were the children?” It’s natural for young children (brain development) to learn through their 5 senses. I wonder what they said when the children put the big red cock in their mouth – I’m not trying to be funny.

    I remember the big billboards, (big to a little person) that myself and other children passed on the way to school. One had a picture of a cute little girl snuggling a teddy bear and sucking her thumb. It had a caption giving the message her whole life will be ruined because someone will sexually abuse her. I was explaining to a rape crisis counsellor how that message would have freaked out so many girls especially if they had been sexually molested. To tell them they are ruined for life is extremely harmful but then, the idea was to shock people into silence and shame them to not challenge the radical political movement.

    Comment by julie — Wed 17th November 2010 @ 10:11 pm

  6. This is interesting. Thanks to Paul’s news.

    Comment by julie — Wed 17th November 2010 @ 11:09 pm

  7. The children were from early childhood upwards.

    Comment by Skeptik — Thu 18th November 2010 @ 11:02 am

  8. A solid summary, Hans. Thank you.

    We have known for many years that memory is reconstructive, not reproductive. At best, we seem to encode only the main points of an event, and when recalling, we create the missing material to fill in the gaps from other knowledge, influences and experiences. It is fair comment that memories are a mixture.

    Elizabeth Loftus gave a very nice analogy. Put one drop of milk into a bowl of water. Later, try to separate the milk from the water. She, and many other genuine professional, scientific researchers of similar nous and ability, have done wonderfully insightful and accurate studies into the workings of memory.

    But over the years, the public has been led to believe by the cadre of amateur sex abuse “counsellors” that given the “right” sort of counselling, memories of alleged abuse can be totally recalled in pristine condition. As well they claim that memories can be “recovered” when the client has no knowledge of them before counselling.

    Thus, the false claim by “counsellors” is that a client’s memories are sufficient proof that abuse did in fact occur, which of course, wrongly turns allegations of abuse into fact, in the absence of any testable or credible evidence.

    That entire process has been driven by feminist ideology, money, and an attempt to gain the illusion of “power and influence”. It is a truly sad and tragic business, having adversely affected countless thousands of unsuspecting innocent individuals, and resulted in shattered families and distraught parents and siblings.

    In context, total failure of the “recovered memory theory” occurs because it is impossible to “recover” a genuine memory of an event which did not actually happen.

    The matters you summarised above have knocked the feminists and counsellors into a cocked hat, and brought reason, logic and common sense to bear.

    Comment by Gordon Waugh — Fri 19th November 2010 @ 4:11 pm

  9. Kind of interesting that the idea of memories being faithful recordings of the past coincided with the introduction of computer memory to the general public. Prior to the 80s, few people would have had any conscious ‘model of memory’ that would make them susceptible to suggestions on how it might malfunction. At the same time the average punter was learning that memory could be erased on his P.C., but later recovered fully intact by an expert, he was also being told a parallel story about human memory.

    Thanks to all here who have patiently and persistently thrown more light on this fascinating subject.

    Comment by rc — Fri 19th November 2010 @ 5:20 pm

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