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Researchers and Practitioners Disagree on Repressed Memory

Although evidence for repressed memory is scant, therapists tend to "believe."

Is there such a thing as a repressed memory? I've summarized research on that question in two previous posts: "False Memories in People with Superior Memory Abilities" and "Remembering Something That Never Happened," in which researchers have cast serious doubts on the whole concept of a repressed memory.

As the body of research evidence has grown over the last twenty years, psychologists in general have become increasingly skeptical that repressed memories even exist, but a new study, published this week in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, shows that researchers and practitioners hold different beliefs about whether such memories occur and whether they can be accurately recalled.

“Whether repressed memories are accurate, and whether they should be pursued by therapists, is probably the single most practically important topic in clinical psychology since the days of Freud and the hypnotists who came before him,” says researcher Lawrence Patihis of the University of California, Irvine. According to Patihis, his new study suggests that there remains a “serious split in the field of psychology in beliefs about how memory works.”

Controversy surrounding repressed memory—sometimes referred to as the “memory wars”—came to a head in the 1990s. While some believed that traumatic memories could be repressed for years only to be recovered later in therapy, others questioned the concept, noting a lack of scientific evidence in support of repressed memory. Spurred by impressions that both researchers and clinicians believe the debate has been resolved, Patihis and his colleagues set out to investigate whether and how beliefs about memory may have changed since the 1990s. For this new study, Patihis recruited practicing clinicians and psychotherapists, research psychologists, and alternative therapists to complete an online survey.

The data revealed that mainstream psychotherapists and clinical psychologists are more skeptical about recovered memories and more cautious about trying to recover repressed memories than they were 20 years ago. However, there is still a clear gap between clinicians and researchers. Roughly 60-80 percent of clinicians, psychoanalysts, and therapists surveyed agreed to some extent that traumatic memories are often repressed and can be retrieved in therapy, compared to less than 30 percent of research-oriented psychologists. Established researchers in clinical psychology, as well as memory researchers, are generally skeptical of the notion of repressed memory. "It is only when you look at those who actually practice when you see the belief in repressed memory drastically jump," says Patihis. Additional data revealed that belief in repressed memory is also prevalent among the general public.

This split, with researchers on the one hand and clinicians and the public on the other, is worrying because of the implications it has for clinical practice and for the judicial system: "[T]his divide in our field can lead to the most awful legal cases, to families being split up, to multiple personalities, and even to suicides of those who think they have recovered extraordinarily severe trauma memories," says Patihis.

"This subject, quite frankly, is probably the most upsetting in the whole of psychology. Not many want to put their necks out and even broach the subject—It is almost like you have to avoid it like politics or religion. But it is centrally important to the field; in fact, closing this gap could result in researchers and clinicians becoming closer on other issues, too. One can imagine a domino effect where if you solve this sticking point, other disagreements might resolve—for example on whether to trust clinical experience over controlled experiments," says Patihis.

Patihis's study revealed that repressed memory believers and skeptics are remarkably similar in intelligence and personality. "Those with which you do not agree are not necessarily stupid nor do they have unusual personalities," says Patihis. "Knowing that may help people focus on the central evidence rather than ad hominem attacks." He hopes this study will lead to improvements in evidence-based communication between scientists and practitioners. "I think we should be open to ideas on how to close the gap on beliefs about repressed memory from both clinicians and researchers," Patihis says.

For More Information:

L. Patihis, L. Y. Ho, I. W. Tingen, S. O. Lilienfeld, and E. F. Loftus. "Are the 'Memory Wars" Over? A Scientist-Practitioner Gap in Beliefs About Repressed Memory." Psychological Science, Dec 13, 2013.

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