Is the Kavanaugh Sexual Assault Accusation a False Memory?
People can create false memories. Does that explain the Kavanaugh allegations?
Posted September 30, 2018
Perhaps this is simply a false memory. Memory is constructive. People can even create entirely false memories in response to suggestions and biased beliefs about the past. I know. I’ve conducted a lot of the research on the creation of false childhood memories.
If you have followed the new, you probably know about Blasey Ford’s accusation that Judge Brett Kavanaugh sexually assault her when both were in high school. Last week I wrote about memory with respect to this allegation. I essentially wanted to consider if someone could accurately remember something from 36 years ago. I wrote about memory for traumatic events. I also noted that people who did not know the assault occurred would be unlikely to remember the party at all. Additionally, I raised a concern about the impact of alcohol on memory since Kavanaugh was reported to have been drunk. I did not focus much on the possibility that the entire memory of the alleged assault might be a false memory.
Thus, I am going to address a question several people have asked: Has Blasey Ford created a false memory of sexual assault? In comments on my original blog post, a few people have asked if Blasey Ford’s memories could be false memories. They have suggested that I should be familiar with Elizabeth Loftus’s research (Loftus is a friend with whom I have published). Some have also cited my own research on the creation of false childhood memories. It’s always nice to know that people continue to read my work. Others have suggested that by not calling Blasey Ford’s recollection a false memory, I have displayed a clear liberal bias. I’d like to respond by evaluating the possibility that this is a false memory.
I have conducted research on the creation of false autobiographical memories and continue to research memory errors. I’ve also written previously about autobiographical memory errors in other blog posts for Psychology Today. For example, I have written posts describing work on false memories for spilling punch at weddings and riding in hot air balloons; defending John Kelley’s memory error (not a liberal position really); concerning how people steal memories from other people; on the potential execution of an innocent person based on memory errors; and defending Ben Carson’s inaccurate memories (again, not such a liberal position).
So why didn’t I focus on the possibility of false memories in the case of Blasey Ford’s memory of her assault? I didn’t focus on the possibility of a false memory because there is little evidence of the type of suggestive influence that would be needed to create an entire false memory. For most cases of false memories, the individual has been subjected to repeated suggestions of a false event. In our original research, we asked about the false event multiple times and implied that the suggestion came from a reliable source (although there are other ways of suggesting false events). Generally, some form of suggestion would need to be evident to argue that Blasey Ford constructed a false memory. Of course, we all make memory errors when we recall. We should not expect Blasey Ford to have a complete memory, nor should we expect every detail to be accurate. Memory is always reconstructive – a point on which Beth Loftus and I always agree. But for most events, and particularly for traumatic events, people tend to report critical central details correctly. They also tend to get the big picture correct. Nonetheless, there are always reconstructive processes at work in remembering. One other point about false memories: Usually we are discussing recovered memories. Blasey Ford has reported always having this memory of being sexually assaulted. Again, that isn’t consistent with making an argument that this is a false memory.
Of course there is the possibility that Blasey Ford made a mistaken identification. Many people have made this suggestion, including several senators who participated in the hearings last week. The idea here is that Blasey Ford is remembering something that happened to her. She has, however, placed the wrong person as her assailant. I have seen several people wonder when Blasey Ford attached Kavanaugh to her memory. Blasey Ford was completely confident in her identification during her testimony last week. But obviously people make false identifications. False identifications are the single most common cause of erroneous convictions of innocent people. But most cases of false identification involve trying to identify a stranger. There is agreement that a crime occurred. Critically, the culprit was someone you did not know before the incident. You are presented with multiple line-ups. You hear different information. Maybe you see a biased line-up. People can also falsely identify someone else who was at the scene, but who was not the culprit. But in the vast majority of research and in the cases I know about, these types of false identifications involve people attempting to identify a stranger – someone they didn’t know before the incident. The person they falsely accuse is also typically a stranger. But Blasey Ford reported knowing Kavanaugh before the assault. Since this wasn’t a stranger assault and identification, false identification is unlikely. She knew him before the evening of the party, saw and recognized him during the gathering, and reported easily recognizing him as the person who assaulted her. She reported seeing Mark Judge, the other person involved in the assault, after the assault as well. She knew the people before, during, and after the assault. This is not the type of situation that results in false identifications.
In evaluating memory for this situation, I focus more on the nature of trauma and memory. Blasey Ford’s memory seems consistent with what we know about memory for trauma. That was the argument that I made in post last week before her testimony.
I also noted that we should not expect other people to remember the party. For the people not involved in the assault, the memory of that party has likely faded into general memories of high school.
I have also argued that there are reasons why Judge Kavanaugh may not remember the event. I remain concerned about the role alcohol has played in his memories of many experiences. Although he has denied having memory failures, that doesn’t seem consistent with the way that other people have described his drinking behaviors. After learning more this week, there is another possibility. Perhaps the event occurred but didn’t stand out for Kavanaugh at the time. Perhaps he engaged in many aggressive actions toward girls and women, but simply considered those as something other than assault. There are many reasons why he could fail to remember the experience.
Evaluating these conflicting accounts will depend on more than simply their memories. I noted in my earlier post the evidence consistent with Blasey Ford’s account. I won’t reiterate those arguments. But I want to end with my conclusion.
Hyman, I. E., Jr., Husband, T. H., & Billings, F. J. (1995). False memories of childhood experiences. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 9, 181-197.
Hyman, I. E., Jr., & Pentland, J. (1996). The role of mental imagery in the creation of false childhood memories. Journal of Memory and Language, 35, 101-117.
Hyman, I. E., Jr., & Loftus, E. F. (1998). Errors in autobiographical memories. Clinical Psychology Review, 18, 933-947.