7 February 2020 | Comment | Article by Alan Collins
In this podcast we are joined by Associate Professor of Criminology at The University of New South Wales, Michael Salter, to discuss the concept of false memory syndrome. In the field of Child Sexual Abuse (CSA) it has waxed and waned and is now possibly completely discredited.
In CSA litigation or prosecutions it is sometimes alleged that the victim (survivor) cannot possibly remember events from their childhood, or what they are alleging is just fanciful and possibly no more than a figment of their imagination. To put it in simple terms, the victim is told that their memory is at fault.
We all know from our own experiences how “good” our memory is. Sometimes we can remember certain events and happenings but not others, for example, forgetting where we put the car keys. But when it comes to CSA, can victims really get it wrong with their recall of something so serious?
Research suggests that CSA survivors are usually good historians when it comes to their abusive experiences. The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse commissioned research on memory, and this identified a number of misconceptions that people hold about how memory works, and what memories are reliable. It reported that misconceptions about memory include that memory will be complete, unchanging and “photographic”.
There are also misconceptions about the accuracy of people’s memory. Wrong assumptions may be made about a connection between accuracy of a memory and consistency of accounts given by a witness, where inconsistencies or gaps may be assumed to demonstrate inaccuracy in the witness’s accounts as a whole.
The research finds there were misconceptions about the display of emotion while giving evidence being an indicator of accuracy of the memory retrieved.
The research also found that traumatic events resulting in greater durability of memory is another misconception, as is expectations about children’s ability to recall temporal details, such as when an event occurred or how often it occurred.
A witness recalling additional information over time as they give further accounts of the event may be mistakenly considered with suspicion or as an indication of unreliability.
When it came to the concept of false memory the research found interestingly that in certain cases, adolescents and adults may in fact be more suggestible than most children.
The research detailed the history of psychological research on suggestibility and false memories, and the ‘memory wars’ between treating clinicians and experimental psychologists. These issues were set in perspective by findings that susceptibility to post-event misinformation is limited to minor details, not core memories. Moreover, only a very small percentage of people recover memories of child sexual abuse in therapy. Contemporary research findings demonstrate that concerns about the prevalence of false memories of child sexual abuse appear to have been exaggerated.
So where did the concept of false memory originate?
We discuss the possible answers with Dr Salter, and in particular the natural revulsion on the part of most people when it comes to the notion that children can be sexually abused. Further, that the root possibly goes back to societal disbelief of women’s allegations of sexual violence, and that this has generated scepticism and the silencing of victims.
The 21st century reality is that through successful and high profile prosecutions of child sex offenders and the work of inquiries such as that in Jersey and the Royal Commission societal awareness is now very different to say 20 years ago. The narrative has changed and this has put pay to the concept of false memory.
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