Study: Discriminating Fact from Fiction in Recovered Memories of Childhood Sexual Abuse

A decade or so ago, a spate of high profile legal cases arose in which people were accused, and often convicted, on the basis of  “recovered memories.” These memories, usually recollections of childhood abuse, arose years after the incident occurred and often during intensive psychotherapy.

So how accurate are recovered memories? The answer is not so clear. In fact, this question has lead to one of the most contentious issues in the fields of psychology and psychiatry.

Elke Geraerts, a postdoc of psychology at Harvard University and Maastricht University, the Netherlands, hoped to settle some of the controversy by enacting a large-scale research study examining the validity of such memories.

Recovered memories are inherently tricky to validate for several reasons, most notably because the people who hold them are thoroughly convinced of their authenticity. Therefore, to maneuver around this obstacle Geraerts and her colleagues attempted to corroborate the memories through outside sources.

The researchers recruited a sample of people who reported being sexually abused as children and divided them based on how they remembered the event. The memories were categorized as either “spontaneously recovered” (the participant had forgotten and then spontaneously recalled the abuse outside of therapy, without any prompting), “recovered in therapy” (the participant had recovered the abuse during therapy, prompted by suggestion) or “continuous” (the participant had always been able to recall the abuse).

Once all of the information was gathered, interviewers, who were blind to the type of abuse memory, queried other people who could confirm or refute the abuse events (other people who heard about the abuse soon after it occurred, other people who reported also having been abused by the same perpetrator, or people who admitted having committed the abuse him/herself).

The results, published in the July issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, showed that, overall, spontaneously recovered memories were corroborated about as often (37% of the time) as continuous memories (45%). Thus, abuse memories that are spontaneously recovered may indeed be just as accurate as memories that have persisted since the time the incident took place. Interestingly, memories that were recovered in therapy could not be corroborated at all.

Although the absence of confirmation that the abuse had happened does not imply that the memory is false, the findings of this study show that memories recovered in therapy should be viewed with a cautious eye, as “the therapy context often involves an explicit effort to unearth forgotten memories and thereby raises the opportunity for suggestion.”


Does repressed memory ever go as far back as 15 months old ? Thank You /email address above should be “Lower case”

I have question about what can trigger these memories. Can the short term use of meth trigger these memories or can it create false memories

It sounds like Dr. Ford’s memories of alleged sexual assault, recovered in therapy, are the least likely to be reliable.

Do we really know that Dr. Ford’s (current) memory of sexual assault 30+ years later was first “recovered” in therapy? Some of what Dr. Ford said seems to imply that she had either continuous memory of the alleged assault or spontaneous recovery of the memory some years after it occured. But it seems to me that what is the question here is how reliable is memory (continuous, spontaneously recovered or recovered in therapy) of an assault’s identity. What studies are there that might provide some insight on this question?

Dr. Ford’s attorney’s refused to turn over any records from Ford’s therapy sessions where the memory, at least in part, was recovered. Looks like we’ll never know those details.

I agree!
I can’t believe that the no expert on repressed memories has been brought in!
Dr Ford appears sincere but very fragile and I wonder what other psychological issues are at play here.

Gayle, according to these finding Dr. Ford knows that her recovered memories can not be corroborated at all even though she thoughtfully and completely believes them. I have a Masters Degree in Psychology and I believe that it is reckless and unprofessional that she is accusing Dr. Kavanagh of anything based on recovered memories.

Speaking as someone who found this post while going through their own trauma from recovering a memory, I find it disappointing that this thread is victim shaming Dr. Ford. I know I’m late the the plate on this one but all of you with doctorates should quiet yourselves and check your thoughts. You sound like petulant children; i can get better discussions on reddit.

Although the 80s were a long time ago and so much different than now, people still remember them. You might very easily forget the name of your 1st grade teacher then spontaneously remember it and be right. You might remember a very upsetting event all of a sudden. But, there will be some type of evidence. Even if it’s a friend saying a vague, “I think I remember something like that…”. I also have the understanding that alcohol ingestion changes memories for some people. There’s the joke about a man finding a golden Urinal and using is, to find it was a friends saxaphone when he woke up. Memories involving drugs or alcohol are different from normal memories and should be viewed as such. Memories recovered alleged to occur within a state of altered consciousness due to ingested chemicals at the time of their occurrence decades prior to being remembered should be viewed with great scrutinity, when compounded with being therapy recovered memories.

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