- Commentary on “False Memory Syndrome and the Authority of Personal Memory-Claims”
Hamilton’s paper considers the recent furor over “recovered memories” and “false memories” and rightly considers that it may be time to stop and take stock of what we know about memory processes. What are the implications of the various claims and counter claims by the combatants in this dispute? Hamilton quotes Wittgenstein deriding psychology for “experimental methods and conceptual confusion.” As a psychologist, I am proud to plead guilty on the first charge, but admit that there may be some truth in the second criticism, which psychologists could perhaps do well to consider.
However, I shall take issue with some of Hamilton’s claims. Some of my objections are merely trivial but do affect the way the debate is seen from the outside. For example, Hamilton claims in the opening paragraph that memories of childhood sexual abuse are recovered by those suffering from a range of psychiatric conditions. This statement may give the impression that these claims come only from the mentally disordered. Indeed, he also describes false memory as an abnormal response exhibited by vulnerable psychiatric patients. While many claims of recovered memories do come from these vulnerable sources, they do not stem exclusively from psychiatric patients. Indeed, one of the defenses of those who claim that these memories are not planted by therapists is that a small but significant proportion of the claims come from those who have not undergone any therapy. For example, Gudjonsson (1997) surveyed families of those who had claimed to have been sexually abused as children and whose parents were members of the British False Memory Society (BFMS). Most, although not all, of these cases involved recovered memories. Gudjonsson found that 10 percent of the memory claims were made without, or before, the involvement of therapy. A similar study on accusers in New Zealand showed 9 percent of accusations were made without the involvement of counseling or therapy (Goodyear-Smith, Laidlaw, and Large 1997).
Thus, while psychological problems or psychiatric or psychological intervention may play a part, these are not a necessary part of the creation of false or recovered memories. Indeed, although Hamilton claims that false memory does not occur in normal experience, this is clearly not the case. Generally, everyday memory errors do not have major repercussions and so are not always [End Page 305] realized to be false. Many studies have shown that under relatively normal conditions, ordinary subjects can produce false memories for autobiographical information (Hyman, Husband, and Billings 1995; Hyman and Pentland 1996; Eacott and Crawley 1998; Loftus and Pickerell 1995).
However, Hamilton’s major points concern the accuracy of memory and the basis on which one makes memory judgments. He points out that, outside the confines of theoretical debate, memory is generally regarded as reliable. For example, a review of the evidence by Loftus (1983) showed that jurors in criminal trials place great weight on an eyewitness’s memory report. In some cases it is the only evidence presented, yet the accused is convicted. However, Hamilton suggests that a distinction between what he terms “personal memory” and “factual memory” is crucial. By personal memory Hamilton means memory for personally experienced events. He contrasts personal memory with factual memory, which is memory for events about which one has been told. Psychologists do not make a comparable distinction. Although Hamilton mentions the distinction between episodic and semantic memory, this is not really equivalent. I may have an episodic memory of you telling me that you fell down the steps. Hamilton would call this a factual memory, as I did not personally experience the fall. However, if I recall your telling me of your fall, this would comfortably fit within episodic memory as defined by a psychologist. The distinction is also not encompassed by Tulving’s remember/know paradigm (Tulving 1985), because either of these terms can be applied to a personal memory, the difference being not in the nature of the memory, but in the subjective experience of recall.
However, despite not having a useful term for the distinction, psychologists have not neglected the distinction itself. Loftus’s misinformation studies, for example, have...