Discriminating fact from fiction in recovered memories of childhood sexual abuse

childshirtA press release from the Association for Psychological Science (13 June) draws attention to research by Elke Geraerts, a psych post doc from Harvard and Maastricht Universities. Geraerts and her colleagues have a paper coming out next month in Psychological Science, presenting results of research on the accuracy of ‘recovered memories’, decribed in the press release as “one of the most contentious issues in the fields of psychology and psychiatry”.

The press release explains:

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. […]

[…] 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 results […] 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.

The July issue of Psychological Science isn’t online yet, but the paper is available as a pdf on Geraerts’ website – access via the link below.


Photo credit: HarlanH, Creative Commons License

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