Waging Ghostly War on a National Level: The Price of Tea
In Recovered Memories of Abuse, Drs. Kenneth Pope and Laura Brown listed four major concerns about the Lost in the Mall Study that could just as well apply to all of the research conducted by proponents of the FMS hypothesis:
1. Does the trauma specified in the lost-in-the-mall experiment seem comparable to the trauma forming the basis of FMS?
2. What is the impact of the potentially confounding variables in claiming the shopping mall experiment to be a convincing analogue of therapy?
3. Has this line of research assumed that verbal reports provided to researchers are the equivalent of actual memories. Spanos suggested that changes in report in suggestibility research may represent compliance with social demand conditions of the research design rather than actual changes in what is recalled.*
4. If the experiment is assumed for heuristic reasons to demonstrate that an older family member can extensively rewrite a younger relative’s memory in regard to a trauma at which the older relative was present, why have FMS proponents presented this research as applying to the dynamics of therapy…but not to the dynamics of families, particularly those in which parents or other relatives may be exerting pressure on an adult to retract reports of delayed recall?
In a previously mentioned study cited by Drs. Charles Brainerd and Valerie Reyna, where volunteers kept a journal for 147 days and deliberately included false information in them, and afterwards were asked to pick out which items were false, most of what turned out to be inaccurate in the subjects’ recall were not particularly traumatic. This goes to the heart of one problematic area of the Lost in the Mall study. As Brainerd and Reyna’s Fuzzy Trace Theory would indicate, we tend to forget, or distort memories of the mundane. They all fall into a kind of soup. The false items included in the diary study had to have been sufficiently mundane to escape detection. If, for example, the volunteers had made up a story about a severely burned finger, or falsely noted the death of a loved one, they would have had little problem recognizing such an event as a falsity.
Part of the FMS hypothesis rests on the notion of autosuggestion–a tendency to interpolate memories in lines with biases or presuppositions. The problem here is we can see that autosuggestion to the point of overwriting one’s personal experience would be considerably difficult if the memory were truly traumatic. External suggestion of a fictional trauma would also be. If someone, even an authority figure, were to casually suggest that something devastating happened to us in our distant past (e.g., witnessing the murder of a parent), then we might dismiss the thought outright (especially if the parent in question is still living) and wonder why this person is trying to get us to believe that. If the authority did more than simply suggest, if they badgered us, cajoled, tortured us with sleep, food or water depravation, or manipulated us into accepting the false belief, we could eventually break down, and go along with whatever they said. We might even believe them, as in the case of false confessions. But what we would have at this point is a belief, not an actual experiencing of a fictional event as the term false memory would describe. Moreover, successful implantation of a traumatic belief would require far more effort than casual suggestion, another tenet of the FMS hypothesis.
Getting separated from a parent in a large crowd is fairly common, or at least it was when I was growing up. Many shopping areas and amusement parks have designated areas for children to wait while their parents come to get them (a local amusement park here calls it the “Lost Parents” shelter). While certainly stressful for the child at the time, it is nevertheless something that could have plausibly happened to any of us or to someone we know. When weighed against a lifetime of stresses, it could even seem insignificant to the point where memory distortion could occur in the same manner as the journals study. Maybe the subject wasn’t lost in a shopping mall, for example, but rather in a restaurant, or a bowling alley. He or she could still recall the emotions that they experienced, the anxiety of not being with one’s protector, and so on. But here, they could have transposed a real (but incomplete) memory onto someone else’s framework believing that they were mistaken. Thus the salient part of the gist memory (being lost) would have been quite accurate, although most of the other details would have been in error. To dub something like this a false memory would be, as Drs. Pope and Brown describe it, “naive.” It would probably be more helpful if we concede that normal memory is made up of accurate and inaccurate details.
Another problem along these lines is that in the Lost in the Mall study, the researcher is basing her assumption of false memory on what the parent or sibling has told them. Why would we assume that the relative’s memory is more accurate than that of the subject? Then too, a parent might not be so quick to acknowledge getting separated from a child because he or she had a fixation on some bargain or another. They could understandably fear that other people would regard such an admission as an example of bad parenting.
Although it’s stressful, one has to question if we can fairly call such a common event traumatic. Certainly, it is not traumatic to the degree that childhood sexual abuse would be. Thus, in answer to the first issue raised by Drs. Pope and Brown, we can clearly say that getting lost in a shopping mall is nothing comparable to the trauma that the FMS hypothesis says is so easily implanted. Even Dr. Elizabeth Loftus, the author of the Lost-in-the-Mall study, conceded this point in the Scientific American article cited previously.**
Of course, if the objective of the Lost-in-the-Mall study were to actually induce a fictional trauma, then it would have severely crossed the line of research ethics. Characterizing the experience as “mildly traumatic,” in some ways serves to minimize the ethical concerns of the study, while at the same time being able to latch it onto the arguments made by supporters of the FMSF, specifically with respect to autobiographical accuracy and external suggestion.
As for the second issue, whether or not the Lost-in-the-Mall study is a “convincing analogue” of the therapeutic process, one would have to weigh the similarities and the differences. In both cases, someone would have been in charge, would have interacted with the subject one-on-one, and would have perhaps offered advice or opinions. If Dr. Loftus, or similarly credential professional were the interviewer, then perhaps it would be a suitable comparison to therapy in that respect. But in some of the more high profile examples, the authority conducting the study was an undergraduate student learning how to be a credentialed professional.
The dynamics of both situations would grant a substantial degree of authority to the professional, in which the subject would have placed his trust. However, the goals of the study differ from that of psychotherapy. The first is concerned with gathering data; the second is centered around the well-being of the subject. While I could imagine that a therapist might be deceptive with certain patients (especially in a crisis situation where restoring order becomes paramount), that isn’t his or her primary goal. The study, on the other hand, had acceptance of the supposed lie as its main objective.
The settings would be different, of course, leading to other “confounding variables.” But the role of family in alliance with the psychologist in opposition to the subject, is a critical difference here. Even though the family might not be witting participants in the experimenter’s deception, their authority is marshaled by the researcher for the sole purpose of coercing the subject to confess a belief in something that allegedly didn’t occur.
So, in order for someone to say that the LITM study is a convincing analogue of therapy, they would have to show specific cases of actual therapy where the shrink’s sole purpose was to persistently manipulate, coerce, and deceive the patient in order to get them to accept a falsehood.
Okay, maybe that’s happened. Still, that kind of thing would seem to be exceedingly rare. A mad psychiatrist manipulating his or her patients for the sheer pleasure of having an army of psycho zombies (who pay him or her $200 an hour) to control sounds like the stuff of grindhouse movies. Of course, if you look hard enough, and long enough, then you’ll eventually find just about anything. But this would lead many a rational person to think that such wouldn’t really be the norm. Therefore, the sweeping generalizations abounding in the FMS hypothesis–implantation is easy, it just takes mild suggestion, even by accident by competent and expert shrinks alike–don’t seem to hold water.
In reference to Drs Pope and Brown’s second issue, one has to question the LITM study’s relevance to the therapeutic process, and any of the studies offered by Dr.s Brainerd and Reyna. It would therefore seem that none of these studies offer a "convincing analogue" of therapy, and are thus making apples-to-oranges types of arguments.
* The authors are specifically referring to a 1994 paper written by Dr. Nicholas Spanos titled “Multiple identity Enactments and Multiple Personality Disorder: A Sociocognitive Perspective” which appeared in Psychological Bulletin, v. 116.