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False memory syndrome (FMS) describes a condition in which a person's identity and relationships are affected by memories that are factually incorrect but that they strongly believe. Peter J. Freyd originated the term, which the False Memory Syndrome Foundation (FMSF) subsequently popularized. The term is not recognized as a mental disorder in any of the medical manuals, such as the ICD-10 or the DSM-5; however, the principle that memories can be altered by outside influences is overwhelmingly accepted by scientists.
False memories may be the result of recovered memory therapy, a term also defined by the FMSF in the early 1990s, which describes a range of therapy methods that are prone to creating confabulations. Some of the influential figures in the genesis of the theory are forensic psychologist Ralph Underwager, psychologist Elizabeth Loftus and sociologist Richard Ofshe.
False memory syndrome is a condition in which a person's identity and interpersonal relationships center around a memory of a traumatic experience that is objectively false but that the person strongly believes. Note that the syndrome is not characterized by false memories as such. We all have inaccurate memories. Rather, the syndrome is diagnosed when the memory is so deeply ingrained that it orients the individual's entire personality and lifestyle—disrupting other adaptive behavior. False memory syndrome is destructive because the person assiduously avoids confronting evidence that challenges the memory. Thus it takes on a life of its own; the memory becomes encapsulated and resistant to correction. Subjects may focus so strongly on the memory that it effectively distracts them from coping with real problems in their life.
The FMS concept is controversial, and the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders does not include it. Paul R. McHugh, member of the FMSF, stated that the term was not adopted into the fourth version of the manual due to the pertinent committee being headed by believers in recovered memory.
Recovered memory therapy is used to describe the therapeutic processes and methods that are believed to create false memories and false memory syndrome. These methods include hypnosis, sedatives and probing questions where the therapist believes repressed memories of traumatic events are the cause of their client's problems. The term is not listed in DSM-IV or used by any mainstream formal psychotherapy modality.
Memory consolidation becomes a critical element of false memory and recovered memory syndromes. Once stored in the hippocampus, the memory may last for years or even for life, regardless that the memorized event never actually took place. Obsession to a particular false memory, planted memory, or indoctrinated memory can shape a person's actions or even result in delusional disorder.
Mainstream psychiatric and psychological professional associations now harbor strong skepticism towards the notion of recovered memories of trauma. They argue that self-help books, and recovered memory therapists can influence adults to develop false memories. According to this theory, psychologists and psychiatrists may accidentally implant these false memories. The American Psychiatric Association and American Medical Association condemn such practices, whether they are formally called "Recovered Memory Therapy" or simply a collection of techniques that fit the description. In 1998, the Royal College of Psychiatrists Working Group on Reported Recovered Memories of Sexual Abuse wrote:
No evidence exists for the repression and recovery of verified, severely traumatic events, and their role in symptom formation has yet to be proved. There is also striking absence in the literature of well-corroborated cases of such repressed memories recovered through psychotherapy. Given the prevalence of childhood sexual abuse, even if only a small proportion are repressed and only some of them are subsequently recovered, there should be a significant number of corroborated cases. In fact there are none.
That such techniques have been used in the past is undeniable. Their continued use is cause for malpractice litigation worldwide. An Australian psychologist was de-registered for engaging in them.
Human memory is created and highly suggestible, and can create a wide variety of innocuous, embarrassing, and frightening memories through different techniques—including guided imagery, hypnosis, and suggestion by others. Though not all individuals exposed to these techniques develop memories, experiments suggest a significant number of people do, and will actively defend the existence of the events, even if told they were false and deliberately implanted. Questions about the possibility of false memories created an explosion of interest in suggestibility of human memory and resulted in an enormous increase in the knowledge about how memories are encoded, stored and recalled, producing pioneering experiments such as the lost in the mall technique. In Roediger and McDermott's (1995) experiment, subjects were presented with a list of related items (such as candy, sugar, honey) to study. When asked to recall the list, participants were just as, if not more, likely to recall semantically related words (such as sweet) than items that were actually studied, thus creating false memories. This experiment, though widely replicated, remains controversial due to debate considering that people may store semantically related items from a word list conceptually rather than as language, which could account for errors in recollection of words without the creation of false memories. Susan Clancy discovered that people claiming to have been victims of alien abductions are more likely to recall semantically related words than a control group in such an experiment.
The lost in the mall technique is a research method designed to implant a false memory of being lost in a shopping mall as a child to test whether discussing a false event could produce a "memory" of an event that did not happen. In her initial study, Elizabeth Loftus found that 25% of subjects came to develop a "memory" for the event which had never actually taken place. Extensions and variations of the lost in the mall technique found that an average of one third of experimental subjects could become convinced that they experienced things in childhood that had never really occurred—even highly traumatic, and impossible events.
The question of the accuracy and dependability of a repressed memory that someone has later recalled has contributed to some investigations and court cases, including cases of alleged sexual abuse or child sexual abuse (CSA).   while others have been deemed confabulations or "false memories" that were not legally admissible. The research of Elizabeth Loftus has been used to counter claims of recovered memory in court and it has resulted in stricter requirements for the use of recovered memories being used in trials, as well as a greater requirement for corroborating evidence. In addition, some states no longer allow prosecution based on recovered memory testimony. Insurance companies have become reluctant to insure therapists against malpractice suits relating to recovered memories.
Supporters of recovered memories believe that there is "overwhelming evidence that the mind is capable of repressing traumatic memories of child sexual abuse." Whitfield states that the "false memory" defense is "seemingly sophisticated, but mostly contrived and often erroneous." He states that this defense has been created by "accused, convicted and self-confessed child molesters and their advocates" to try to "negate their abusive, criminal behavior." Brown states that when pro-false memory expert witnesses and attorneys state there is no causal connection between CSA and adult psychopathology, that CSA doesn't cause specific trauma-related problems like borderline and dissociative identity disorder, that other variables than CSA can explain the variance of adult psychopathology and that the long-term effects of CSA are non-specific and general, that this testimony is inaccurate and has the potential of misleading juries.
During the late 1990s, there were multiple lawsuits in the United States in which psychiatrists and psychologists were successfully sued, or settled out of court, on the charge of propagating iatrogenic memories of childhood sexual abuse, incest and satanic ritual abuse.
Some of these suits were brought by individuals who later declare that their recovered memories of incest or satanic ritual abuse had been false. The False Memory Syndrome Foundation uses the term retractors to describe these individuals, and have shared their stories publicly. There is debate regarding the total number of retractions as compared to the total number of allegations, and the reasons for retractions.