THE SOCIAL RECONSTRUCTION OF MEMORIES
Journal article by Nicholas P. Spanos, Cheryl A. Burgess, and Melissa Faith Burgess
In order to debate intelligently the reality of abuse and multiple personality with those who don't believe that either condition exists, it is necessary to be adequately informed about the opposing viewpoint and aware of the abuses and unethical practices of modern psychiatry regarding these issues.
, Carleton University, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
For a less dismissive (although still patronizing) perspective from someone who does believe multiple personality exists, read Historical vs. Narrative Truth by George Ganaway.
Abstract: People sometimes fantasize entire complex scenarios and
later define these experiences as memories of actual events rather
than as imaginings. This article examines research associate with
three such phenomena: past-life experiences, UFO alien contact and
abduction, and memory reports of childhood ritual satanic abuse. In
each case, elicitation of the fantasy events is frequently associated
with hypnotic procedures and structured interviews which provide
strong and repeated demands for the requisite experiences, and which
then legitimate the experiences as "real memories." Research
associated with these phenomena supports the hypothesis that recall is
reconstructive and organized in terms of current expectations and
It is now generally acknowledged that recall involves reconstructive
processes and is strongly influenced by current beliefs and
expectations (Bower, 1990; Loftus, 1979). As pointed out by Bartlett
(1932) many years ago, people typically organize their recall of past
events in a way that makes sense of their present situation and is
congruent with their current expectations. What they recall frequently
involves a mixture of correctly remembered and misremembered
information that is often impossible to disentangle. Often there is
little or no correlation between the accuracy of recall and the
confidence that people place in their recall. It is not unusual for
people to be convinced about the accuracy of a remembrance that turns
out to be false (Loftus, 1979; Wells, Ferguson, & Lindsay, 1981).
contrary to popular belief, hypnotic procedures do not reliably
enhance the accuracy of recall and, at least under some circumstances,
may lead subjects to become even more overconfident than usual in
their inaccurate recall (Smith, 1983; Spanos, Quigley, Gwynn, Glatt, &
Perlin, 1991). Leading questions and other suggestive interview
procedures, whether or not they are administered in a hypnotic
context, can produce a very substantial deterioration in recall
accuracy even when subjects remain highly confident in their
inaccurate remembrances (Spanos, Gwynn, Comer, Baltruweit, & deGroh,
To a large extent, these ideas about memory have been developed and
refined in the context of studying eyewitness testimony. The
implications of these ideas have been particularly influential at
shaping the critical attitudes taken by many psychologists toward the
reliability of eyewitness testimony, and toward the usefulness of
hypnotic and other procedures that are touted as "refreshing" such
testimony (Loftus, 1979; Orne, 1979; Smith, 1983; Wagstaff, 1989). In
the typical eyewitness situation, however, the memory distortions
under consideration involve inaccuracies in detail (e.g., identifying
the wrong suspect of real crime) rather than fabrications of entire
complex scenarios (e.g., detailed descriptions of an entire gun battle
that never occurred). Little systematic research is available that
examines the applications of reconstructive and expectancy-guided
views of memory to situations in which people "remember" entire
scenarios that never happened. This article describes research of this
kind conducted in our laboratory and examines the implications of our
findings for three phenomena that appear to involve the wholesale
"remembering" of fictitious events; past-life identities (Warnbach,
1979), UFO alien contact and abduction reports (Jacobs, 1992), and
reports of satanic ritual child abuse from patients diagnosed with
multiple personality disorder (Fraser, 1990; Young, Sachs, Braun, &
Experimental Creation of Past-Life Personalities
Several studies have examined factors that influence the formation of
false memories by employing the phenomenon of past-life hypnotic
regression. Some believers in reincarnation contend that people can be
hypnotically regressed back to a time before their birth when they led
previous lives (e.g., Wambach, 1979). The available evidence does not
support this hypothesis and suggests instead that "memories" of having
lived a past life are fantasy constructions (Baker, 1992; Spanos,
Menary, Gabora, DuBreuil, & Dewhirst, 1991; Wilson, 1982). These
fantasy constructions are important, however, because they can shed
light on the processes by which people come to treat their fantasies
as real, and because past-life identities are similar in many respects
to the secondary or alter identities of multiple personality disorder
patients. Like multiple personality disorder patients, subjects who
report past lives behave as if they are inhabited by secondary selves.
These selves display moods and personality characteristics that are
different from the person's primary self, have a different name than
the primary self, and report memories of which the primary self was
previously unaware. Just as multiple personality disorder patients
come to believe that their alter identities are real personalities
rather than self-generated fantasies, many of the subjects who
remember past lives continue to believe in the reality of their past
lives after termination of the hypnotic session.
Kampman (1976) found that 41% of highly hypnotizable subjects reported
a past-life identity and called themselves by different names when
given hypnotic suggestions to regress back before their birth.
Contrary to the notion that multiple identify experiences are a sign
of mental illness, Kampman's (1976) past-life responders scored higher
on measures of psychological health than did subjects who failed to
report a past life.
In a series of experiments, Spanos, Menary, e al (1991) also obtained
past-life identity reports following hypnotic regression suggestions.
Frequently the past-life identities were quite elaborate. They had
their own names and frequently described their lives in great detail.
Subjects who reported past-life experiences scored higher on measures
of hypnotizablity and fantasy proneness, but no higher on measures of
psychopathology than those who did not exhibit a past life.
The social nature of past-life identities was demonstrated by showing
that the characteristics that subjects attributed to these identities
were influenced by expectations transmitted by the experimenter
(Spanos, Menary, et al, 1991; Experiment 2). Subjects provided with
prehypnotic information about the characteristics of their identities
(e.g., information about the identities expected race and sex) were
much more likely than those who did not receive such information to
incorporate these characteristics into their descriptions of their
A different study (Spanos, Menary, et al, 1991, Experiment 3) tested
the hypothesis that experimenter expectations influence the extent for
which past-life identities describe themselves as having been abused
during childhood. Before past-life regression, subjects were informed
that their past-life identities would be questioned about their
childhoods to obtain information about child-rearing practices in
earlier historical times. Those in one condition were further told
that children in past times had frequently been abused. Those in the
other condition were given no information about abuse. The past-life
identities of subjects given abuse information reported significantly
higher levels of abuse during childhood than did the past-life
identities of control subjects. In summary, these studies indicate
that both the personal attributes and memory reports elicited from
subjects during past-life identity enactments are influenced by the
beliefs and expectations conveyed by the experimenter/hypnotist. When
constructing their past lives, subjects shape the attributes and
biographies attributed to these identities to correspond to their
understandings of what significant others believe these
characteristics to be.
After termination of the hypnotic regression procedure, some past-life
reporters believed that their past-life experiences were memories of
actual, reincarnated personalities, whereas others believed that their
past-life identities were imaginary creations. Hypnotizability did not
predict the extent to which subjects assigned credibility to their
past-life identities. Instead, the degree of credibility assigned to
these experiences correlated significantly with the degree to which
subjects believed in reincarnation before the experiment, and the
extent to which they expected to experience a real past life.
In a final study Spanos, Menary, et al. (1991; Experiment 4)
manipulated prehypnotic information that concerned the reality of
past-life experiences. Subjects in one condition were informed that
past-life experiences were interesting fantasies rather than evidence
of real past-life memories. Those in another condition were provided
with background information which suggested that reincarnation was a
scientifically credible notion, and that past-life identities were
real people who had lived earlier lives. Subjects in the two
conditions were equally likely to construct past-life experiences, but
those assigned to the imaginary creation condition assigned
significantly less credibility to these identities than did those told
that reincarnation was scientifically credible.
Taken together these findings indicate that experiences of having
lived a past-life are social creations that can be elicited easily
from many normal people, and that are determined by the understandings
that subjects develop about such experiences from the information to
which they are exposed. Past-life identities can be quite complex and
detailed, and subjects draw from a wide array of sources outside of
the immediate situation (e.g., television shows, historical novels,
aspects of their own past, wish-fulfilling daydreams) to flesh out
their newly constructed identity and to provide it with the history
and characteristics that are called for by their understanding of the
current task demands. The most important factor in influencing the
extent to which past-life experiences are defined as real memories
appears to the extent to which subjects hold a belief system that is
congruent with this interpretation (i.e., a belief in reincarnation).
Information from an authoritative source which legitimates or
delegitimates reincarnation beliefs also influences the extent to
which subjects define either experiences as real memories rather than
All of these past-life experiments either tested only highly
hypnotizable subjects or found that the reporting of past lives was
correlated significantly with hypnotizablity. Hypnotizablity refers to
the extent to which subjects respond to hypnotic suggestions, and it
correlates significantly with such dimensions as fantasy proneness and
an openness to unusual experiences (see deGroh, 1989, for a review).
One interpretation suggests that hypnotizablity or its imaginal
correlates may constitute cognitive abilities which predispose
individuals to construct secondary identities when such experiences
are called for by contextual demands, and when these subjects are
motivated to respond to those demands.
However, an alternative hypothesis suggests that hypnotizablity is
correlated with the development of past-life identities because the
suggestions that called for these experiences were administered in a
hypnotic context and therefore were likely to call up the same
attitudes and expectations as the hypnotizablity test situation.
Whether circumstances can be created that will elicit multiple
identity enactments from low hypnotizables remains to be determined.
Encounters with UFO Aliens
Reports of seeing unidentified flying objects (UFOs) and belief that
such objects are extraterrestrial spacecraft have increased
dramatically since World War II. Nevertheless, the available
scientific evidence fails to support the hypothesis that these reports
reflect the sighting of alien spacecraft (Sheaffer, 1986). Initially,
UFO reports focused on the purported sightings of the crafts
themselves. However, by the mid-1960s purportedly true accounts of
people who claimed to have been abducted by UFO aliens began to appear
(e.g., Fuller, 1966). Some of these accounts gained a great deal of
notoriety. In addition, uncritical and sensationalistic
documentary-type television shows and movies that featured alien
contact became popular (Sheaffer, 1986). At the same time, reports of
contact and abduction by aliens mushroomed, and such reports appear to
be increasing in frequency (Klass, 1989).
Recently, Spanos, Cross, Dickson, and DuBreuil (1993) interviews
subjects who claimed UFO experiences. One group of these subjects
simply reported distant lights or shapes in the night sky that
appeared to move in erratic patterns and that they interpreted as
UFOs. However, a second group of 20 subjects reported more elaborate
experiences that included close contact with alien spaceships and/or
alien beings, and occasionally, abduction by the aliens. Subjects in
both UFO groups failed to differ in hypnotizablity or fantasy
proneness from comparison subjects, and either failed to differ, or
scored higher, than comparison subjects on indexes of mental health
and IQ. However, subjects in both UFO groups believed more strongly in
the reality of UFOs than did comparison subjects, and those with
elaborate UFO experiences also held other esoteric beliefs (e.g.,
reincarnation) more strongly than comparison subjects.
Subjects who reported elaborate UFO experiences were much more likely
to report their experience was sleep related than were those who
reported more mundane (i.e., lights in the sky) experiences. many of
the elaborate experiences were clearly night dreams or hypnagogic
imagery. In addition, almost a quarter of those in the elaborate UFO
group reported frightening experiences that included full body
paralysis and, frequently, vivid multisensorial hallucinations. For
example, one subject reported:
I was lying in bed facing the wall, and suddenly my heart started to
race. I could feel the presence of three entities standing beside
me. I was unable to move my body but could move my eyes. One of the
entities, a male, was laughing at me, not verbally but with his
mind. (Spanos et al., 1993, p. 627)
Experiences of this kind are most probably explicable as sleep
paralysis; a phenomenon that is usually estimated as occurring in
approximately 15% to 25% of the population, and that is commonly
associated with feelings of suffocation, the sense of a presence, and
hallucinations (Bell et al., 1984; Hufford, 1982). These findings
suggest that at least some of the characteristics common to many
elaborate UFO reports (e.g., being paralyzed by the aliens) may be
grounded in the physiological changes that underlie sleep paralysis
Not all elaborate UFO experiences were sleep related. Moreover, the
elaborateness of UFO experiences was positively correlated with
questionnaire variables that assessed propensities toward experiencing
unusual body sensations, and fantasy proneness. Hypnotizablity,
however, failed to correlate significantly with elaborateness.
Taken together, the findings of Spanos et al. (1993) indicate that
elaborate UFO experiences that are later described as memories are
particularly likely to occur in people who believe in alien
visitation, and who also interpret unusual sensory and imaginal
experiences in terms of the alien hypothesis.
People who believe that they might have been abducted by aliens but
cannot remember, or who dream of aliens or experience gaps in memory
that they are unable to explain, sometimes undergo hypnotic (or
non-hypnotic) interviews aimed at uncovering, "hidden memories" of
their alien abduction (Jacobs, 1992; Klass, 1989). Frequently, the
interviews include two phases. In the first phase background
information is obtained and clients are asked about unusual or
inexplicable experiences that have occurred during their life. These
include "missing time" experiences, unusual or bizarre dreams, and
experiences that suggest hypnagogic imagery or sleep paralysis (e.g.,
having seen a ghost, strange lights, or a monster). Such experiences
are defined as distorted memories of alien abduction that call for
further probing (Jacobs & Hopkins, 1992). Moreover, making such
experiences salient enhances the likelihood that some of their
characteristics (e.g., paralysis, feelings of suffocation) will be
incorporated into any abduction memories that are recalled in Phase 2.
Phase 2 typically involves hypnotic or nonhypnotic guided imagery
employed to facilitate recall. This may involve leading questions
(Baker, 1992), or the subject may be pressed repeatedly for more
details (Jacobs, 1992). In addition, subjects may be informed that
some material is so deeply hidden that several such interviews are
required, Subjects who have difficulty "remembering" some or all of
their abduction are defined as "blocking" and are provided with
strategies for facilitating recall. These include asking subjects to
imagine a curtain and then to peek behind it to view their abduction,
or to imagine a curtain and then to peek behind it to view their
abduction, or to imagine a movie screen on which they see their
abduction replayed (Jacobs & Hopkins, 1992).
Given that subjects in past-life experiments frequently reported
elaborate past-life identities on the basis of much less prodding, it
is not surprising that such interviewing procedures lead clients to
generate imaginative scenarios in which they are abducted by aliens.
it is also not surprising that clients typically interpret their
abduction fantasies as memories rather than as fantasies. After all,
they usually sought help because they believed that they might have
been abducted. In other words, they already possessed a set of
background beliefs and current expectations that facilitated the
interpretation of such fantasies as memories. In addition, their
abduction fantasies are legitimated as memories by the interviewers
who treat them as such and who do not provide alternative
explanations. Finally, it is worth noting that people who believe that
they have been abducted frequently join support groups that include
other abductees (Jacobs, 1992). The sharing of abduction experiences
in such groups can only serve to enhance their uniformity and further
legitimate them as real memories.
Ritual Satanic Abuse and Multiple Personality Disorder
The large majority of patients who eventually receive a multiple
personality disorder diagnosis do not display symptoms of multiplicity
and are unaware that they have alter identities before they enter
treatment with the therapist who "discovers" their multiplicity
(Kluft, 1985). Moreover, this "discovery" frequently involves the use
of highly leading hypnotic interviews in which patients are explicitly
informed that they have alter personalities and attempts are made to
communicate directly with these alters, learn their names, their
functions, and so on (Bliss, 1986; Spanos, Weekes, & Bertrand, 1985;
Most studies find that multiple personality disorder patients report
extremely high rates of childhood sexual and/or physical abuse (e.g.,
Ross, Miller, Bjornson, Reagor, & Fraser, 1991). Contrary to the
majority opinion in the multiple personality disorder literature,
however, these data do not demonstrate that child abuse causes
multiplicity. At least three noncausal factors appear to influence the
high rates of reported child abuse obtained from multiple personality
disorder patients: (a) high base rates of reported child abuse in the
clinical samples from which patients who will be diagnosed with
multiple personality disorder are drawn, (b) one of a child abuse
history to justify implementing leading "diagnostic" interviews that
generate displays of multiplicity, and (c) confabulation of abuse in
patients who generate such "memories" only after exposure to leading
interviews that call for and legitimate such reports (Spanos, in
The strong connection between child abuse and multiple personality
disorder is of recent origin. Early cases (i.e., pre-1920) were much
less likely than modern ones to be associated with reports of child
abuse (Bowman, 1990; Kenny, 1986), and the abuse that was reported in
these early cases lacked the lurid ritualistic satanic elements that
are becoming increasingly prominent in the abuse memories proffered by
modern multiple personality disorder patients.
Although controversy remains concerning its actual rate of occurrence
(Wakefield & Underwager, 1992), there is general agreement that the
sexual abuse of children in our society is a good deal more common
than was once believed (Finkelhor, 1987). Frequently, people who were
sexually abused as children retain their memories of these experiences
(Femina, Yeager, & Lewis, 1990). In some cases, however, adults in
psychotherapy report for the first time remembering early child abuse.
According to many multiple personality disorder therapists (e.g.,
Bliss, 1986), these reports reflect memories of actual abuse that was
repressed at the time of its occurrence and recovered later during the
therapeutic process. However, an alternative hypothesis suggests that
these reports may frequently reflect confabulations induced by the
unwitting suggestions of therapists (Loftis, 1993; Spanos, in press).
Unfortunately, in such cases it is usually difficult or impossible to
either corroborate or disconfirm the validity of these memory reports
(Wakefield & Underwager, 1992). Reported memories of ritual satanic
child abuse are an exception. These reports are of theoretical
importance for memory researchers because the available data indicate
that they are almost always believed-in fantasy constructions rather
than memories of actual events (Jenkins & Maier-Katkin, 1991; Mulhern,
1991b; Spanos, in press).
By 1980 the idea of a relationship between child abuse and multiple
personality disorder was well established. In that year a book titled
*Michelle Remembers* (Smith & Pazdec, 1980) reported on ritual satanic
tortures that a woman had purportedly experienced during childhood and
then forgotten until they were recovered during therapy. Michelle's
story became a part of the propaganda used by the Evangelical
Christian movement that became increasingly prominent in American
social and political life during the 1980s. This movement
reinvigorated the mythology of satanism -- the idea that there exists
a powerful but secret international satanic conspiracy that carries
out heinous crimes. These crimes supposedly include the kidnapping,
torture, and sexual abuse of countless children as well as mass
murder, forced pregnancies, and cannibalism (Bromley, 1991; Hicks,
1991; Lyons, 1989).
Large numbers of therapists who identified themselves as active
Christians joined the multiple personality disorder movement in the
1980s (Mulhern, 1993), and soon accounts like those of Michelle began
to be reported by the alters of multiple personality disorder patients
during therapy (Frazer, 1990; Young et al., 1991). By the mid-1980s,
25% of multiple personality disorder patients in therapy had recovered
memories of ritual satanic abuse, and by 1992 the percentage of
patients recovering such memories was as high as 80% in some treatment
facilities (Mulhern, 1993).
If they were real, the ritual satanic crimes "remembered" by multiple
personality disorder patients would require a monumental criminal
conspiracy that has been in existence for at least 50 years and that
has been responsible for the murder of thousands of people (Hicks,
1991). The FBI and other law enforcement agencies throughout North
America have investigated many satanic abuse allegations made by
multiple personality disorder patients but have been unable to
substantiate the existence of the requisite criminal conspiracy
(Lanning, 1992). These repeated failures to find evidence of satanic
ritual abuse strongly indicate that the vast majority of these
allegations are false, and that the "memories" on which they are based
are fantasies rather than remembrances of actual events (Hicks, 1991).
Bottoms, Shaver, and Goodman (1991) surveyed psychotherapists across
the United States about the frequency with which they had seen
patients who reported ritual abuse memories. Seventy percent of the
therapists who responded indicated no contact with such patients. A
small minority, however, reported having seen large numbers of
patients who reported ritual abuse. This pattern of findings suggests
that therapists who regularly obtain such reports play an active role
in shaping the ritual abuse "memories" of their patients.
Frequently, satanic abuse memories are elicited during hypnotic
interviews that explicitly suggest such abuse. In such cases it is
common for the therapist to explicitly describe satanic rituals and
possibly to show the patient pictures of satanic symbols or
photographs of possible cult leaders. The therapist then addresses the
patient's alters and asks if any of them recognize the material or
remember similar experiences (Mulberry, 1991a).
Multiple personality disorder patients are often chronically unhappy
people with well-developed imaginations, who become strongly attached
to and dependent on their therapists. Consequently, they are motivated
to use the information from such interviews to construct an
autobiography that will make sense of their lives and their symptoms,
and that will make sense of their lives and their symptoms, and that
will win approval and validation from their therapist (Spanos, in
press). In this context it is worth recalling the ease with which
highly hypnotizable college students were induced to report past life
personalities who "remembered" that they had been abused as children,
when the expectation of such abuse had been conveyed to them before
their hypnotic regression (Spanos, Menary, et al., 1991).
Recently, Ofshe (1992) described the case of a fundamentalist
Christian man named Paul Ingram who, after highly leading
interrogations confessed to having participated in the satanic ritual
abuse of his own children. The case provides a "real life" example of
the ease with which false memories can be generated in people who hold
a belief system that is congruent with the false information. Ingram
was initially accused of incest by one of his daughters after she had
attended a church-sponsored retreat intended to reveal sexual abuse.
Ingram initially denied the charges, but after being convinced that
his children would not lie, he agreed that Satan may have hidden from
him his own crimes. Many of the events to which Ingram eventually
confessed were suggested to him by the police officers and
psychologist who interrogated him, and he was supported in his
confessions by his minister. Along with repeatedly raping his
children, Ingram confessed to belonging to a satanic cult and
participating in the murder of 25 babies. Although Ingram had no
history of mental illness before his arrest, he was diagnosed as
suffering from multiple personality disorder by at least one
psychologist. Ofshe (1992) demonstrated Ingram's willingness to accept
suggested fantasies as real memories by concocting a set of ritual
abuse events that had not been alleged against Ingram. When Ofshe
questioned Ingram about these false events using guided imagery and
other interrogative procedures employed by the police, Ingram readily
confessed to them. Later Ingram insisted that the false events had
really happened and had not been suggested to him during the
Some patients report memory fragments or dreams with satanic content
and only after are exposed to hypnotic interviews aimed at confirming
such abuse. However, since many multiple personality disorder patients
are enmeshed in a social network where they hear about satanic abuse
from other patients, therapists, and shared newsletters, and where
they or their fellow patients attend workshops devoted to such abuse,
"spontaneous" dreams and memories do not provide serious evidence of
actual ritual abuse (Mulhern, 1991b).
The findings review above are consistent with the view that recall is
reconstructive and guided by current motivations and expectations. In
addition, these findings indicate that social factors can lead people
to generate complex fantasy scenarios and to define such experiences
as actual memories of real events. In many cases some elements in
these fantasies are memories. For instance, past-life reporters
frequently incorporate information from their own past, or events and
plots recalled from books and movies into their past-life identities,
and UFO reporters sometimes experience abduction dreams or complex
sleep paralysis episodes. The memory of these experiences can then
form the core of their abduction fantasies and help to legitimate
these fantasies a memories. Some multiple personality disorder
patients may use memories of actual abuse around which they add
elaborate satanic elements. Despite the inclusion of real memory
elements, however, past-life, UFO and satanic ritual abuse "memories"
are primarily fantasy constructions. Typically they are organized
around expectations derived from external sources, embedded in a
belief system that is congruent with their classification as memories,
and legitimated as memories by significant others. In short, whether
experiences are counted as memories of actual happenings or as
fantasies, may under some circumstances, have less to do with
characteristics intrinsic to these experiences than to the internal
context (i.e., supportive belief structures) in which they are
embedded and the external context (i.e., social legitimation) in which
they are validated (Johnson, 1988).
Manuscript submitted march 23, 1993; final revision received January
(1) The writing of this article was supported by a grant to the first
author from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of
(2) Requests for reprints should be addressed to Cheryl A. Burgess,
Department of Psychology, 8550 Loeb Building, 1125 Colonel By Drive,
Carleton University, Ottawa, Ontario K1S 3B6, Canada.
The International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis, Vol.
XLII. No. 4, October 1994, 433-446 (c) 1994 The International Journal
of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis.
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