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“False Memory Syndrome” (FMS): Scientifically Unfounded

The term “False Memory Syndrome,” abbreviated as FMS, was coined and popularized in 1992 by the False Memory Syndrome Foundation (FMSF) and its founder, Pamela Freyd. False Memory Syndrome began with Pamela Freyd’s own experience with a ‘false accusation,’ and was elaborated on by the self-reported experiences of FMSF members. The definition of FMS evolved multiple times until the foundation settled on a definition suggested by John Kihlstrom in 1993:

“A condition in which a person’s identity and interpersonal relationships are centered around a memory of traumatic experience which is objectively false but in which the person strongly believes.” [1]


The False Memory Syndrome Foundation and its founder, Pamela Freyd, have described FMS as a “serious health crisis” [2] and a “cruel epidemic,” [3] calling the actions of those affected by FMS as “cult-like.” [4]

Scientifically Unfounded:

False Memory Syndrome’ is not a scientifically valid phenomenon. The syndrome does not and has never appeared in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) or the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems (ICD), nor is it recognized by the American Psychological Association [5]. “No empirical validation has been offered for “False Memory Syndrome” as a diagnostic construct; nor have the symptoms that characterize this putative syndrome ever been systematically described and studied.” [6]


Dr. Jennifer Freyd states that “there is no research to date [1998] documenting a "false memory syndrome" (FMS) despite the widespread promulgation of this term… The one study that I am aware of that attempted to evaluate the evidence for a specific FMS failed to find evidence for a specific syndrome (Hovestadt & Kristiansen, 1996).” [7]


In a study of 113 women who self-identified as survivors of sexual abuse, Hovdestad and Kristiansen attempted to evaluate the prevalence of ‘False Memory Syndrome.’ They found that “participants who had recovered memories of their abuse… who could therefore potentially have FMS, generally did not differ from participants with continuous memories on indicators of [FMS] criteria.” Furthermore, they found that symptoms of ‘False Memory Syndrome’ did not correlate with each other – meaning that there is no evidence for FMS as a cohesive syndrome. [8]


In an interview with David Calof more than a year after the FMSF was formed, Pamela Freyd herself admits that ‘False Memory Syndrome’ is an inadequate name for the phenomena. This is due to lacking knowledge about “how to test for it” and an inability to articulate a list of “specific signs or symptoms” characterizing the syndrome. [9]

[link to interview in drive].


The psychological community recognized early on that the phrase “False Memory Syndrome” was unscientific and unhelpful. In a letter to the editor in the APS Observer in March 1993, 17 prominent psychologists described FMS as “a non-psychological term originated by a private foundation whose stated purpose is to support accused parents,” urging scientists and other scholars to spurn the phrase “false memory syndrome” for “the sake of intellectual honesty.” [10]

Rarity and Rate of False Accusations:

Despite claims by the foundation that ‘False Memory Syndrome’ is widespread and reaching epidemic proportions, scientific literature has found those who meet the criteria – with either continuous or recovered memories – to be relatively rare:


The study by Hovdestad and Kristiansen evaluating 113 self-identified survivors of childhood abuse stated that “even if the finding that 3.9% of the women with a recovered memory met the criteria for FMS was misinterpreted to argue that 3.9% have false memories, the false-allegation rate would be identical to the rate of false allegations for any crime, be it rape, robbery, or homicide…. the findings may mean that FMS does not exist at all and that, as suggested by empirical research, authoritarian opposition to the equality of women and a need to deny the injustice of child abuse are all that support the notion of FMS.” [8]


In her scientific article titled “Crisis or Creation? A Systematic Examination of False Memory Syndrome,” Dr. Stephanie Dallam notes that there is “no credible data showing that the vague symptoms they ascribe to this purported syndrome are widespread or constitute a crisis or epidemic.” [6]


“Common sense and professional practice dictates that claims about a new diagnostic category reaching epidemic proportions require scientific substantiation. The public policy issues impacted by the false memory controversy are so important that they deserve the most careful and intellectually honest scholarship that the academic and professional community has to offer.” [6]

Scientific Articles Debunking ‘False Memory Syndrome:

There are numerous scientific articles debunking FMS. These are a few notable articles, some of which we cite throughout this page:


Crisis or Creation? A Systematic Examination of False Memory Syndrome Excerpts:

Abstract excerpt: “A review of the relevant literature demonstrates that the existence of [False Memory] syndrome lacks general acceptance in the mental health field, and that the construct is based on a series of faulty assumptions, many of which have been scientifically disproven. There is a similar lack of empirical validation for claims of a “false memory” epidemic. It is concluded that in the absence of any substantive scientific support, “False Memory Syndrome” is best characterized as a pseudoscientific syndrome that was developed to defend against claims of child abuse.”


Stephanie J. Dallam (2001) Crisis or Creation? A Systematic Examination of False Memory Syndrome, Journal of Child Sexual Abuse, 9:3-4, 9-36, DOI: 10.1300/J070v09n03_02

"A Field Study of “False Memory Syndrome": Construct Validity and Incidence. 

“In sum, the weak evidence for the construct validity of the phenomenon referred to as FMS, together with the finding that few women with recovered memories satisfied the criteria and that women with continuous memories were equally likely to do so, lends little support to FMS theory.”


“In view of this, findings that survivors are being adversely affected by the uncritical promotion of this unvalidated ‘syndrome’ suggest that proponents of FMS would be well advised to consider the factual, as opposed to attitudinal, basis of their claims.”


Hovdestad, W. E., & Kristiansen, C. M. (1996). A Field Study of “False Memory Syndrome”: Construct Validity and Incidence. The Journal of Psychiatry & Law, 24(2), 299–338. doi:10.1177/009318539602400208 

Memory, Abuse, and Science: Questioning Claims About the False Memory Syndrome Epidemic (1996)

Abstract Excerpt: “The area of memory, particularly memory for abuse, has recently seen new, highly publicized claims. These include the proposal of a new diagnostic category, the false memory syndrome; claims about the ease with which extensive autobiographical memories can be implanted; and estimates of the extent therapists use risky practices likely to cause false memory syndrome. This article suggests questions to evaluate these claims and the methods used to promote them.”


Pope evaluates the claims surrounding False Memory Syndrome, including the criteria of FMS: “objectively false” memories, an “entire personality” or “lifestyle,” and similarity to personality disorders. He makes clear the lack of evidence and proper scientific methodology backing FMS, including issues with informed consent, incorrectly inferred causality, confounding factors, and lack of careful scientific examination.


Excerpt: “Psychologists must be as attentive to factors that, however unintentionally, may confound the process of consideration and discussion as they are to factors that may confound an individual experiment… the process of free and independent analysis of FMSF claims may be affected.”


Pope critically analyzes factors that would impede the independent analysis of FMSF claims: actions of FMSF proponents such as picketing, characterizing those who disagree with FMS as “as hate-filled True Believers, paranoid cultists, or Hitler-like zealots,” and violating patient’s right to privacy in a therapeutic setting are all confounding factors which have affected the scientific research around FMS.


Pope K. S. (1996). Memory, abuse, and science. Questioning claims about the false memory syndrome epidemic. The American psychologist, 51(9), 957–974.

Impacts of ‘False Memory Syndrome’ on Women’s Credibility:

The creation and use of the term ‘False Memory Syndrome’ has had widespread effects on the cultural perception of women’s narratives. These selected studies describe the impacts of ‘False Memory Syndrome,’ and many contain further careful scientific critique of the term.

False memory syndrome: undermining the credibility of complainants in sexual offences

In this article by Raitt and Zeedyk, they argue that concept of ‘False Memory Syndrome’ serves to silence the voices of women and children attempting to speak out about abuse: “The courtroom use of FMS is the latest in that tradition” of “numerous rules of evidence and procedure that have had the effect of rendering the testimony of women and children incredible.” 



“Individuals who bring charges of sexual assault (usually women and children) are liable to be portrayed as emotionally labile, unreliable, and disordered… The concept of FMS serves to disadvantage them because it so easily feeds into the existing juridical tapestry that treats complaints of sexual abuse as incredible.”


“Traditional attempts to destabilize women’s credibility in cases of rape and sexual assault…  are mirrored in the recent emergence of the phenomenon of FMS in the courtroom. The introduction of evidence relating to false memories replicates the stereotyping of female behavior as untrustworthy, reinforcing the courtroom disadvantage that women and children have historically faced.”


 Raitt, F. E., & Zeedyk, M. S. (2003). False memory syndrome: Undermining the credibility of complainants in sexual offences. International Journal of Law and Psychiatry, 26(5), 453–471.

Feminist ethics in the practice of science: The contested memory controversy as an example.

“One group of individuals has been able to create a label without scientific evidence and to apply it freely to women without ever meeting them - often merely from the word of a parent. We argue from the outset that it is a mistake to give the power of voice to just one side of a debate. We also need to focus on the alleged perpetrator’s memories, framing this as contested memories rather than presuming false memories.”


“When the core issue is whether an alleged abuse happened and the abuse is contested by the alleged abuser, there arises a struggle for authority to define reality. Perhaps because the stakes are so very high, this struggle for authority has been at times vicious… At times, the struggle for authority has deeply threatened the agency and personhood of adult survivors.”


Freyd, J. J., & Quina, K. (2000). Feminist ethics in the practice of science: The contested memory controversy as an example. In M. M. Brabeck (Ed.), Practicing feminist ethics in psychology (pp. 101–123). American Psychological Association.

Crisis or Creation? A Systematic Examination of False Memory Syndrome

Dr. Stephanie Dallam’s article details how the coining of FMS has deterred therapists from treating survivors of abuse and incited disbelief in survivors narratives – even when the victim has corroborating evidence.


“False memory rhetoric has also had a chilling effect on the willingness of therapists to believe and appropriately treat abuse survivors... Because of the risk of being charged with implanting false memories, some insurance providers are advising practitioners to refuse to take clients who allege delayed recall.”


“Despite the fact that a memory cannot be confirmed as either true or false without some form of external corroboration, some false memory advocates have improperly suggested to patients that the abuse they allege never happened. A London newspaper recently reported that a young woman committed suicide after being told by a therapist that her memories of abuse by her father were false. The mother confirmed the abuse and lodged a formal complaint against the practitioner who treated her daughter. The bereaved mother issued the following statement: My daughter has been abused by her father from the age of seven until 15…. She had been told her abuse was part of false memory syndrome. Two weeks later she took an overdose of prescription medication and died. I believe that had my daughter been believed, she would have stayed at the unit and would be alive today.”


Dallam, S. J. (2001). Crisis or Creation? A Systematic Examination of False Memory Syndrome. Journal of Child Sexual Abuse, 9(3-4), 9–36. doi:10.1300/j070v09n03_02 

A meta/multi-discursive reading of "false memory syndrome." 

Schuman and Galvez argue that FMS “emerges as an accomplice of the mental health establishment and a leading force in the heteropatriarchal backlash against women.”


“The subheadings of the FMS chapter merely mark the perpetuation of sexist oppression: labeling women as diseased, hence denying that rape, CSA, and incest exist; shifting the focus away from (male) perpetrators to (female) victims in order to obscure the reality of women’s state in heteropatriarchy, and promoting psycho(bio)logical and individual solutions to broader social problems, hence depoliticizing the multiplicitious oppressions women experience in daily life.”


“We believe that the establishment of FMSF and its craftily coined term (FMS) is more than theory; rather it is an intentional, insidious backlash against feminists who have raised awareness about women’s lived oppression… in the end, the answer lies in the maintenance of power over women and the preservation of the heteropatriarchy.”


Schuman, J., & Galvez, M. (1996). A meta/multi-discursive reading of "false memory syndrome." Feminism & Psychology, 6(1), 7–29.

Evolution of FMS:

The phrase ‘False Memory Syndrome’ was introduced along with the creation of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation in February of 1992, formed after Pamela Freyd’s daughter accused her husband of childhood sexual abuse. FMS remained without a concrete definition for multiple years – the FMSF settled on a definition published by John Kihlstrom in 1997, which remains on their website FAQ page to this day. [1]


What follows serves to track the evolution of how FMS has been described over the years and investigate its origination from anecdotal accounts of parents claiming to be falsely accused:


An early conceptualization of FMS occurs in Pamela Freyd’s letters and articles about her daughter before the FMSF was formed. Pamela Freyd dismissed her daughter’s accusations of abuse as both “therapist elicited” [11] and as mental illness:

“Personally, I am able to [maintain hope of reconciliation] by thinking of my children as (temporarily?) mentally ill.” [11]


After the founding of the FMSF, an early understanding of ‘False Memory Syndrome’ was formed based on the experiences of a handful of families. Pamela Freyd describes how “when we first got together and began to compare notes in a group of about 10 families… the patterns of behavior were so formulaic: the way in which the memories developed and the way the accusations were made.” [9]


In March of 1992, a month after the FMSF was formed, surveys were sent out to the foundation’s members – parents claiming to be falsely accused of child sexual abuse – to “collect accurate information in a systematic and confidential way that can be used… to study this [FMS] phenomenon,” [13] even though Pamela admits there was no control group, and states “that we make no claims that the survey is a representative sample of families affected.” [14] Preliminary results were published in the April 1992 edition of the FMSF’s newsletter. [15]


From this survey data, various characterizations, descriptions, and definitions of FMS started to emerge:

The earliest concrete definition of ‘False Memory Syndrome’ is found in an editor’s note in the May 1, 1992 edition of the FMSF newsletter:

“This is the first of two stories on what is called "false memory syndrome" -- "remembering" events, through psychotherapy, that didn't actually happen.” [16]

From the article the editor’s note references, Pamela Freyd describes the problem as:

“adults believing that they suffer from ‘repressed memories’ of childhood incest and sexual abuse.” [2]


Pamela Freyd noted in the June 12, 1992 edition of the FMSF newsletter:

“It is, however, the radical behavior change (frequently sudden) and the cutting off by adult children who before therapy had satisfactory if not excellent relationships with parents that is the hallmark of the false memory syndrome” [17]


In the December 5th, 1992 edition of the FMSF newsletter, Pamela Freyd writes

“The [FMS] phenomenon is one in which people (mostly well-educated financially comfortable women in their 30's) recover memories which others say are false, they become obsessed with the memories and then they isolate themselves from their family.” [18]


Another definition appeared in Eleanor Goldstein’s Confabulations: Creating False memories, Destroying Families (1992) and True Stories of False Memories (1993):

“A condition in which the person’s personality and interpersonal relationships are oriented around a memory that is objectively false but strongly believed in to the detriment of the welfare of the person and others involved in the memory.” [19, 20]


In a letter to the editor of the APS Observer, Pamela Freyd described FMS:

“In FMS, we recognize a constellation of emotions, behaviors, and responses to the environment that are remarkable similar from one patient to another and derive from an imagined event: i.e., a false memory of sex abuse, of alien abduction, of past lives, or of satanic

cult experience.” [21]


Notice the contradiction in these definitions: while many of the terms used in various FMS definitions are similar, they are not equivalent.

  • Does FMS affect people who have false memories, or any adult who believes “they suffer from ‘repressed memories’ of childhood incest and sexual abuse”?

    • Repressed memories of childhood abuse are not inherently false.

  • Are the ‘false memories’ of FMS “objectively false,” or memories which “others say are false”?

    • Memories which others say are false are contested memories – word against word –  not false memories.

  • Is the content of ‘false memories’ in FMS “childhood incest and sexual abuse,” “imagined events,” or any “objectively false” memory?

    • Imagined events can be non-traumatic or occur in adulthood, and the subject of objectively false memories could be of non-events (such as incorrectly remembering where one put their keys)

  • Do those affected by FMS cut off “parents,” their whole “family,” or does FMS affect all their “interpersonal relationships”?

    • Family includes one’s siblings and extended family, while interpersonal relationships include one’s friends and larger social network.

  • Is this behavior “isolating themselves” or “orienting their… interpersonal relationships around the memory”?

    • One can orient their relationships around a memory of abuse (set healthy boundaries with those who perpetuate harm) while remaining connected with their social network.

  • Are those affected by FMS simply “becoming obsessed with memories,” or “undergoing a radical behavior change”?

    • The scope of a radical behavior change is much larger than simply becoming obsessed with a memory.


At this point, FMS still lacked an official definition. In an interview with David Calof over a year after the FMS foundation was formed, Pamela Freyd herself was unable to define the syndrome concretely. She was unable to list any common signs and symptoms of FMS, nor describe how to determine if an individual was suffering from FMS. [12]


In the interview, Pamela Freyd’s explanation of FMS is based on details “reported… in the stories we have” and “the descriptions given by the parents.” In this way, the definitions given for FMS did not evolve from clinical data or scientific studies. Instead, they originated from anecdotal accounts of parents claiming to be falsely accused – the truth of these claims and status as perpetrators, Pamela Freyd attests, cannot be determined “without some validation.” [12] On their 1992 website and brochure, the FMSF recommends polygraph tests as validation.


In April 1993, John Kihlstrom offered a definition of False Memory Syndrome that the FMSF displays on their website to this day. 

“When a memory is distorted, or confabulated, the result can be what has been called the False Memory Syndrome–a condition in which a person’s identity and interpersonal relationships are centered around a memory of traumatic experience which is objectively false but in which the person strongly believes. Note that the syndrome is not characterized by false memories as such. We all have memories that are inaccurate. Rather, the syndrome may be diagnosed when the memory is so deeply engrained that it orients the individual’s entire personality and lifestyle, in turn disrupting all sorts of other adaptive behaviors.” [1]


[1] False Memory Syndrome Foundation. (2013, December 28). Frequently Asked Questions. MEMORY AND REALITY Website of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation. Retrieved from

[2] Michael Morris. (1992, April 21). “False Memory Syndrome” Taking its Toll on Families. Utah County Journal.

Reprinted in FMSF Newsletter (1992, May 1). 1(4), 5.

[3] Freyd, Pamela. (1998, December). Dear Friends. FMS Foundation Newsletter. 7(10), 1.

[4] Freyd, Pamela. (1993, July 3). Dear Friends. FMS Foundation Newsletter. 2(7), 1. 

[5] Raitt, F. E. (Author), & Zeedyk, M. S. (Author). (2003). False memory syndrome: undermining the credibility of complainants in sexual offences. Digital or Visual Products, Elsevier.

[6] Dallam, S. J. (2001). Crisis or Creation? A Systematic Examination of False Memory Syndrome. Journal of Child Sexual Abuse, 9(3-4), 9–36. doi:10.1300/j070v09n03_02 

[7] Jennifer J. Freyd (1998) Science in the Memory Debate. Ethics & Behavior, 8:2, 101-113, DOI: 10.1207/s15327019eb0802_1

[8] Hovdestad, W. E., & Kristiansen, C. M. (1996). A Field Study of “False Memory Syndrome”: Construct Validity and Incidence. The Journal of Psychiatry & Law, 24(2), 299–338. doi:10.1177/009318539602400208 

[9] Calof, David. (1993, April). An Interview with Pamela Freyd, PhD, Co-founder and Executive Director, FMS Foundation, Inc, Part I. Treating Abuse Today. 3(3).

[10] Carstensen, Laura. (1993, March). Repressed Objectivity [Letter to the editor]. APS Observer.

[11] Freyd, Pamela. (1991, November 15). I am “Jane Doe.” Personal correspondence to Carole Roscielny.

[13] FMSF Staff. (1992, March 15). Survey. FMS Foundation Newsletter. 1(1), 2.

[14] Freyd, Pamela. (1992, May 1). Families Divided. FMS Foundation Newsletter. 1(4), 1.

[15] FMSF Staff. (1992,  April 1). Some Preliminary Survey Results. FMS Foundation Newsletter. 1(2), 2.

[16] FMSF Staff. (1992, May 1). “False Memory Syndrome” Taking its Toll on Families. FMS Foundation Newsletter. 1(4), 5.

[17] Freyd, Pamela. (1992, June 12). Dear Friends. FMS Foundation Newsletter. 1(5), 1.

[18] FMSF Staff. (1992, December 5). Our Critics. FMS Foundation Newsletter. 1(11), 2.

[19] Goldstein E. C. & Farmer K. (1992). Confabulations: creating false memories destroying families. SirS.

[20] Goldstein E. C. & Farmer K. (1993). True stories of false memories. SIRS.

[21] Freyd, Pamela. (1993, April 6). Our Critics. FMS Foundation Newsletter. 2(4), 3.

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