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False Dichotomies and Other Errors in Patihis et. al.

Patihis, Ho, Tingen, Lilienfeld, and Loftus recently published a research article in Psychological Science related to the “Memory Wars.” The article carries the provocative title: Are the “Memory Wars” Over? A Scientist-Practitioner Gap in Beliefs About Repressed Memory.

The article is so flawed that one scarcely knows where to begin. It is a sure sign that something is seriously wrong when an article contains a significant misrepresentation in the second sentence. So it is with Patihis et. al., who summarize Professor Jennifer Freyd’s work as standing for the proposition that “memories of traumatic events can be repressed…and yet recovered accurately in therapy.” The authors cite, without a page number or quotation, a single publication of Freyd’s from 1994 that makes no such claim. Instead, Freyd makes the uncontroversial claim that psychotherapy can be useful for those who have experienced childhood trauma. Freyd also cautions, on page 320: “This aspect of psychotherapy and memory recovery also has the potential to lead to distortions in the interpretation of sensory, affective, and behavioral memories.”

One wonders why the authors did not portray the nuance in Freyd’s position. One also wonders why they ignored the substantial body of Freyd’s work in the years since 1994, including her highly-regarded Harvard Press book, Betrayal Trauma: The Logic of Forgetting Childhood Abuse. Freyd’s work is notable in part for highlighting two independent features of memory: continuity and accuracy. Freyd has always acknowledged that memory, both continuous and non-continuous, can be inaccurate. See her useful 2004 presentation at the American Association for the Advancement of Science on Misleading and Confusing Media Portrayals of Memory Research. It applies directly to Patihis et. al. and the attendant media coverage.

Do Patihis and his co-authors disagree with the seemingly uncontroversial claim that continuous and non-continuous memory can also be accurate? The Archive contained in this web site is filled with corroborated cases of non-continuous memories, some of which emerged in therapy and many of which did not. But such evidence does not seem to matter to Patihis and his co-authors, who ignore corroborated cases while suggesting that self-reports are the only evidence offered on behalf of recovered memories.

Patihis and his co-authors also offer a false dichotomy between “scientists” and “practitioners,” ignoring the substantial number of research scientists, like Jennifer Freyd, whose work challenges their beliefs. (See a multitude of examples here.) Patihis’s approach demonstrates that the “memory wars” are alive and well. We will know that they are over when scientists like Patihis drop the false dichotomies and start engaging the evidence that contradicts their beliefs rather than pretending that scientific disputes can be resolved by popularity contest. With hopes that this starts to happen in 2014, Happy New Year.

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