The Trouble of False Memories and Confessions

Despite what a lot of people might think, the human brain is extremely malleable. With coaxing or some sort of manipulation, it can be very simple to convince a person that a certain memory occurred in their lives when in reality, it did not. This sort of phenomena is called False Memory. Entire events of a persons life can be inserting into someones memory when in reality, it could be completely false. While repression (the “forgetting” of an event, usually after an extremely emotional trauma) can occur, more often then not these memories (usually false) are brought to light in therapy or from help of an outside source.

This can become difficult when it comes to crime cases and confessions or accusations. For example, in 1989, Eileen Franklin-Lipsker was at the park watching her young daughter play when she received an abrupt and violent memory of her father sexually abusing and murdering her 8 year old friend in 1969. This friend had gone missing that year, and was found dead 3 months after she went missing. Eileen immediately called the police and informed them she remembered this incident from 20 years earlier, stating that she watched her father do it and was told she would be killed if she told anyone. Repressing this obviously traumatic event and recalling it years later arose some tentativeness, and Psychologist Elizabeth Loftus, who was called to be an expert witness for the defense. Elizabeth had been studying memory for 20 years, and she found it odd that each time Eileen was asked how her memory came back, the reason would be changed each time. She told the courts that our memories are highly suggestible, and that using this woman’s recall of memory might not be the most reliable thing. However, the courts disagreed and convicted the Father of the young girls murder.

The truth finally came to light 5 years later, when Eileen’s sister testified that Eileen had been going to hypnotherapy around the time her “memory” came back to deal with depression that she had dealt with since she was a teenager. The therapist had diagnosed Eileen with PTSD, and had fabricated the memories that caused the trigger.

This shows just how susceptible our memories can be to the dangers of fabrication. This does not say that Repression is all a lie, but it should be looked at with extreme caution. Events can be completely encoded, forgotten and then later recalled, but the chance of these memories being fabricated into false memories is just as possible. This can lead to problems when it comes to court cases and even a person’s personal life. While childhood amnesia is also a possibility in the case of Eileen, given that she was younger when it occurred to her, the combination of hypnotherapy and the influence of the therapist points in the other direction.


3 thoughts on “The Trouble of False Memories and Confessions

  1. linnis

    Hi, Emily. Thank you for creating this enlightening and interesting post! I know we had spoken about false memories in class, but I hadn’t even thought about how they can influence things like the judicial system. In this case, at least they brought in a psychologist even if it did not result in the charges being dismissed. This makes me wonder how many other cases there have been where the accused life gets ruined after a false memory was fabricated. I have a feeling that likely some courts aren’t aware or aren’t concerned with false memories being an issue in the judicial system. Additionally, it is probably expensive to call in psychology professionals like the one mentioned above to testify. Hopefully, my feelings are wrong and the courts are aware of this, but regardless thank you for your fascinating post on false memories.

  2. ldanby

    I found your post to be extremely interesting! However, it is really upsetting to think about how the result of a hypnotherapy session could lead to a women convicting her own father of murder and thus making him spend 5 years in jail for a crime he did not commit. I think its fascinating how easily our own memories can be swayed and twisted into completely false events that can have a detrimental impact on not only ourselves, but those around us. I am hoping that someday (preferably sooner rather than later) we are able to come up with a way of more accurately testing people’s memories so that we can avoid convicting people for crimes they did not commit or even to help accurately recall the events of a situation so that we can catch the real criminals.

  3. mmalapit

    I am a huge law and order SVU junkie and I see examples of false memory all the time. Your post was super interesting to read. I’m not familiar with people who sit in on court cases but I wonder if there is a psychologist present who can say something every time false memory is fabricated especially with the person on the stand. In this case, false memory can be extremely tricky and dangerous because the person on the stand could be putting another person’s life in jeopardy with fabricated false memory.

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