From the archive: Motivated distortion of personal memory for trauma Mark Pendergrast The Skeptic

This article originally appeared in The Skeptic, Volume 17, Issue 4, from 2006.

What I want to do is explain how people can come to believe in extremely traumatic events that never happened. It is quite clear that this does happen in the case of alien abductees, or in the cases of medical virgins who remembered being raped during their childhood. It is also quite clear to me from my research that this has happened in thousands, if not millions, of cases in North America and the UK, but I cannot prove that assertion. Still, some cases of illusory memories are provable.

I am going to cover seven major points:


secondary gain

belief systems

authority figures

use of hypnosis, dream analysis, body symptoms and other kinds of theories

rehearsal (of imagined ‘memories’)

cognitive dissonance.


Firstly, to get someone to remember something horrible that never happened to them in their childhood, they have to be very motivated. There is a common misconception that therapists can ‘implant’ memories. I do not like the word implant at all.

In order to believe in repressed memories, you have to be very motivated, and your motivation usually involves a quest to solve the puzzle of your life. We all want to have explanations for what has happened to us, and we all tend to seek fairly simple explanations, so it is very appealing to say, “Well, I have trouble with relationships, I have an eating disorder, I have trouble with my self-esteem, and these are symptoms of sexual abuse, so maybe I was abused and repressed the memory”.

During the height of the recovered memory movement, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, this was a common belief system, and many still believe it. So, many people – particularly women seeking therapy – were highly motivated to come up with a solution to their life problems.

Secondary gain

Secondly, there was secondary gain involved in almost every case I investigated. What I mean by that is that people, by being victims of sexual abuse, got a lot of attention they would not ordinarily have had. They got a lot of sympathy and, not to be harsh about it, they also could avoid a lot of responsibility for things in their lives at various points. This is not to say that this kind of belief system did not also cause extreme suffering, but there is no question that there was secondary gain.

Belief systems

The third point is, you have to have a belief in the theory of massive repression or massive dissociation, and many people did, and many people still do. When I was living in England for two months in the spring of 2003, I did an informal survey of people as I was travelling on trains, or when I was in pubs, or when I was walking up and down the barge canal. I asked people, “If you were eight years old and you had a terrible, terrible thing happen to you, do you think that you could block that completely out, not have any memory of it, and then remember it later in life?”

The vast majority of people said, “Oh yes, you can do that, that happens.” I then asked, “Well, how do you know?”, and they would answer, “Well, I just know,” or “I’ve seen it on television or in a movie”. So – you have to have a belief that massive repression is something that people can do.

Authority figures

It also helps, although it is not necessary, to have an authority figure you go to who says, “Oh yes, that’s true. I know this is true because I have a PhD [or “I’m a psychiatrist” or “I’m a social worker”], and I’ve seen many people come through my office who had exactly the same symptoms that you do – these troubled relationships, problems with self-esteem and eating disorders – and many of them had these memories come back, that they had not remembered for many years, of being sexually abused, and so I think you may have repressed memories, too.”

It really is an encouragement to illusory memories, but it is not necessary. I want to emphasise that. You don’t need an authority figure – illusory memories can be totally self-induced and, in many cases, they are.

Use of hypnosis, dream analysis, body symptoms, and other kinds of theories

A great deal has been said or written about the hazards of hypnosis, but I do want to add other things, and this is primarily what you will find in the chapter on “How to Believe the Unbelievable” in my book, Victims of Memory (Pendergrast, 1996). In this chapter, I went through tick, tick, tick; these are the ways that you can come to believe things that did not happen. Certainly hypnosis (or guided imagery, visualisation, meditation, or prayer, which are all forms of hypnosis or auto-hypnosis if used to try to recall ‘repressed’ memories) is a very good way to do that, particularly if the authority figure who is leading you in the form of hypnosis has a vested interest in this theory of massive repression and believes that you may very well have been abused.

I also want to warn about something called ‘inadvertent cueing’. Many therapists are told, “Don’t use leading questions with people, don’t lead your clients”. I do not think that anybody does intentionally lead their clients, but I interviewed many, many therapists who believed in repressed memories, and they all did lead their clients. They told me in the next sentence, after they had told me exactly how they had led their clients – “but you must be very careful never to lead your clients. I always maintain a totally neutral stance”, and so on.

If you believe in this idea that you can forget years of horrible things and then remember them much later, you are likely to convey that belief to your clients. And so I have told therapists – “Be careful what you believe!” I think that ultimately this whole thing comes down to a belief system. Again, I just want to emphasise that.

It does not really matter what modalities you use. As Harvard Professor of Psychology Richard McNally found in his studies, many people have a very firm belief that they are incest survivors without having any actual memory of anything happening to them. They simply believe it, and once you believe it, I think that it is almost a foregone conclusion that you will come up with something.

For instance, recovered memory therapists use dream analysis. Frequently we dream about things that we are worried about, and if you are in therapy and you think that maybe your father sexually abused you, or that someone else did, you begin to obsess over it, and that is precisely what you will dream about. Consequently, many of these things become self-fulfilling prophecies. The same thing is true of so-called body memories where they tell you that you may have some panic attack or you may have some bodily symptom and then you sort of work yourself up into it, or pay particular attention to it.


Once you come up with a scenario – and I saw this over and over again in this type of misguided therapy – you come up with a fragmentary image. What would happen would be that the therapists would take these fragmentary images and then they would have people rehearse them over and over again. In fact, they would tell them, “Pretend that you have a movie screen or a television screen in your head and you have to visualise it, and you have to zoom in and freeze frame”. They would literally tell people to do those things – it was all very visual. So people would develop a script, a narrative, and they would have them write the narrative down over and over again, or repeat it in group sessions over and over again.

The more you repeat something and the more you rehearse it, the more it becomes true for you. Many retractors who took back their memory beliefs because they decided that they were incorrect, still cannot get rid of the intrusive images. They have post-traumatic stress disorder. That would be an interesting thing to study – these people who have gone through this kind of therapy and developed a false belief system, then disbelieved it, but they still cannot get rid of the intrusive memories of something they know rationally did not happen to them, such as, say, being in a satanic cult.

Cognitive dissonance

This is a theory that was put forward by Leon Festinger quite a few years ago. It is quite an interesting theory and I think it makes sense, but it is just a theory. The idea is that you cannot have two contradictory ideas in your head at the same time. One of them is going to push the other one out like a cuckoo pushing an egg out from the nest. So if you opt for the idea that daddy did this horrible thing to you, you cannot very well have the idea that daddy was also a loving parent who did all these nice things with you, even though you have these very valid memories that he was a nice guy in many ways. So once you plump down on the side of this new belief system it is almost like a see-saw that goes ‘whomp’, and to ‘unwhomp’ it is very, very difficult to do. Once somebody opts for a belief system, and invests in it, and goes public with it, it is extremely difficult to undo.

Many, many times, people have said to me, “Why would anybody make up something so dreadful? Why would anybody want to make up something so horrible about someone as central in their lives as their parents?” But it is not a matter of wanting – it is a matter of having a seed planted in your mind and having it grow almost inevitably. So it is really a belief system, followed by methods that really are quite suggestive to your memory. Memories are always reconstructive, and they can be changed – sometimes permanently. So I can only hope that you can remember some of what I have written here at least fairly accurately.


Pendergrast, M. (1996). Victims of Memory: Incest Accusations and Shattered Lives (Revised British edition). London: HarperCollins.

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From the archives, at the Remembering Trauma Conference held in September 2003, Mark Pendergrast described how people can develop false memories for terrible events
The post From the archive: Motivated distortion of personal memory for trauma appeared first on The Skeptic.