False memories

False memories or pseudo-memories are memories of experiences that are subjectively believed to be true, although objectively they either did not take place at all or at least not in the way remembered. Such memories can occur in both children and adults and come about due to suggestive processes. Numerous studies have shown that false memories can even occur for personally significant and stressful events (cf. e.g. Erdmann, 2001; Loftus & Pickrell, 1995). In order to check whether a person has a false memory, it is primarily important to look at the origin of the statement in order to recognise possible suggestive influences. Real cases of false memories are often memories and statements of sexual abuse (cf. e.g. Worms processes, Montessori process).

False memories of children are typically characterised by the fact that the suspicion of sexual abuse does not arise from a statement by the child, but comes about through an interpretation and interpretation of 'signals' by the child's environment (e.g. 'behavioural conspicuities', children's drawings). It should be noted here that there is no specific sexual abuse syndrome (Kendall-Tackett, Williams, & Finkelhor, 1993), which is why an interpretation of non-specific behaviour does not necessarily indicate sexual abuse, but can also have other causes. Based on an initial suspicion, it may happen that interviews of children are conducted in which suggestive techniques are also used. Suggestive techniques include, for example, selective reinforcement of desired answers that conform to expectations (e.g. through praise, nodding of the head, ...), induction of a negative stereotype (e.g. "He also hurt other children.") and indirect specifications of specific information (e.g. "And then he touched you on the breast, didn't he?"). Suggestive interviews are additionally characterised by a presetting of the interviewee. This preconception is primarily characterised by the fact that there are a priori assumptions that something has happened (e.g. the sexual abuse) and that the questioning is oriented towards confirming the assumption (cf. Niehaus, Volbert, & Fegert, 2017). As a result, the interviewer mainly collects information that confirms the a priori assumption. Contradictory information is ignored or reinterpreted (e.g. if the child is silent, then he or she is not yet ready to talk about the abuse). In the child, such suggestive questioning can lead to a desire to fulfil the expectations of the questioning adult. Children have also learned that adults usually know more, so that adult statements can quickly seem plausible even if no memory is available (Greuel et al., 1998).

Extraneous suggestive processes that lead to false memories in juveniles and adults are not fundamentally different from the processes in children. An essential difference here is that a certain fact is explicitly brought to the attention of the persons and discussed with them, for example in the context of therapy, since it is assumed that experiences cannot be remembered due to repression or dissociation (Volbert, 2010). Usually, at the beginning of such a process, there is a bad mental state of a person (e.g. depressive moods, anxiety symptoms) who is looking for explanations for this. For example, in therapies or through the environment, these symptoms may be prematurely assessed as the result of previous sexual abuse and lead to a preconception. Under certain circumstances, suggestive therapeutic techniques may be used (e.g. hypnosis, dream interpretations, visualisation techniques) and the person may be asked to search for supposed experiences. If emerging images are uncritically accepted as true memories of experiences, false memories may be formed. Not only external suggestion processes can lead to the formation of false memories, but also autosuggestive processes (e.g. intensive occupation with the topic, exchange in internet forums). False memories are mainly characterised by the fact that they were not remembered before. In such cases, this is often explained by the fact that traumatic experiences are repressed or dissociated (Volbert, 2010). However, this contradicts numerous scientific findings that prove that personally significant and traumatic experiences are usually well remembered (cf. Volbert, 2011).


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  • Niehaus, S., Volbert, R., & Fegert, J. M. (2017). Entwicklungsgerechte Befragung von Kindern in Strafverfahren. Berlin: Springer.
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