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Ethical Considerations in Repressed Memories
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In the last section, we discussed difficulties in determining
whether or not a client has fabricated a memory as well as the client abandonment
In this section, we will examine the various
sides of the argument regarding the ethical use of repressed memories.
4 Considerations in the Ethical Use of Repressed Memories
Repression is defined as "A defense mechanism,
derived from psychodynamic theory, in which the individual unconsciously pushes
out of the consciousness certain memories, ideas, or desires that are unacceptable
or cause a high level of anxiety. Once these ideas or desires are contained in
the unconscious, they cannot be recalled directly.
However, they may emerge in
one's behavior in disguised forms, and their effects are sometimes seen in slips
of the tongue or dreams. Because repression is, by definition, a mechanism of
the unconscious, it should not be confused with the conscious act of suppression.
Ask yourself this ethical question: is your sexually abused client repressing
♦ #2 The Case for Memory Repression
is common to consciously suppress unpleasant experiences. Many psychologists believe
that unconscious repression of traumatic experiences such as sexual abuse or rape is a defense mechanism which backfires. The unpleasant experience is forgotten
but not forgiven. It lurks beneath consciousness and allegedly causes a myriad
of psychological and physical problems from bulimia to insomnia to suicide.
The Case Against Memory Repression
However, the theory of unconsciously
repressing the memory of traumatic experiences is controversial. Here is the ethical
dilemma. There is little scientific evidence to support either the notion that
traumatic experiences are typically unconsciously repressed or that unconscious
memories of traumatic events are significant causal factors in physical or mental
Most people do not forget traumatic experiences unless they are rendered
unconscious at the time of the experience. No one has identified a single case
where a specific traumatic experience in childhood was repressed and the repressed
memory of the event, rather than the event itself, caused a specific psychiatric or physical disorder in adulthood.
To make the ethics issues even murkier, the strength of the scientific evidence for repression depends on exactly how
the term is defined. When defined narrowly as intentional suppression of an experience,
there is little reason to doubt that it exists. But when we talk about a repression
mechanism that operates unconsciously and defensively to block out traumatic experiences,
the ethical picture becomes considerably murkier.
Evidence concerning memory
for real-life traumas in children and adults indicates that these events--such
as kidnappings, the sniper killing at an elementary school, or the collapse
of a skywalk--are generally well remembered....complete amnesia for these terrifying
episodes is virtually nonexistent.
♦ #4 Multiple or Repeated
Psychologist Lenore Terr, a defender of repressed memory therapy,
argues that repression occurs for repeated or multiple traumas, such as a repeatedly
sexually abused child. However, Schacter refutes repressed memory and notes that
"hundreds of studies have shown that repetition of information leads to improved
memory, not loss of memory, for that information." He also notes that people
who have experienced repeated traumas in war, even children, generally remember
their experiences. A person who suffers a great trauma often finds that she cannot
get the event out of her mind or dreams.
To the contrary Terr's theory
is that the child becomes practiced at repression to banish the awful events from
awareness, and forgetting might aid in the child's survival. Terr's dissociative
theory, however, is based on speculation rather than scientific evidence. Thus
if your therapy is based upon a witch hunt so to speak for repressed memories,
you might keep in the back of your mind that ethically, repression is a controversial
Most therapists accept as fact that it is quite common to
consciously repress unpleasant experiences, even sexual abuse, and to spontaneously
remember such events long afterward. However, most of the ethical controversy
centers around recovered memories during repressed memory therapy (RMT). Critics
of RMT maintain that many therapists are not helping patients recover repressed
memories, but are suggesting and planting false memories of alien abduction, sexual
abuse, and satanic rituals.
If you are thinking of conducting a
formal or informal study regarding a client's repressed memories, you might keep
in mind the Ethics and Standards of Practice, which states "Therapists must
provide explanations to clients prior to assessment about the nature and purposes
of assessment and the specific uses of results."
In this section,
we have discussed the difference between unconscious repression and conscious
suppression. In addition we have discussed the controversy regarding the ethical
use of unconsciously repressed memories and the role the therapist might play
in actually creating those memories by suggesting and planting false memories
of sexual abuse.
Peer-Reviewed Journal Article References:
Conlin, W. E., & Boness, C. L. (2019). Ethical considerations for addressing distorted beliefs in psychotherapy. Psychotherapy, 56(4), 449–458.
Karon, B. P., & Widener, A. J. (2001). Repressed memories: Avoiding the obvious. Psychoanalytic Psychology, 18(1), 161–164.
McNally, R. J., Clancy, S. A., Schacter, D. L., & Pitman, R. K. (2000). Cognitive processing of trauma cues in adults reporting repressed, recovered, or continuous memories of childhood sexual abuse. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 109(3), 355–359.
What is the ethical dilemma in utilizing repressed memories as the basis
of your sexual abuse therapy? To select and enter your answer go to .