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The Social Reconstruction of Memories

Article Index
The Social Reconstruction of Memories
Experimental Creation of Past-Life Personalities
Encounters with UFO Aliens
Ritual Satanic Abuse and Multiple Personality Disorder

Past-Life Identities, UFO Abductions, and Satanic Ritual Abuse:

The Social Reconstruction of Memories (1)

Nicholas P. Spanos, Cheryl A. Burgess, and Melissa Faith Burgess (2)
Carleton University, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada


People sometimes fantasize entire complex scenarios and later define these experiences as memories of actual events rather than as imaginings.  This article examines research associate with three such phenomena: past-life experiences, UFO alien contact and abduction, and memory reports of childhood ritual satanic abuse.  In each case, elicitation of the fantasy events is frequently associated with hypnotic procedures and structured interviews which provide strong and repeated demands for the requisite experiences, and which then legitimate the experiences as "real memories."  Research associated with these phenomena supports the hypothesis that recall is reconstructive and organized in terms of current expectations and beliefs.

It is now generally acknowledged that recall involves reconstructive processes and a strongly influenced by current beliefs and expectations (Bower, 1990; Loftus, 1979).  As pointed out by Bartlett (1932) many years ago, people typically organize their recall of past events in a way that makes sense of their present situation and is congruent with their current expectations.  What they recall frequently involves a mixture of correctly remembered and misremembered information that is often impossible to disentangle.  Often there is little or no correlation between the accuracy of recall and the confidence that people place in their recall.  It is not unusual for people to be convinced about the accuracy of a remembrance that turns out to be false (Loftus, 1979; Wells, Ferguson, & Lindsay, 1981).  Contrary to popular belief, hypnotic procedures do not reliably enhance the accuracy of recall and, at least under some circumstances, may lead subjects to become even more overconfident than usual in their inaccurate recall (Smith, 1983; Spanos, Quigley, Gwynn, Glatt, & Perlin, 1991).  Leading questions and other suggestive interview procedures, whether or not they are administered in a hypnotic context, can produce a very substantial deterioration in recall accuracy even when subjects remain highly confident in their inaccurate remembrances (Spanos, Gwynn, Comer, Baltruweit, & deGroh, 1989).

To a large extent, these ideas about memory have been developed and refined in the context of studying eyewitness testimony.  The implications of these ideas have been particularly influential at shaping the critical attitudes taken by many psychologists toward the reliability of eyewitness testimony, and toward the usefulness of hypnotic and other procedures that are touted as "refreshing" such testimony (Loftus, 1979; Orne, 1979; Smith, 1983; Wagstaff, 1989).  In the typical eyewitness situation, however, the memory distortions under consideration involve inaccuracies in detail (e.g., identifying the wrong suspect of real crime) rather than fabrications of entire complex scenarios (e.g., detailed descriptions of an entire gun battle that never occurred).  Little systematic research is available that examines the applications of reconstructive and expectancy-guided views of memory to situations in which people "remember" entire scenarios that never happened.  This article describes research of this kind conducted in our laboratory and examines the implications of our findings for three phenomena that appear to involve the wholesale "remembering" of fictitious events; past-life identities (Warnbach, 1979), UFO alien contact and abduction reports (Jacobs, 1992), and reports of satanic ritual child abuse from patients diagnosed with multiple personality disorder (Fraser, 1990; Young, Sachs, Braun, & Watkins, 1991).