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Forensic Updates

The Altering of Reported experiences

Dr. Sam Goldstein

Complimentary Service of the Neurology, Learning and Behavior Center

The Altering of Reported Experiences

Neuropsychologists routinely rely on patient self-report to obtain a pre-trauma history even though researchers have long known that memory is often an unreliable and inaccurate source of information. Further, patients are often highly confident about their recollections even in the face of evidence to the contrary. Researchers in neuropsychology have also demonstrated a halo effect in which individuals have a tendency to report and recall their assets in an inflated manner and their liabilities in a deflated manner. But the conceptualization of human memory as being infallible is relatively new. Memory experts agree that memory can be fallible, incomplete, malleable and susceptible to external factors. By it’s very nature, memory is a constructive process that is influenced by a wide range of cognitive and social events. Researchers have increasingly demonstrated the significant gap between the view of memory held by the general public (e.g., lay juries) and those who do research on memory. Memory is far from perfect and under certain circumstances can be surprisingly inaccurate.

In a previous update (January, 1998 – Issue #1), I discussed the inconsistency and unreliability of human memory, as well as the tendency for individuals having experienced trauma or involved in litigation to inflate positive experiences and abilities (e.g., high school grades). In a recent study (Offer, et al., 2000), a number of authors evaluated the adolescent memories of a group of mentally healthy fourteen-year-olds interviewed in 1962. These individuals were subsequently re-interviewed face-to-face at 48 years of age. Questions concerning family relationships, home environment, dating, sexuality, religion, parental discipline and general activities were asked in both interviews. Significant differences were found between adult memories of adolescence and what was actually reported during adolescence. Accurate memory was generally no better than expected by chance. If these findings can be replicated, if in fact accurate memory of one’s past is not better than chance in mentally healthy individuals, even more care should be taken in obtaining accurate, historical information in those experiencing stress, neuropsychological, medical or emotional problems, particularly those involved in litigation.

In light of these data, neuropsychologists should take care to not only obtain a careful history from their patients, but seek as much corroborating data as possible regardless of plaintiff or defense representation.

You may wish to review the following relative articles on this topic.

Bekerian, D.A. & Goodrich, S.J. (1995). Telling the truth in the recovered memory debate. Conscious Cogn., 4, 120-124.

Cialdini, R. (1993). Influence: Science and practice (3rd ed). Glenview, IL: Harper Collins.

Kihlstrom, J.F. (1994). Hypnosis, delayed recall, and the principles of memory. Int J Clin Exp Hypn, 42, 337-345.

Lindsay, D.S. & Read, J.D. (1994). Psychotherapy and memories of childhood abuse. J Appl Cognit Psychol 8, 283-338.

McGovern, P., Lurie, N., Margolis, K. & Slater, S. (1998). Accuracy of self-report of mammography and pap smear in a low-income urban population. Am J Prev Med 14, 201-208.

Offer, D., Kaiz, M., Howard, K. & Bennett, E.S. (2000). The altering of reported experiences. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 39, 735-742.

Thompson, C.P., Skowronski, J.J., Larsen, S.F. & Bertz, A.L. (1996). Autobiographical memory: Remembering what and remembering when. Hillside, NJ: Erlbaum.

The Neurology, Learning and Behavior Center provides multi-disciplinary assessment, case management and treatment services for children and adults with brain injury and dysfunction, Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, autism and language disorders, learning disability, developmental delay, emotional disorders and adjustment problems. The Center is dedicated to the provision of treatment services.

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