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Is Forgetting Always a Bad Thing?

Many people believe that we can recall events in our life perfectly, like rewinding a movie and watching it over and over again. However, recalling events is a much more complicated process that can be filled with glitches and errors along the way. There are various steps that need to take place for an event to be stored in memory Events that we experience can be processed for meaning and stored for later use in long term memory so when we need to recall an event, the information is stored and retrievable through long term memory. The information in long-term memory is stored so we can recall this knowledge when needed. This information includes the ability to remember a person, the foods we like, and the location of the nearest hospital. The process of remembering these events is called retrieval. Retrieval for memories can vary depending on the content of the information. If the content of the information if very negative, it is forgotten more easily compared to positive or emotionally neutral events. Psychologists Greenhoot, McCloskey, and Glisky (2005) were interested in how adolescents were able to retrieve the memories of family violence that took place during their childhood. Because of their interest, they conducted a study to test whether or not adolescents even recalled the abuse, and if so, how accurate the adolescents’ memories were.

As reviewed by Greenhoot, McCloskey, and Glisky, both children and adults can distort and forget emotional memories (Lee & Brown, 2003; Merritt, Ornstein, & Spicker, 1994; Peterson & Whalen, 2001; Southwick, Morgan, Nicolaou, & Charney, 1997; Winograd & Neisser, 1992). In Greenhoot et al.’s study, mothers and their six to twelve year old children were asked about who was abused and what type of abuse took place. The mothers and children were also asked questions relating to other stressful events that could have taken place (e.g., moving or a death in the family) and questions relating to the child’s day-to-day life (e.g. the child’s best friend at the time). Six years later, the now adolescents were asked the same questions to see whether and how their answers differed from their answers to the same questions six years earlier and approximately 34% of participants did not recall any form of abuse occurring six years earlier. Of those adolescents that forgot about the abuse, half of them had experienced severe aggression.  For some people, serious forms of abuse may only happen once. An event so out of the ordinary and difficult to cope with seems like something that would always be a part of my memories, whether I liked it or not. Many of the general population would believe that the more traumatic details of abuse, such as being burned or sexually abused, would be engrained in their memory so they would be able to recall all of the details perfectly; this was not the case.

Most adolescents did not remember the exact details of the abuse, especially if their mother was the victim. About 34% failed to remember their mother being abused and 20% forgot that they themselves were abused as a child. Surprisingly, adolescents were better able to remember the less violent events (e.g. blaming, overall aggressive behavior) than the more severe forms of abuse (e.g. hitting, burning, choking). Some may wonder due to a lower rate of recall the more violence the child experienced if blocking is taking place. Blocking is when people suppress very stressful memories and they are unable to retrieve the information upon recall (Schacter, 1999). The psychologists conducted general memory tests and asked for the history of brain trauma and concussions to see whether forgetting about events across the board was an issue for some participants (Greenhoot et al., 2005). Due to Greenhoot et al.’s study, forgetting and not blocking seems to be the reason adolescents forgot about very violent instances. Researchers found that the adolescents who forgot about abuse poorly recalled events in their lives that were negative, such their family member attempting suicide (82%), their family member hospitalized (73%), and their mother losing/changing jobs (72%). The less negative non-abusive events had a higher rate of correct recollection such as a parent being put in jail (46%), moving to a new home (40%), and changing schools (45%).  Due to this information, it is clear that there is a difference in correct recollection of less negative emotional events versus more negative emotional events.  Although most people are able to retrieve negative memories involving abuse from their long-term memory, there are a percentage of people who do not recall abuse, either to themselves or their mother, ever happening which may be due to individual differences.

Differences in recollection were due to age, continued abuse after the first interview, opinions on the abuser and whether or not the abuse was witnessed or experienced. Previous research shows that younger children were more likely to forget the abuse (as reviewed by Greenhoot et al., 2005). The older children were also less likely to fail to report any abuse. Researchers believe that this is due to the children having more complete memories at an older age of the abuse they were experiencing. Since the children were more likely to be re-exposed to the abuse the older they were, they were exposed to more memories of abuse. Because of the longer repetition of abuse, they had more events to recall when answering whether or not they had been abused (as reviewed by Greenhoot et al., 2005). Also, in some cases, the abuse continued after the original interview. 43% of the women had the same partners six years later at the second interview and this factor did influence the recall of abuse. Recent exposure to abuse and agression led to more detailed recollections and less forgetting of the events since they were occurring recently in the child’s life. Opinions of the abuser also influenced the rate of forgetting. If the mother spoke negatively of the abuser, the adolescent was more likely to remember the abuse since the negative opinion matched the negative acts (s)he was experiencing. The schema that the child had for the abuser was not being altered and the child was less likely to forget about traumatic abuse. Also, when looking at the difference between witnessing and experiencing abuse, the children who experienced the abuse were much more likely to accurately recall the abuse than the children who witnessed the abuse. I personally find the terminology strange when dividing these two groups because on some level the child experienced the abuse by even witnessing repetitive abuse in their household. Although there were differences in the participants’ lives and what kind of abuse they endured, there were some commonalities that Greenhoot et al. found that led them to feel that there were different possibilities as to why some adolescents forgot about previous abuse.

In discussing these findings, Greenhoot et al. suggested three possibilities as to why some adolescents were able to completely forget about the abuse: 1) the trauma-specific amnesia mechanism (Read, 1997; Read & Lindsay, 2000), 2) the formation of a schematic representation of family violence in that they remembered the general acts of violence that seemed less traumatic over those that were less frequent and more severe, or 3) the act of avoiding the topic as a coping mechanism, which could have caused the adolescent to forget key details of their abuse (Williams, 1995).  The idea of a trauma-specific amnesia mechanism refers to our bodies having neurological mechanisms that essentially block memories from reoccurring (Kellogg, 2007). A schematic representation of violence means that we create general categories of events or knowledge, such as violence. Because we think less severe forms of violence occur more often, most people have a schematic representation of these less severe acts when they define violence. People have a bias in what we want to remember (Schacter, 1999). Having this bias allows us to alter what we remember based on what we want to remember and what our current beliefs are on a particular situation. For instance, if these adolescents wanted to believe that they had a pleasant childhood, they may remember the less severe forms of abuse. Future studies will need to examine the question regarding how and why memories of abuse can be forgotten or distorted.  The information that memories can be forgotten even if the event actually took place years ago is very relevant to legal and clinical settings (Greenhoot, et al., 2005). People can forget traumatic events because memory is reconstructive and fragile. People in professions working with abuse victims should understand that memory is malleable is not like a movie that the client can play over and over again. Losing clips of the movie is a possibility for victims of severe abuse and professionals working with them in regards to their abuse should understand that if something had actually occurred years ago, the tape could get old and tarnished along the way so rewinding the tape and playing it again isn’t as smooth as it once was.

References:

Greenhoot, A.F., McCloskey, L., & Gliskey, E. (2005). A longitudinal study of adolescents’ recollections of family violence. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 19, 719-743.

Schacter, D.L. (1999). The seven sins of memory: Insights from psychology and cognitive neuroscience. American Psychologist, 54, 182-203. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.54.3.182

 

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  1. May 9th, 2013 at 18:43 | #1

    just a correction to my last comment. It’s “It was found that if the crime committed “matched” the stereotype of a certain race” rather than “It was found that if the race of a criminal “matched” the stereotype of that race”. Sorry.

  2. May 9th, 2013 at 18:38 | #2

    Rebecca- To answer your question, one study my PS215 group used as a reference examined how racial stereotypes and stereotypical crimes effected blame. It was found that if the race of a criminal “matched” the stereotype of that race (for example a black criminal committing car theft and a white criminal committing embezzlement), then blame increases compared to when the race did not match the crime. In our own PS215 study we had hypothesized that if the type of crime being committed and the location in which it occurred matched, then blame would increase, though our results showed blame to be equal across all conditions. We had included a question about race, hoping participants would use their schemas to fill in the race of the criminal, but so few participants answered that question, the race data couldn’t be analyzed.

  3. April 17th, 2013 at 00:37 | #3

    I find this topic to be very interesting. When reading about the results and possible explanations for such phenomena, I was immediately reminded of Freud’s theory on memory repression. As discussed in our textbook, Freud proposed that the inability to recall such traumatic events is a result of memory suppression that serves as a defense mechanism. Similar to our discussion of memory and its adaptive features, I wonder if such forgetting is advantageous in any way? Could there be a possible survival advantage to forgetting such events? Hence the post title, “Is Forgetting Always a Bad Thing?” I certainly believe that there are a number of benefits to forgetting. I could only imagine how detrimental it would be if we remembered everything, good or bad. It is concerning, however, the ways in which we distort memories, especially of these traumatic events. It may be the case that events, or the severity of events become exaggerated with time, or the reverse, such that the occurrences are minimized. I feel as though this line of research holds critical implications for patient populations, and those seeking therapy for traumatic childhood experiences. I could imagine that not all patients would be receptive of the idea that their memories may have become distorted, in addition, I am certain that there are instances in which the events are recalled quite well, and fairly accurately by individuals. I really enjoyed reading on this topic.

  4. April 8th, 2013 at 13:33 | #4

    Victoria-That is very interesting that the psychologists did not take note between differences in gender, race, religion, etc. All that was mentioned for the demographics was that 52% of the participants were female, but the researchers didn’t comment on their being a difference in recollection of abuse based on gender. I am not 100% sure if I know what you are asking in regards to the generalization of memory, but I will give it a shot! When looking at this article, I was truly shocked that even a small percentage of adolescents couldn’t remember abuse. Of this group, they were participants who had experienced severe forms of abuse so that is in line with the studies that you mentioned relating to cortisol levels and how high levels of cortisol can impact memory. Because the subgroup that couldn’t recall the abuse experienced severe forms of abuse, I don’t believe that abuse can be generalized. Since most participants were able to recall that they had been abused and the abuse was less severe than the ‘forgetting’ patients, I would say that it would not be fair to generalize abuse since adolescents who experienced varying levels of abuse recalled information differently six years later when they were asked about their lives years before. Hope that answers your question and sorry if I went in a completely different direction than you intended!

  5. April 7th, 2013 at 11:52 | #5

    Melissa- That sounds like a very interesting study! May I ask what you are finding in terms of race?

    Jen-
    1. Approximately 34% of participants did not recall any form of abuse occurring six years earlier. Of those adolescents that either repressed or forgot about the abuse, half of them had experienced severe aggression. Children who had personally experienced this abuse were the subset of the participants who were most likely to forget about severe abuse (82%). The psychologists conducted general memory tests and asked for the history of brain trauma and concussions to see whether forgetting about events across the board was an issue for some participants. They found that the participants were not able to recall details or overall non-abusive events in their lives six years ago, such as the death of a family member or moving to a new home. Greenhoot et al. believe that severely traumatic experiences invoke neurological mechanisms, which results in imperfect memories of the abuse. Because of this information, it seems as though repression is not taking place, but actual forgetting is occurring.

    2. Previous research shows that younger children were more likely to forget the abuse (as reviewed by Greenhoot et al., 2005). The older children were also less likely to fail to report any abuse. Researchers believe that this is due to the children having more complete memories at an older age of the abuse they were experiencing. Since the children were more likely to be re-exposed to the abuse the older they were, they were exposed to more memories of abuse. Because of the longer repetition of abuse, they had more events to recall when answering whether or not they had been abused (as reviewed by Greenhoot et al., 2005).

    3. In some cases, the abuse continued after the original interview. 43% of the women had the same partners six years later at the second interview and this factor did influence the recall of abuse. Recent exposure to abuse and agression led to more detailed recollections and less forgetting of the events since they were occurring recently in the child’s life.

    4. Opinions of the abuser also influenced the rate of forgetting. If the mother spoke negatively of the abuser, the adolescent was more likely to remember the abuse since the negative opinion matched the negative acts (s)he was experiencing. The schema that the child had for the abuser was not being altered and the child was less likely to forget about traumatic abuse.

    Also, when looking at the difference between witnessing and experiencing abuse, the children who experienced the abuse were much more likely to accurately recall the abuse than the children who witnessed the abuse. I personally find the terminology strange when dividing these two groups because on some level the child experienced the abuse by even witnessing repetitive abuse in their household.

  6. April 3rd, 2013 at 19:56 | #6

    This is an intriguing article regarding the relationship between abuse and retention of memories! I am curious about the demographics of the study. Were all the participants in the study of the same race, religion, SES? Is there any evidence that memory processes vary because of race, gender, or SES? In Greenhoot et. al’s study, specifically, were there any significant differences in remembering and forgetting of abuse based on gender?
    Elzinga and Roelofs (2005) found evidence that proposes that working memory and long-term memory retrieval mechanisms are hindered in stressful situations. Going off of this finding, Buchanan, Tranel, and Adolphs (2006) conducted a study to explore how impaired memory retrieval corresponds with individual differences in cortisol release. Buchanan et al. found that there are individual differences in how stress-induced cortisol affects memory. In situations where cortisol levels were elevated, impaired memory function was observed. Given the effects that individual differences have on cognitive functions, do you think that memory for abuse can ever truly be generalized?

  7. March 26th, 2013 at 18:29 | #7

    This is interesting and informative in light of the debate on recovered vs. repressed memories. Was there any evidence in support of repression or was it “simply” forgetting?

    I would be curious to know what some of the factors determining remembering vs. forgetting the abuse. For example, were the younger children more likely to forget? Did the abuse end or did it continue after the original interview? Were there any other characteristics of the children’s lives that influenced their memory?

  8. March 26th, 2013 at 15:56 | #8

    I found this really interesting because my group in PS215 is conducting a study involving schemas in the context of memory of criminal activity. The pervious research we’ve looked at also reveals how strong schemas (particularly schemas of racial stereotypes) can be when blaming a perpetrator of a crime. Much like you’ve discussed, memory and opinions of events are malleable when schema inciting context are introduced.

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