False memories can be generated by family members, police interview tactics or in therapeutic settings. Some popular psychological treatments, particularly “psychoanalysis” and “regression therapy,” are particularly problematic.
In the 1980s and 1990s the world erupted into what was referred to as the Satanic Panic because therapists were sending their patients home with memories of horrendous things, like childhood sexual abuse. The therapists, not fully understanding how flexible our memories are, thought they had uncovered real traumatic events that could explain the mental problems from which their patients were suffering.
However, as it turned out, many therapists had unintentionally implanted false memories into their patients. The therapists had used a problematic mix of assumptions about their clients’ pasts (that there must be trauma to explain the psychosis) and imagination exercises, whereby they asked the patients to picture what it could have been like to be abused. Repeated over many weeks, and with the therapist reinforcing any details the patients generated, these memories had the chance to grow into monsters.
The same kinds of techniques that can allow therapists to implant false memories are also relevant for friends, family and the police. Mistaking imagination for memory can happen quickly and unknowingly.
We should be very cautious when other people try to convince us of their version of reality. If we aren’t careful, their version of reality might become ours.