Elizabeth Loftus titled one of her books “The Myth of Repressed Memory,” yet within its pages, Loftus says that scholars concur that repression is a frequent response to trauma. 1 Loftus’ self-contradiction intrigues me.
Loftus’ “lost in a shopping mall” experiment has repeatedly been offered as proof that thousands of therapists have implanted untrue memories of childhood abuse into the mind of unsuspecting and vulnerable clients.
Let’s examine this theory.
The shopping mall test began when a father asked his eight-year old child if she remembered being lost in a shopping mall when she was five. The question had been a lie because the incident did not take place. At first the girl correctly remembered that it did not happen and she continued to look perplexed when prompted by her father.
The girl seemed embarrassed and asked her father how he expected her to remember the event. As the father continued to lie to his daughter (even making up specific details about the non-existent occurrence) the girl finally began to ‘remember.’ She said “Oh yea, I guess I do remember that.”
The eight year-old then incorporated her own idea of what happened by saying that she looked all over for her father. She even gave in to her father’s insistence that she had been afraid. 2
Yet notice the child’s use of the words “I guess” in her statement above. She was obviously not having a false memory implanted, but merely trying to appease her father. She probably even consciously made up her answers in order to get through a confusing conversation with him. It is highly possible that she went along with what her father was saying but never really believed any of it. The child might have been wondering why her father was so muddled.
The differences between this experiment and the cases of memories which involve on-going rape and extreme child sexual abuse are dramatic. The shopping mall experiment concerned a small child who was lied to by her own parent about a relatively common experience; and it was not a traumatic one.
Children do not develop PTSD from being lost in a mall for a few minutes. When trauma is experienced there is usually a powerful emotional wounding or physical injury which results in mental or behavioral changes lasting weeks, months, or years. Trauma usually involves some kind of serious, life-altering, threat (or implied threat) on the life or physical safety of the victim.
Children have a profound need for approval by their parents and the child most likely agreed to the shopping mall lie for that reason.
The Loftus experiment strongly suggests that a number of people who retract memories of sexual abuse have done so out of a deep need to placate their parents, or siblings, and to win their family’s approval and love, and not because the memories were false.
Loftus brings up another incident where an eight year-old child made up a story of a kind old woman giving her a cookie and balloon bouquet. A reasonable person cannot make a comparison between a pleasant memory of cookies, balloons, and a nice elderly woman –to an educated adult woman somehow falsely remembering a history of being raped, choked, and orally violated by her father. 3
It is erroneous and misleading to compare normal memory with traumatic memory. 4 Lost in a Lost in a Shopping Mall: A Breach of Professional Ethics is an excellent source for further reading on the shopping mall experiment. 5