By Catherine A. Sanderson, Amherst College
Psychology is a science, and research studies in psychology are carried out using strict scientific procedures. They collect and analyze data about why people think, feel, and behave in particular ways. That is what separates the field of psychology from so-called ‘pseudo-psychology’, like palmistry and reading of horoscopes.
Importance of Using Scientific Processes
The normal human tendency to believe things with little or no empirical evidence can have serious consequences. In some cases, our beliefs can lead us to experience various physical symptoms; stressful thoughts can literally make us sick. Moreover, belief-induced physical symptoms can even spread through entire groups, in what is often referred to as mass hysteria or mass psychogenic illness.
The importance of using standard scientific protocols for conducting research became evident following several high-profile cases in the 1990s when people were convicted of sexual abuse or murder based largely, or even entirely, on so-called ‘recovered memories’. In some cases, the accused were later found to have not actually committed these acts, even when their supposed victims continued to believe that they had done so. So, what happened?
This article comes directly from content in the video series Introduction to Psychology. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
At the time, the prevailing view within the mental health field was that people can repress memories of very difficult experiences and that these memories can later be recovered in therapy. This concept originated with the Austrian psychotherapist Sigmund Freud, whose work was originally seen as groundbreaking in its contributions to psychology, but later criticized and broadly rejected by the psychological community as scientifically invalid.
However, this idea of repressed memories had already permeated popular culture through books, films, and television shows for decades. Clinicians who might have long rejected other aspects of Freud’s conclusions continued to probe clients for ‘repressed’ memories, and clients continued to respond with a firm belief they were remembering real occurrences.
So, many jurors, judges, and law enforcement personnel were willing to accept testimony based on the idea that repressed memory can be recovered.
However, empirical research in psychology provides virtually no evidence for repressed memories. Instead, people who have experienced trauma often find it impossible to forget. They ruminate about the experience, playing through it over and over again in their minds.
So, how do people come to believe that they remember things that did not actually happen? Starting in the early 1990s, cognitive psychologist Elizabeth Loftus began examining whether it was possible to implant false memories, through techniques used at the time by some therapists and in some self-help books.
Her work provided clear evidence that it’s surprisingly easy to unintentionally create these false memories. When people are repeatedly questioned about a particular topic, that questioning can in fact lead people to generate memories of an experience they didn’t have.
So, if therapists believe that their clients may have been the victim of abuse, their repeated questioning about such a hypothetical experience could over time persuade clients that they are the victims of abuse, even when no such abuse occurred.
False Recollection of Events
Some therapists also may have described the feelings associated with abuse in a very general and vague way. If their patients identify with the feelings, they may in turn start to falsely recollect such experiences. Here’s an example of the type of characteristics that a therapist might suggestively present to a client as traits that exist in families where abuse takes place:
“There were things I couldn’t talk about. I felt ashamed of my family. Along with bad things, there was a lot of good in my family. Things were chaotic and unpredictable in my household. There were a lot of broken promises. I’m not sure if I was abused, but when I hear about sexual abuse and its effects, it all sounds creepy and familiar.”
However, virtually all of these are things that are common in most families, not just in families with abuse. So, when a therapist suggests that these widespread characteristics are signs of abuse, people may, over time, wrongly come to believe that their widely shared experiences may actually have been signs of abuse in their own experience. Thus, the therapists were unwittingly creating abuse memories.
These beliefs can have substantial consequences, not just in therapy, but in other settings. Police detectives, for example, may lead eyewitnesses or even victims of a crime to remember something that did not occur, based on repeated questioning.
This is why empirical research in psychology is so important; to help identify how well-intentioned people—therapists and police detectives—can elicit inaccurate information, and to develop standard protocols to make sure witnesses are not mistakenly encouraged or pressured to give testimony that turns out to be false.
Common Questions about the Importance of Empirical Research in Psychology
The Austrian psychotherapist Sigmund Freud believed that people can repress memories of very difficult experiences and that these memories can later be recovered in therapy. While his work was originally seen as groundbreaking in its contributions to psychology, it was later criticized and broadly rejected by the psychological community as scientifically invalid.
The work of Elizabeth Loftus provided clear evidence that it’s surprisingly easy to unintentionally create false memories. When people are repeatedly questioned about a particular topic, that questioning can lead people to generate memories of an experience they didn’t have.
Empirical research in psychology is very important. Firstly, it helps to identify how well-intentioned people, like therapists and police detectives, can elicit inaccurate information. Secondly, it helps to develop standard protocols to make sure witnesses are not mistakenly encouraged or pressured to give testimony that turns out to be false.