Forgetting, distortion, and repression of memories


The purpose of the paper is to link certain aspects of memory into a cohesive explanation of why people forget, distort, and repress memories. The articles mentioned in this paper suggest the people do forget certain memories but there may be a link between what memories a person forgets, what memories become distorted and what memories are repressed. Despite the fact that human memory research dates back to Sigmund Freud's era over a century ago, researchers continue to debate the processes involved in how people retrieve memories into conscious awareness. This paper delves into theories and hypotheses that explain different aspects of memory that can affect a person's wellbeing. Scholar-practitioners in the field of cognitive psychology need to be aware that memories influence actions in today's ever-changing society. Changing actions creates social change.

Memory: Is There a Link Between Forgetting, Distortion, and Repression of Memories?

Cognitive psychologists and neuroscience researchers have proposed theories that explain why people forget, distort, or repress memories. From a historical perspective, Freud's contributions on the topic of memory offered insights into the concept of forgetfulness and repression (Knafo, 2009). According to Knafo, forgetfulness stems from intentionally repressing unwanted memories to avoid emotional distress. Even though forgetfulness may be intentional, unintentional forgetting of memories is frustrating. Forgetfulness can result from retrieval-induced forgetting or contextual differentiation (Lehman & Malmberg, 2009; Storm, Bjork, & Bjork, 2008). Forgetting effects based on the theory of interference can block or distort memories due to emotional distress (Smith & Moynan, 2008). Camp, Pecher, Schmidt, and Zeelenberg (2009) argued that interference theories and inhibition theories create forgetting. Studies by Schneider and Dixon (2009) on the construction of memories indicated that disruptions in the short-term working memory interfere with maintaining memories for later retrieval. In contrast, Fabiani, Low, Wee, Sable, and Gratton (2006) argued that memory decay due to ineffective filtering of sensory information causes forgetfulness. Memory retention can be subject to memory hazards caused by proactive or retroactive interference consequences (Chechile, 2006). Forgetting refers to the failure to retain information of prior events. Even though an individual encodes information properly, some memories are subject to interference or decay during the retrieval processing (Wixted, 2005).

MacLeod and Saunders (2008) linked memory retrieval to memory distortion through an inhibitory induced mechanism. Inhibitions to avoid certain memories induce forgetting which can lead to distorted memories. Memory malfunction affect memory recall (Loftus, 2003). As Renk, Donnelly, McKinney, and Baksh (2007) pointed out, misattribution, suggestibility, and bias effects distort memories. Steffens and Mecklenbruker (2007) argued that memories are reconstructions of schemas of past events. Memory failure distorts the information if encoding processes fail to describe the event with accuracy. False memories of repressed events result in a decline of memory accuracy over time (Brainerd, Reyna, & Ceci, 2008).

Although false memories can be harmless such as misremembering the name of a prior boyfriend, there are sources of harmful false memories. Memories vary in terms of their vividness. Perceptions, contexts, emotions, and cognition can produce familiarity. Fuzzier memories are phantom recollections of events that seem to be accurate but are susceptible to misinformation (Lampien, Meier, Arnal, & Leding, 2005). Brainerd et al. (2008) discussed the shift of false memories over time that leads to misinformation of data. Studies show that misinformation about fuzzy events can lead to suggestibility of eyewitness memories (Brainerd et al., 2008; Steffens & Mecklenbruker, 2007). People who have experienced unpleasant encounters often repress or inhibit their experiences in order to avoid anxiety (Garssen, 2007). McNally, Clancy, Barrett, Parker, Ristuccia, and Perlman (2006) posited that abused children repress their memories in an effort to forget the traumatic event.

Psychologists often question the idea of repressed memories. To address this issue, Rof (2008) focused on clarifying what people remember or forget. People have a tendency to forget trauma. Rof argues that people do remember traumatic experiences but choose to repress such memories as an innate instinct to protect their wellbeing. Garssen (2007) expanded on this concept by investigating the voluntary suppression of negative emotions as a coping mechanism to prevent threats to a person's self-image.

Based on the information provided in the above-mentioned articles, a connection between forgetting, distortion, and repression of memories may explain the intricacies and complexities of memories in everyday life. People do forget certain memories but there may be a link between what memories a person forgets, what memories become distorted and what memories are repressed.


Knafo (2009) contended that Freud's interest in the functioning of memory played an important role in current theories and findings. Freud distinguished forgetfulness from repression by stressing its defensive nature. Repression refers to the banishing of distressing memories from consciousness to avoid emotional distress. According to Knafo, neuroscience research supports Freud's idea of repression. The right frontal lobe prevents painful memories from entering the left hemisphere to be processed and stored (Knafo, 2009). In essence, people want to forget the memories that cause distress. Although such memories are intentionally forgotten or repressed, Lehman and Malmberg (2009) discussed the relationship between intentional and unintentional forgetting.

According to Lehman and Malmberg (2009), free recall is the most frequently memory task that unintentionally frustrate people. The differential rehearsal hypothesis states that changing the encoding procedures through improved rehearsal techniques should enhance recall. However, the inhibition hypothesis in a retrieval-induced forgetting domain affects recall in both unintentionally and intentionally situations. Retrieval-induced forgetting results from a temporary incapability to recall items from memory. Storm et al. (2008) hypothesized that the retrieval strength not the storage strength reduces recall. Intentionally inhibiting items from memory during retrieval creates intentional forgetting of that item while unintentional inhibition of items interferes with the recall of other items. Items in memory have two separate strengths. The storage strength denotes the interconnection between items in memory while the retrieval strength embodies the accessibility of items in memory at any given time and in certain contexts (Storm et al., 2008).

The contextual differentiation hypothesis states that forgetting depends on the changes in the context during encoding. Recall depends on the person's ability to restore appropriate context cues, which reduces forgetting effects (Lehman & Malmberg, 2009). For example, to recall a misplaced item, a person needs to reconstruct a mental representation of the environment in order to recall where he or she placed the item. However, in emotional situations people can block memories of items or events during retrieval to reduce distress (Smith & Moynan, 2008).

Smith and Moynan (2008) hypothesized that there are individual distinctions in vulnerability to forgetting effects. Individuals tend to remember emotional experiences more readily than unemotional events. When given a list of emotional violent words, traumatized individuals experienced unintentional forgetting. Interference and inhibition can invoke long-term forgetting. According to Smith and Moynan, providing appropriate independent cues reverses these effects. Their studies indicated that after giving participants emotionally laden cues, it induced a reversal of forgotten memories (Smith & Moynan, 2008).

To make a distinction between interference and inhibition effects, Camp et al. (2009) hypothesized that recall depends on the relationship between items when competing for retrieval. A competing relationship between items decreases the strength between the cue and target item, which interferes with memory retrieval. Interference in the retrieval of memories decreases retrieval time and creates forgetting. In contrast, inhibition effects are not cue dependent. Forgetting occurs even after the presentation of cues because people can actively control items in memory and can inhibit certain memories from reaching consciousness. Despite the cues used to access items, people forget these memories. Similarly, Schneider and Dixon (2009) argued that disruptions in short-term working memory could impede retrieval of items in memory. Mental representations of complex tasks require individuals to eliminate any distracters during retrieval. These interruption effects symbolize the time needed to restore mental representations of the tasks into short-term memory, which reduces forgetting and increases comprehension. Thus, suggesting the visuospatial cues are important in maintaining retrieval accuracy (Schneider & Dixon, 2009).

In contrast, Fabiani et al. (2006) posited that items in memory decay over time. As people age, their working memory capacity becomes overloaded with information which effects memory. The decay theory emphasizes a reduction in attention control based on complex cognitive performances. Fabiani et al. argued that memory decay is due to a reduction in filtering irrelevant sensory information rather than decline in sensory processing due to age. The ineffective filtering combined with reduced attention control creates problems in the working memory, which in turn increases forgetting. Chechile (2006) expanded on the decay theory by examining memory hazards in retention of information. Decline in memory retention and memory span indicates improper encoding procedures caused by either proactive (before learning) or retroactive (after learning) interference (Chechile, 2006). Wixted (2005) argued that failure to encode novel information induces forgetting.

An alternative explanation for the interference theory and decay theory posited by Wixted (2005) is a lack of memory consolidation. Neuroscience research suggests that memories are susceptible to disruption during consolidation. Damage to the hippocampus causes a failure of new memory to form (anterograde amnesia) or impairs previously formed memories (retrograde amnesia). Wixted hypothesized that memory consolidation after the encoding process is subject to interference based on storage decay and retrieval overload during the retention stage, which may be the cause of forgetfulness. In addition, alcohol and drugs can interfere with the encoding process that prevents memory consolidation by blocking memory formation and inducing forgetting. From a neuroscience research and psychopharmacology perspective, poor memory consolidations and retention can provoke forgetting or memory distortion (Wixted, 2005).

Distorted or False Memories

MacLeod and Saunders (2008) hypothesized that people rely on their memories to solve everyday problems. Because today's social world is constantly changing, people need to update their memories continuously. In order to update memories, individuals have to revise their old memories with new information. However, the problem lies in determining what information is relevant. Redundant information may be necessary to solve future problems. Therefore, there is a need to retain both old and new information. The interrelationship between episodic and semantic content in memory can create problems when accessing prior experiences. The retrieval-induced forgetting mechanism that inhibits unwanted memories from entering consciousness is different from the traditional interference and decay theories. MacLeod and Saunders argued that retrieval inhibition underlies the misinformation paradigm. During the updating process when replacing old memories with new ones, memory distortion can occur (MacLeod & Saunders, 2008). Loftus (2003) studied the effects of distorted memories when recalling prior experiences. Eyewitness informants are susceptible to suggestibility and biases of misinformation.

The misinformation effect can affect memories when questioning informants in a suggestive manner (Loftus, 2003). Misinformation about an actual event can influence a person's perception of that event. Planting false memories of an event exposes individuals to believing something happened when in reality it did not happen. As Loftus pointed out, people's memories are fragile and influenced by their thoughts, by what someone has told them or led them to believe. By reinventing memories, people become the person in their own imagination because their memories have malfunctioned (Loftus, 2003).

Renk et al. (2007) expanded on the memory malfunction occurrence in everyday life that affects a person's ability to recall events. Using Schacter's theory of memory distortion, Renk et al. contended that misattribution, suggestibility, and biases could distort memories. The misattribution effect assigns a memory to an erroneous source or to an event that did not occur. For example, individuals who have a fuzzy recollection of an event may recall facts but misattribute the facts by linking prior experiences together to form a whole picture. Even though the event is easy to recall, it may never have happened. In addition, incorporating suggestions by other people into their memories can distort the facts (Loftus, 2003; Renk et al., 2007). Suggestibility can greatly influence eyewitness testimonies (Loftus, 2003). The questioning of eyewitnesses during an investigation or trial can lead people to believe facts that did not happen by suggestions of misleading information. Misinformation of facts by the media or other biased accounts can influence people into believing something happened (Loftus, 2003). In this situation, bias refers to recall of events that support a person's beliefs.

Renk et al. (2007) discussed various types of biases that distort memories. Consistency biases promote the recall of prior beliefs to be similar to current beliefs. Hindsight biases interconnect current knowledge with past knowledge, which makes people think they knew all along what happened but simply forgot. Egocentric biases use self-enhancing mechanisms to recall prior events. Stereotypical biases manipulate memories and perceptional awareness based on diverse social cultures. The false memory or distorted memory phenomenon suggests that the recall of fuzzy memories is outside the control of conscious memory, which can induce forgotten, distorted or false memories (Steffens & Mecklenbruker, 2007).

Steffens and Mecklenbruker (2007) implied that discrepancies between forgotten memories and recovered memories are debatable. Memories of memorable prior events are more likely to be remembered that memories of traumatic experiences. People store interpretations of ambiguous situations in previously formed schemas. The Fuzzy Trace Theory (FTT) incorporates two memory traces to explain the false memory phenomenon. Verbatim traces refer to the actual physical stimuli while the gist traces puts meaning to the stimuli. Because verbatim traces decline quicker, false memories increase through the gist traces. Memory errors occur when improper encoding procedures do not separate episodic memories from gist information. As a result, memory distortion occurs because the encoding specificity failed to portray an episodic event with accuracy (Steffens & Mecklenbruker, 2007).

Brainerd et al. (2008) believed that false memories are due to a decline in episodic memories. As time passes, events get fuzzier. The FTT measures the accuracy of events by administering recall tests. After giving participants misleading information about an event, they tended to distort their recollection of that event. For example, suggesting that a thief may have worn gloves and a hat elicits the illusion of a thief wearing gloves and a hat when in reality neither item may have been a fact. Brainerd et al. referred to this phenomenon as gist traces that induces perceptual inaccuracies and can lead to wrongful convictions of innocent people.

Lampien et al. (2005) argued that memories vary in content but familiarity of content produces vivid false memories. Content borrowing of similar items can activate perceptions of similarity. If items share similar perceptual contexts, people integrate their perceptions to create new memories that tend to be false. Lampien et al. referred to this experience as phantom recollections of events that borrow content from previous similar perceptions, contexts, emotions, or thoughts. As a result, familiarity produces memory inaccuracies or false memories.

The current trends in the study of distorted or false memories suggest that memories are vulnerable to many mitigating factors. As Steffens and Mecklenbruker (2007) pointed out, research on the reconstructive nature of events stored in memory is mental representations of events and experiences. People use existing schemas as a guide for storage and retrieval of memories. To solve everyday problems, people make inferences about prior experiences and relate those experiences to the current situation (Steffens & Mecklenbruker, 2007). However, if prior experiences caused trauma, Garssen (2007) hypothesized that people tend to repress or inhibit these memories to minimize distress.

Repressed Memories

Repression describes the desire for people to inhibit memories of unpleasant experiences to protect their positive self-image from threat. According to Garssen (2007), repressed memories can be conscious or unconscious avoidance of prior negative emotional occurrences. In some situations, people may be aware they consciously inhibit unwanted memories but empirical research shows most repressed memories are unconscious coping techniques to avoid anxiety. People who use repressive coping styles tend to distort information and make false conclusions (Garssen, 2007). McNally et al. (2006) hypothesized that repressive individuals have trouble in retrieving unpleasant situations such as child abuse. Because these individuals fail to remember specific abusive occurrences but experience related symptoms of abuse, they infer that abuse happened and simply forget the abusive situations. Their findings suggest that people who forget traumatic experiences have more difficulty in accessing memories (McNally et al., 2006).

Although repression of memories has been a debatable topic among psychologists, Rof (2008) argued that repression is a valid concept. Research findings suggest that people are motivated to forget trauma intentionally. As Rof pointed out, intentional forgetting of trauma does not necessarily mean using repressive coping mechanisms but unintentional forgetting is susceptible to defensive coping mechanisms. He contended that repression is a multidimensional component comprised of memory, pathogenic effects, and unconsciousness. Memories of traumatic experiences overwhelm most people and motivate forgetting. As a result, people experience a type of amnesia to deal with trauma. Pathogenic effects focus on the distortions of memories that protect wellbeing. Inhibiting emotions is beneficial to a person's physiological and psychological wellness. Unconsciousness is a powerful cognitive system that protects a person's wellbeing and controls the pathogenic effects of repression (Rof, 2008). Garssen (2007) hypothesized that people do use repressive and defensive mechanisms to deal with unwanted memories. From a conceptual perspective, repression and anxiety defenses are coping strategies people use to prevent psychological harm. Garssen referred to repression as a tendency to act or cope within the environment in a certain manner to protect a person's self-image from harm, thus, supporting the theory that repression may be unconscious techniques to reduce distress.


The current studies presented in this article on memory indicate that there may be a link between forgetting, distortion, and repression of memories. Freud's discoveries revealed the persistent consequence and complexities of memories. Research into theories that explain nature of memories and their role in everyday life have contributed to finding better ways to understanding the relationship between different aspects of memory. Forgotten memories caused by retrieval-induced mechanisms limits memory recall. The interference, inhibition, and decay theories explain blocked memories, which induce forgetting. If prior memories fail to enter consciousness, misinformation of facts may result in memory distortion. Distorted memories or false memories result from the forgotten memories of prior experiences, which people change to fit present situations. The misinformation effect creates memory malfunctions and distorts memories. Inhibiting memories from entering consciousness creates repression. Repressed memories may be memories intentionally forgotten or distorted to relieve anxiety. The evidence presented in this paper provides a possible explanation for the link between forgotten, distorted, and repressed memories. Future studies on what causes memory malfunction may give cognitive psychologists a better understanding of the relationship and implications that different aspects of memory has on problem solving and psychological wellbeing in everyday life. Memories affect actions and changing actions creates social change.


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