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Ethical Issues in False Memories
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In the last section, we discussed how false memories
may be generated and several ethical dilemmas to keep in mind when you suspect
a client may be under the influence of a false memory.
section, we will examine ethical dilemmas that occur when determining whether or
not a client has fabricated a memory.
5 Ethical Dilemmas
♦ Dilemma #1 - Fallacies of the
One dilemma inherent in false memory generation is the client's
unwavering belief in the memory itself. Consciously, they are not lying, but relating
memories. The memories themselves, however, may be false and lead to the client
to draw false conclusions.
One such client, Marie age 33,
was the first to suggest she might have been molested as a child. Marie went through
three therapists, who all were convinced of her childhood abuse. Marie recalled
wanting to bite down and clench her teeth. Soon her entire body was reacting:
first, a few of her limbs would go numb, and soon she felt a heavy weight on her
chest. One of her therapists diagnosed her as going through post traumatic stress
Interestingly enough, before feeling these symptoms of depression and
bodily reactions, Marie had experienced a miscarriage. However, once the idea
that sexual abuse was introduced, the possibility that the miscarriage was responsible
for her post-traumatic stress took a secondary emphasis and repressed childhood
sexual abuse was immediately focused upon.
Think of a client you are currently
treating and the directional role you take in your sessions. Could you be violating
an ethical boundary by being too directive?
♦ Dilemma #2 - Misconceptions
about Functions of the Brain
In addition to the dilemma created by a client's
unwavering belief in the memory itself, a second dilemma arises when we consider
the belief that the brain remembers every single experience to ever happen to
a person. Contrary to this belief, according to Bartlett the brain does not function
in such a manner.
Bartlett, a memory researcher, states that the widely held
view of this kind must be discarded. He states that remembering is "an imaginative
reconstruction, or construction, built out of the relation of our attitude toward
a whole active mass of organized past reactions or experience." When considered
this way, the idea that all memories are infallibly recorded is disproved.
♦ Dilemma #3
- Recovered Memories Highly Colored by Emotions
A third dilemma to take into
account is the fact that your client's versions of his or her personal past are
highly colored by their emotions and family myths, as you are well aware. After
recalling a significant memory of her childhood, Sue admitted that her memory
was faulty. She stated, "My sister Liddie says it's her memory; One that
she told me later. But it seemed so clear to me, like a picture, I could have
sworn this was exactly what happened." Sue's memory was unknowingly influenced
by her sister's story. As you can see, any client could be manipulated by outside
♦ Dilemma #4 - Memories Can be Changed by Current Beliefs
in addition to unwavering beliefs - the belief that the brain remembers every experience -
and manipulation by outside stimuli, as you may already know, many clients who can
rewrite their past to make the events match their current attitudes and opinions.
Memories live with interests and change with them. Have you ever considered that
clients might be internal novelists?
In order to give life purpose, it is possible
to reshape the past to fit to currently held beliefs. So could it be possible
that your clients, who have the idea of sexual abuse in their head, could shape
their memories to fit identified maladaptive behaviors? In this way, they can
explain their symptoms with relatively little invasive therapy. A quick solution
means sparing oneself the hardship of more therapy.
ethical tightrope to walk here is how can you manifest client self-determination
in a session given the information above regarding client's possible faulty, unwavering beliefs; the belief that the brain remembers every experience; manipulations your
client's may have experienced by outside stimuli; as well as your client's conscious
or unconscious efforts to rewrite their past based on their current attitudes
and opinions. It's sort of like trying to build a house on quicksand with no stable
supports and very shifting conditions.
Have you ever had the
compulsion if even just for an instant to terminate a client whom you feel has
been blatantly and intentionally misrepresenting facts during the session?
♦ Dilemma #5
- Consulting with Colleagues
These fleeting thoughts, or perhaps not so fleeting,
may occur to you, especially in the case of a sexually abused client, where the
stakes are extremely high, for example, jail terms and custody rights. Have you
ever felt that you have been duped, manipulated, or have been used as a pawn between
dueling parents over custody with perhaps false accusations of sexual misconduct
with the child? Perhaps it hasn't happened to you yet, but if it is discovered
that your client has fabricating their stories, especially when months of therapy
have already gone by, let's talk about the specifics of client abandonment.
you are most probably aware, by terminating the client you may be violating the
client-therapist bond by not doing all in your power to repair the relationship.
Professional codes of ethics states, "The therapist should take reasonable
steps to avoid abandoning clients who are still in need of services. The therapist
should withdraw services with caution only under unusual circumstances, giving
careful consideration to all factors in the situation and taking care to minimize
possible adverse effects." It goes without saying, if you should abandon the client prematurely, this could result in a relapse in symptoms. This could
also lead to allegations of abandonment.
Seven Criteria to Keep in
Mind before Terminating Services
If you are considering terminating
services with a client, for whatever reason here are seven criteria to keep in
Criteria #1 - Consult with colleagues and supervisors about a decision to terminate
services. In some cases, termination can be prevented by addressing relevant issues.
Criteria #2 - Give as much advance warning as possible to clients who will be terminated.
Criteria #3 - Provide clients with the names, addresses, and telephone numbers of at least tree
appropriate referrals when it is necessary to terminate services.
Criteria #4 - When clients
announce their decision to terminate prematurely, explain to them the risks involved
and offer suggestions for alternative services.
Criteria #5 - Follow up with a client
who had been terminated. If he or she does not go to the referral, write a letter
to the client about the risks involved should she or he not follow through with
Criteria #6 - Provide clients with clear instructions to follow and telephone
numbers to use in case of emergency. Include a copy of these instructions in their
case records. Ask clients to sign this copy, indicating that they received the
instructions and the instructions were explained to them.
Criteria #7 - Carefully document
in the case record all decisions and actions related to termination of services.
In this section, we discussed dilemmas in determining whether
or not a client has fabricated a memory, as well as seven ethical points to consider
when terminating a client.
In the next section, we will examine
the various sides of the argument regarding repressive memories.
Peer-Reviewed Journal Article References:
Montgomery, N. V., & Rajagopal, P. (2018). Motivated reconstruction: The effect of brand commitment on false memories. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 24(2), 159–179.
Patihis, L., Frenda, S. J., & Loftus, E. F. (2018). False memory tasks do not reliably predict other false memories. Psychology of Consciousness: Theory, Research, and Practice, 5(2), 140–160.
Smith, R. D., Holmberg, J., & Cornish, J. E. (2019). Psychotherapy in the #MeToo era: Ethical issues. Psychotherapy, 56(4), 483–490.
What are four factors contributing to you client's creation of a false
memory? To select and enter your answer go to .