Although skepticism about repressed traumatic memories has increased over time, researchers discovered a difference continues to exist about whether such memories occur and whether they can be accurately retrieved.
The findings are published in Psychological Science.
“Whether repressed memories are accurate or not, and whether they should be pursued by therapists, or not, is probably the single most practically important topic in clinical psychology since the days of Freud and the hypnotists who came before him,” says researcher Lawrence Patihis of the University of California, Irvine.
According to Patihis, the new findings suggest that there remains a “serious split in the field of psychology in beliefs about how memory works.”
Controversy surrounding the debate over repressed memory — sometimes referred to as the “memory wars” — has gone on for a good 20 years.
While some believed that traumatic memories could be repressed for years only to be recovered later in therapy, others questioned the concept, noting a lack of scientific evidence in support of repressed memory.
In the new study, Patihis and colleagues wanted to investigate whether and how beliefs about memory may have changed since the 1990s.
To find out, the researchers recruited practicing clinicians and psychotherapists, research psychologists, and alternative therapists to complete an online survey.
They discovered that mainstream psychotherapists and clinical psychologists are more skeptical about recovered memories and more cautious about trying to recover repressed memories than they were 20 years ago.
Nevertheless, there is still a clear gap as 60-80 percent of clinicians, psychoanalysts, and therapists agreed (to some extent) that traumatic memories are often repressed and can be retrieved in therapy.
But less than 30 percent of research-oriented psychologists believe the concept is valid.
Furthermore, researchers also discovered belief in repressed memory is still prevalent among the general public.
This marked divide, with researchers on the one hand and clinicians and the public on the other, is worrying because of the implications it has for clinical practice and for the judicial system.
“Therapists who believe that traumatic memories can be repressed may develop treatment plans that differ dramatically from those developed by practitioners who do not hold this belief. In the courtroom, beliefs about memory often determine whether repressed-memory testimony is admitted into evidence,” the researchers write.
Patihis and colleagues propose that tailoring the education of the next generation of researchers and practitioners may be an effective way to narrow the gap.
“Broader dissemination of basic and applied memory research within graduate programs in clinical psychology and training programs in other mental-health professions may be a helpful step, although research will be needed to determine the effectiveness of this approach for narrowing the research-practice gap,” the researchers conclude.