There are many types of psychological interventions, sometimes known as ‘talking therapies’. It is by no means inevitable that a competently delivered form of psychological therapy will necessarily create confabulated memories. However, in order to comment as to whether a particular therapeutic intervention has the potential to create confabulated memories, it is necessary to consider both the style of therapy and the details of the ways in which the individual therapist delivered that therapy.
In relation to the potential for any therapeutic intervention to create a confabulated memory, the devil is in the details.
For completeness, I will add that the potential for confabulation as a result of therapeutic intervention probably arises for no better reason than the fact that talking therapy typically involves an intense interpersonal relationship between therapist and client focused upon specific problems in the client’s life and sometimes the reasons for those problems. In other words, although therapeutic interventions have a high potential to create confabulated memories, the fact of the matter is that any such conversation, interview, or discussion has this potential, and ‘talking therapy’ is merely a special case of this type of interaction.
Another set of circumstances that has been associated with the creation of confabulated memories is the investigating process itself, particularly the methods of interviewing used by, for example, the police. Such issues as interviewer expectations, specific types of questions (particularly leading questions), summaries that confirm interviewer expectations and omit or deny contrary information provided by witnesses, etc. are all things that have the potential to pollute memory.
There is a standard protocol for interviewing vulnerable witnesses and in particular those who report sexual offences. This protocol is called Achieving Best Evidence (ABE). In order to conduct an effective ABE interview, a police officer will have been specially trained to allow the person making the allegation to do so in her or his own words and to avoid putting words into the alleged victim’s mouth (which may well have the potential to create a confabulated memory).
As a part of my expert witness work I have watched many recordings of ABE interviews, and I can say that although historically it was certainly not the case, the standard of ABE interviewing seems to have improved in recent years. As with any area of professional activity, some people engage in it far more successfully than others. However, it is not only the ABE interview that has the potential to create a confabulated memory: it is any conversation about the alleged events. This is one of the reasons why other professionals not directly involved in the investigative process are required to report an allegation to the police at the earliest opportunity without discussing the allegation in detail with the alleged victim. The reader will understand that we are now in an area that we are far less able to control than a formal interview. In my experience an alleged victim, having made the initial allegation, is likely to repeat the story time and time again to others, with each repetition having the potential to create a false memory.
Once again, there is a plethora of research that demonstrates how a process of formal investigation has at least the potential to corrupt the memories of alleged victims.
Psychologists and psychological counsellors have over a number of years come under criticism in cases in which confabulated memories have been demonstrated to have occurred as a result of psychological therapy. Although a well trained and experienced therapist will do her or his best to avoid encouraging confabulation of memory, in my opinion much of the criticism is not justified. I say this simply because the therapeutic process is an entirely different process from a forensic investigation.
In therapy one is less concerned with the accurate detail of a person’s experience than the feelings the client or patient reports that may or may not be associated with a specific event she is describing. In order to assist a patient or client with emotional turmoil it is often a necessary part of a psychological counsellor’s technique to go over the same material time and time again. As the research referred to above notes, such a technique has significant potential for creating a confabulated memory.
Also, the ‘atmospherics’ of a therapeutic session are such that the therapist provides validation for the client’s or patient’s reported experiences without any attempt to challenge the details.
Put at its crudest, I think it would be reasonable to say that in a therapeutic situation that even if one suspected that the details being reported were not entirely accurate, as a psychologist one would be more concerned with dealing with the feelings associated with the recollection than one would be with the veracity of the details of that recollection.