False Memory Syndrome sometimes occurs in Parental Alienation Syndrome. Difficult for many to comprehend, false memory syndrome has been documented in an award-winning book Jeopardy in the Courtroom, published by the American Psychological Association and written by Dr. Stephen Ceci and Dr. Maggie Bruck. Jeopardy in the Courtroom describes studies that reveal how repeated questioning and interviewing of children can lead to false memories and false allegations.
In one study children were asked repeatedly to think about whether events (that had actually never happened to them) had happened – for example, getting their finger caught in a mousetrap and going to the hospital to remove the trap. After ten sessions of repeated questioning, more than half the children told false stories about such events. In fact, their stories were so embellished with details that experts could not distinguish real events from those that were not. Even after researchers told the children that the events had not really happened, many of them continued to insist that they remembered the fictitious events.
John Stossel interviewed some of these children for the ABC’s 20/20. When Stossel asked one four-year-old-boy boy whether he had ever gotten his finger caught in a mousetrap, the child said he remembered and gave an embellished account of the event. Stossel reminded the boy that his parents, who were there beside him, were saying that such an event had never happened. But the boy protested, “It really did happen. I remember it!”
In another study, a man named “Sam Stone” visited preschoolers. He said hello, walked around the classroom for two minutes, touched nothing, and then said good-bye. During the next ten weeks, the children were interviewed four times and asked to describe Sam Stone’s visit. One month following those ten weeks, another adult interviewed the children. The adult asked about two events, which had not actually occurred. “Did Sam Stone do anything to a book or a teddy bear?” The investigators produced false reports about Sam Stone by previously bad-mouthing Sam Stone and by asking the children leading questions.
They had bad-mouthed Sam Stone about his being clumsy before his visit to the classroom. For example:
- You’ll never guess who visited me last night. [pause] That’s right. Sam Stone! And guess what he did this time? He asked to borrow my Barbie and when he was carrying her down the stairs, he tripped and fell and broke her arm. That Sam Stone is always getting into accidents and breaking things!
The day after Sam Stone’s visit, the children were shown a soiled teddy bear that had actually been absent from the room during Sam’s visit. They were asked if they knew how the teddy bear had been soiled. They were given leading questions such as the following: “Remember that time Sam Stone visited Sarar classroom and spilled chocolate on that white teddy bear? Did he do it on purpose or was it an accident?”
About three months after Sam’s visit, an amazing 72 percent of the youngest preschoolers falsely remembered Sam making a mess. They embellished their stories with additional details, such as seeing Sam Stone buying chocolate ice cream. These children fooled specialists who interview children for purposes of criminal investigations and who treat child victims of abuse. The experts watched videotaped interviews of the children and were confident in their judgments. But the experts were wrong. In fact, the very children they rated as most accurate were the children who were least accurate.
Jeopardy in the Courtroom reveals how children can be manipulated to give false, but convincing negative reports about a parent. Instilling false beliefs can be a form of child abuse. For example, a child who believes that he or she has been sexually abused can develop sexual problems as though he or she has actually been abused. As adults, their view of sexuality will likely be damaged. Their trust in close relationships will probably be impaired.
Ceci, Stephen and Bruck Maggie: Jeopardy in the Courtroom: A Scientific Analysis of Children’s Testimony, 1995, American Psychological Association