The recovered memory debate: wins, losses, and creating future open-minded skeptics

Lawrence Patihis, Henry Otgaar, Steven Jay Lynn, Elizabeth Loftus, Richard J. McNally

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter (peer-reviewed)peer-review


Scott O. Lilienfeld was among the most influential clinical psychological scientists, avid promoters of psychological science, and stalwart and effective critics of pseudoscience in our time. We describe the role that Lilienfeld and other skeptical scientists played in the so-called “memory wars” that spanned more than three decades and continue to the present time. We outline the salient wins and losses for scientific skepticism in this debate regarding repressed and recovered memories of trauma, and we highlight the need for open, unfettered scientific inquiry, and free speech in academia and the broader psychological community. Such safeguards are vital for encouraging both young and established psychological scientists’ willingness to tackle controversial topics including dissociative amnesia and repressed memories. Wins include widespread dissemination of cautions regarding repressed and recovered memories and positive changes in clinical practices, whereas losses include the uncritical inclusion of dissociative amnesia and dissociative identity disorder in influential diagnostic manuals, the motte-and-bailey technique to undermine skeptical perspectives, uncritical presentations regarding repressed memories in scientific journals, and non-scientific and problematic media coverage relevant to the debate. Losses imply an ongoing need to encourage the open-minded skepticism, intellectual courage, and epistemic humility that Scott exemplified, and to ensure adequate funding for work that deeply questions unexamined assumptions and controversial issues in psychology.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationIn Toward a Science of Clinical Psychology: A Tribute to the Life and Works of Scott O. Lilienfeld
EditorsCory L. Cobb, Steven Jay Lynn, William O'Donohue
Number of pages18
ISBN (Electronic)9783031143328
ISBN (Print)9783031143311, 9783031143342
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2023

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