Memory & Cognition

, Volume 42, Issue 1, pp 151–163 | Cite as

Memory for child sexual abuse information: Simulated memory error and individual differences

  • Kelly McWilliams
  • Gail S. Goodman
  • Kristen E. Lyons
  • Jeremy Newton
  • Elizabeth Avila-Mora


Building on the simulated-amnesia work of Christianson and Bylin (Applied Cognitive Psychology, 13, 495–511, 1999), the present research introduces a new paradigm for the scientific study of memory of childhood sexual abuse information. In Session 1, participants mentally took the part of an abuse victim as they read an account of the sexual assault of a 7-year-old. After reading the narrative, participants were randomly assigned to one of four experimental conditions: They (1) rehearsed the story truthfully (truth group), (2) left out the abuse details of the story (omission group), (3) lied about the abuse details to indicate that no abuse had occurred (commission group), or (4) did not recall the story during Session 1 (no-rehearsal group). One week later, participants returned for Session 2 and were asked to truthfully recall the narrative. The results indicated that, relative to truthful recall, untruthful recall or no rehearsal at Session 1 adversely affected memory performance at Session 2. However, untruthful recall resulted in better memory than did no rehearsal. Moreover, gender, PTSD symptoms, depression, adult attachment, and sexual abuse history significantly predicted memory for the childhood sexual abuse scenario. Implications for theory and application are discussed.


Individual differences Memory Child sexual abuse Eyewitness testimony 


Author note

This research was supported by the National Science Foundation (Grant No. 0004369). Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. We thank Joel Johnson, Simona Ghetti, and Andrew Yonelinas for their comments. Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Dr. Gail S. Goodman, Department of Psychology, University of California, 1 Shields Avenue, Davis, CA 95616 (ggoodman@


  1. Alexander, K. W., Quas, J. A., Goodman, G. S., Ghetti, S., Edelstein, R. S., Redlich, A. D., . . . Jones, D. P. H. (2005). Traumatic impact predicts long-term memory for documented child sexual abuse. Psychological Science, 16, 33–40.Google Scholar
  2. Anderson, M. C., & Green, C. (2001). Suppressing unwanted memories by executive control. Nature, 410, 366–369.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Basso, M. R., Lowery, N., Ghormley, C., Combs, D., Purdie, R., Neel, J., . . . Bornstein, R. (2007). Comorbid anxiety corresponds with neuropsychological dysfunction in unipolar depression. Cognitive Neuropsychiatry, 12, 437–456.Google Scholar
  4. Bernstein, E. M., & Putnam, F. W. (1986). Development, reliability, and validity of a dissociation scale. The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 174, 727–735.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Bjorklund, D. F. (2004). Children’s thinking: Cognitive development and individual differences. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.Google Scholar
  6. Block, S. D., Greenberg, S., & Goodman, G. S. (2009). Remembrance of victim testimony: Effects of emotional content, relevance, and tone. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 9, 2859–2878.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Bottoms, B. L. (1993). Individual differences in perceptions of child sexual assault victims. In G. S. Goodman & B. L. Bottoms (Eds.), Child victims, child witnesses: Understanding and improving testimony (pp. 229–261). New York, NY: Guilford Press.Google Scholar
  8. Bowlby, J. (1980). Attachment and loss. New York, NY: Basic Books.Google Scholar
  9. Bremner, J. D., Kihlstrom, J. F., & Shobe, K. K. (2000). False memories in women with self-reported childhood sexual abuse. Psychological Science, 11, 333–337.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Brewin, C. R., Huntley, Z., & Whalley, M. G. (2012). Source memory errors associated with reports of posttraumatic flashbacks: A proof of concept study. Cognition, 124, 234–238. doi: 10.1016/j.cognition.2012.05.002 PubMedCentralPubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Bylin, S., & Christianson, S. A. (2002). Characteristics of malingered amnesia: Consequence of withholding vs. distorting information on later memory of a crime event. Legal and Criminological Psychology, 7, 45–61.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Canli, T., Desmond, J. E., Zhao, Z., & Gabrieli, J. D. E. (2002). Sex differences in the neural basis of emotional memories. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 99, 10789–10794. doi: 10.1073/pnas.162356599 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Chae, Y., Ogle, C. M., & Goodman, G. S. (2009). Remembering negative childhood experiences. In J. A. Quas & R. Fivush (Eds.), Emotion and memory in development: Biological, cognitive, and social considerations (pp. 2–27). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  14. Chan, J. C. K. (2010). Long-term effects of testing on the recall of nontested materials. Memory, 18, 49–57.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Christianson, S. Å., & Bylin, S. (1999). Does simulating amnesia mediate genuine forgetting for a crime event? Applied Cognitive Psychology, 13, 495–511.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Edelstein, R. S., Ghetti, S., Quas, J. A., Goodman, G. S., Alexander, K. W., Redlich, A. D., & Cordon, I. M. (2005). Individual differences in emotional memory: Adult attachment and long-term memory for child sexual abuse. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 31, 1537–1548.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Eisen, M. L., Qin, J., Goodman, G. S., & Davis, S. L. (2002). Memory and suggestibility in maltreated children: Age, stress, arousal, dissociation, and psychopathology. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 83, 167–212.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Fazio, L. K., Agarwal, P. K., Marsh, E. J., & Roediger, H. L., III. (2010). Memorial consequences of multiple-choice testing on immediate and delayed tests. Memory & Cognition, 38, 407–418. doi: 10.3758/MC.38.4.407 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Foa, E. B., Cashman, L., Jaycox, L., & Perry, K. (1997). The validation of a self-report measure of posttraumatic stress disorder: The Posttraumatic Diagnostic Scale. Psychological Assessment, 9, 445–451.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Freud, S. (1896). The aetiology of hysteria. In J. Strachey (Ed. & Trans.), The standard edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud (Vol. 3, pp. 189–221). London, UK: Hogarth Press.Google Scholar
  21. Freyd, P. (1996). False memory syndrome. The British Journal of Psychiatry, 169, 794–795.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Galletly, C., Clark, C. R., McFarlane, A. C., & Weber, D. L. (2001). Working memory in posttraumatic stress disorder—an event-related potential study. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 14, 295–309.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Goodman, G. S., Ghetti, S., Quas, J. A., Edelstein, R. S., Alexander, K. W., Redlich, A. D., . . . Jones, D. (2003). A prospective study of memory for child sexual abuse. Psychological Science, 14, 113–118.Google Scholar
  24. Goodman, G. S., Ogle, C. M., Block, S. D., Harris, L. S., Larson, R. P., Augusti, E. M., . . . Urquiza, A. (2011). False memory for trauma-related Deese–Roediger–McDermott lists in adolescents and adults with histories of child sexual abuse. Development and Psychopathology, 23, 423–438.Google Scholar
  25. Giesbrecht, T., Lynn, S. J., Lilienfeld, S. O., & Merckelbach, H. (2008). Cognitive processes in dissociation: An analysis of core theoretical assumptions. Psychological Bulletin, 134, 617–647. doi: 10.1037/0033-2909.134.5.617 PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Hertel, P. T. (2000). The cognitive-initiative account of depression-related impairment in memory. In D. Medin (Ed.), The psychology of learning and motivation, vol. 39 (pp. 47–71). San Diego, CA: Academic Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Hyman, I. E., Jr., & Billings, F. J. (1998). Individual differences and the creation of false childhood memories. Memory, 6, 1–20.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Johnson, M. K., Hashtroudi, S., & Lindsay, D. S. (1993). Source monitoring. Psychological Bulletin, 114, 3–28. doi: 10.1037/0033-2909.114.1.3 PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Kirsch-Rosenkrantz, J., & Geer, J. (1991). Gender differences in memory for a sexual story. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 20, 295–305.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Kopelman, M. D. (1995). The assessment of psychogenic amnesia. In A. D. Baddeley, B. A. Wilson, & F. N. Watts (Eds.), Handbook of memory disorders (pp. 427–448). New York, NY: Wiley.Google Scholar
  31. Leander, L., Christianson, S. Å., & Granhag, P. A. (2007). Children’s memories and reports: A sexual abuse case study. Psychiatry, Psychology and Law, 14, 120–129.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Loftus, E. F., & Ketcham, K. (1994). The myth of repressed memory: False memories and allegations of sexual abuse. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press.Google Scholar
  33. Loftus, E. F., Miller, D. G., & Burns, H. J. (1978). Semantic integration of verbal information into a visual memory. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Learning and Memory, 4, 19–31. doi: 10.1037/0278-7393.4.1.19 Google Scholar
  34. McNally, R. J. (1998). Experimental approaches to cognitive abnormality in posttraumatic stress disorder. Clinical Psychological Review, 18, 971–982.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. McNally, R. (2003). Remembering trauma. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  36. Melinder, A., Alexander, K., Cho, Y., Goodman, G. S., Thoresen, C., & Lonnum, K. (2010). Children’s eyewitness memory: A comparison of two interviewing strategies as realized by forensic professionals. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 105, 157–177.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Mikulincer, M., & Orbach, I. (1995). Attachment styles and repressive defensiveness: The accessibility and architecture of affective memories. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 68, 917–925.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Mikulincer, M., & Shaver, P. R. (2007). Attachment in adulthood: Structure, dynamics, and change. New York, NY: Guilford Press.Google Scholar
  39. Mogg, K., Mathews, A., & Weinman, J. (1987). Memory bias in clinical anxiety. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 96, 94–98. doi: 10.1037/0021-843X.96.2.94 PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Nairne, J. S., & Pandeirada, J. N. S. (2008). Adaptive memory: Is survival processing special? Journal of Memory and Language, 59, 377–385. doi: 10.1016/j.jml.2008.06.001 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Pipe, M.-E., Lamb, M. E., Orbach, Y., & Cederborg, A.-C. (Eds.). (2007). Child sexual abuse: Disclosure, delay and denial. Mahwah NJ: Erlbaum.Google Scholar
  42. Quas, J. A., Goodman, G. S., & Jones, D. P. H. (2003). Predictors of attributions of self-blame and internalizing behavior problems in sexually abused children. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 44, 723–736.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Radloff, L. S. (1977). The CES-D scale: A self-report depression scale for research in the general population. Applied Psychological Measurement, 1, 385–401.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Roosa, M. W., Reinholtz, C., & Angelini, P. J. (1999). The relation of child sexual abuse and depression in young women: Comparisons across four ethnic groups. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 27, 65–76.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  45. Simpson, J. A., Rholes, W. S., & Winterheld, H. A. (2010). Attachment working models twist memories of relationship events. Psychological Science, 21, 252–259.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Sun, X., Punjabi, P. V., Greenberg, L. T., & Seamon, J. G. (2009). Does feigning amnesia impair subsequent recall? Memory & Cognition, 37, 81–89.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Terr, L. (1994). Unchained memories. New York, NY: Basic Books.Google Scholar
  48. Van Oorsouw, K., & Merckelbach, H. (2004). Feigning amnesia undermines memory for a mock crime. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 18, 505–518.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Vrana, S. R., Roodman, A., & Beckham, J. C. (1995). Selective processing of trauma-relevant words in posttraumatic stress disorder. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 9, 515–530.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Widom, C. S., & Morris, S. (1997). Accuracy of adult recollections of childhood victimization, part 2: Childhood sexual abuse. Psychological Assessment, 9, 34–46.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Williams, L. M. (1994). Recall of childhood trauma: A prospective study of women’s memories of child sexual abuse. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 62, 1167–1176.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Wilson, C. L., Simpson, J. A., & Smith, S. M. (2005, January). Attachment and false memory: Linking working models and memory mistakes. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, New Orleans, LA.Google Scholar
  53. Windmann, S., & Krüger, T. (1998). Subconscious detection of threat as reflected by an enhanced response bias. Consciousness and Cognition, 7, 603–633. doi: 10.1006/ccog.1998.0337 PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Zoellner, L. A., Foa, E. B., Brigidi, B. D., & Przeworski, A. (2000). Are trauma victims susceptible to “false memories?”. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 109, 517–524.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  • Kelly McWilliams
    • 1
  • Gail S. Goodman
    • 1
  • Kristen E. Lyons
    • 2
  • Jeremy Newton
    • 3
  • Elizabeth Avila-Mora
    • 4
  1. 1.Department of PsychologyUniversity of CaliforniaDavisUSA
  2. 2.University of MinnesotaMinneapolisUSA
  3. 3.Saint Martin’s UniversityLaceyUSA
  4. 4.Claremont Graduate UniversityClaremontUSA

Personalised recommendations