Memory, trawling, and misinformation

In July 1978, Thomas Bowman’s 44 year old wife Mary was found dead. 20 years later, during counselling, his daughter ‘uncovered’ memories of that night and said that her father killed her mother. When the body was exhumed and a DNA test carried out, it was discovered that the neck tissue on which the prosecution case rested did not even belong to Mary Bowman.

It seems that when you ask a psychology student of any level which experiments they remember from their studies, there are two that always stand out.

The first is Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment. It’s one of the most famous psychology experiments of all time, and involved dressing some students up as guards and others as prisoners to observe the power structures and roles that the students played out. What happened afterwards has been analysed and discussed ever since.

The second was by Elizabeth Loftus and John Palmer (1974) and looked at how memory of an event was affected by subsequent events. The study had two parts.

Part one


45 students were shown seven clips of car crashes and then asked questions about what they’d seen. One critical question differed between participants: when asked ‘how fast were the cars going when they X each other?’ the verb at X was changed between contacted/ hit/ bumped/ collided/ smashed.

The students whose questions read ‘smashed’ consistently estimated a higher speed than those whose question used a different term. The results were:

  • Students whose question read “smashed”: average speed estimate 41 mph
  • “Collided”: 39.3 mph
  • “Bumped”: 38.1 mph
  • “Hit”: 34 mph
  • “Contacted”: 31.8 mph

Students whose question read “smashed” thought that the car was going over 20% faster than those whose question read “hit”, even though they watched the same video.


Part two

150 students were shown another film where two cars collided. Afterwards the students were asked questions about the film. 50 were asked ‘how fast were the cars going when they smashed into each other?’; 50 were asked ‘how fast were the cars going when they hit each other?’; and the remaining 50, the control group, were not asked the question.

A week later and without seeing the film again, the students were asked 10 questions. Placed randomly amongst them was the question ‘was there any broken glass?’ There was no broken glass in the video. The results were:

Response“Smashed”“Hit”No question
Said they saw broken glass1676
Said they did not see broken glass344344

Even a week later, more than twice as many students’ memory of the event was corrupted by something they read immediately after the event.

False memories

Psychologist Elizabeth Loftus studies memories. More precisely, she studies false memories, when people either remember things that didn’t happen or remember them differently from the way they really were. It’s more common than you might think, and Loftus shares some startling stories and statistics, and raises some important ethical questions we should all remember to consider.

Loftus has continued to work on the way that memory functions and can be changed by other events. From her TED talk, “The Fiction of Memory”, which you can watch here:

Thomas Bowman

The implications for miscarriage of justice cases are clear and obvious, as the case of Thomas Bowman shows.

In July 1978, Thomas Bowman’s 44 year old wife Mary was found dead one morning. She’d been drinking heavily the night before and there was enough alcohol and valium in her system to kill her. Everyone accepted the medical opinion at the time which gave this as the cause of death. Their daughter Diane was just five when her mother died.

Two and a half decades later, during counselling, Diane ‘uncovered’ memories of that night and said that her father killed her mother – specifically that he punched her repeatedly, smashed her into the hearth and then force-fed her alcohol and valium. Diane also said she now recalled being abused by her father.

Merseyside Police took the claims very seriously, despite the contradictions and inaccuracies in her story. They ordered that Mary Bowman be exhumed, and a brand new pathologist’s report by Alison Armour stated that Mary Bowman had been strangled. This contradicted both the original pathologist’s report, which mentioned no marks consistent with strangulation, as well as Diane’s miraculous ‘memories’, in which she clearly said she recalled her mother being alive when the ambulance arrived.

But the strangeness of the case was not done. When Mary Bowman’s body was exhumed, the neck was found to not only have already been dissected, but to be in a far better state of preservation that the rest of her. A solicitor discovered that, because of lax procedures at the time, it was quite normal for samples removed from one cadaver to be buried with another. Once this was discovered and a DNA test held, it was discovered that the neck tissue on which the prosecution case rested did not even belong to Mary Bowman. However, as the police manage to do with near miraculous regularity in cases where the prosecution’s evidence is suspiciously weak, they were able to visit the jail in which Bowman had been held and find a fellow criminal who was able to testify that Bowman had ‘confessed’ his crimes to him.

(As an aside, it’s interesting to note the other cases in which Alison Armour appears on this site: She gave evidence to the BMJ in support of Dr Alan Williams, the pathologist who ruled that Sally Clark had abused and murdered her two sons. Williams was eventually found guilty of serious professional misconduct; for hiding evidence from the defence that supported their case and not keeping proper records. Sally Clark developed several psychiatric problems as a result of being wrongly accused of the murder of her sons and subsequent imprisonment, and died aged just 42.)

The Courage to Heal

“if you are unable to remember any specific instances like the ones mentioned above but still have a feeling that something abusive happened to you, it probably did” (p.21)

No post upon the subject of recovered memories can pass without a mention of “The Courage to Heal” by Ellen Bass and Laura Davis. Bass was a poet and creative writing teacher, whilst Davis was an author and writing teacher. Neither had any medical, clinical, psychiatric or psychological training. Their bestselling book, published in 1988, was a checklist guide to uncovering incest and abuse, and identifying them as the root cause of many dysfunctions and the quotes above summarise the authors’ approach to the topic. One study in Australia by the False Memory Syndrome Foundation suggested that false memories created from reading the book were linked to almost 50% of cases where a false allegation of child sexual abuse was made. Elizabeth Loftus questioned the effect it would have on people who did not have such memories, and suggested The Courage to Heal might be one of many sources of false memories for some individuals. Certainly, citing discredited works such as “Suffer the Child” by Judith Spencer and “Michelle Remembers” by Lawrence Pazder as ‘evidence’ does little to help the book’s credibility.

“demands for proof are unreasonable” (p. 137)

These latter books are symptoms themselves of the ‘satanic panic’ that was prevalent at that time. To learn more about them, there’s an excellent podcast by Sword & Scale that discusses them, which you can stream or download from here:

There’s also an excellent BBC podcast that looks at memories, memory testimony and sex abuse trials:

And finally, there’s an incredible UK blog called ‘Hoaxtead Research’ that covers an on-going case of UK satanic panic child sexual abuse. It’s immensely detailed, meticulously updated and head-shakingly unbelievable. Please check it out: 

“In September 2014, lurid allegations of the most serious kind were drawn to the attention of the Metropolitan Police. In a variety of ways, it was suggested that P and Q were part of a large group of children from north London who had been sexually abused, made to abuse one another and that they had belonged to a satanic cult in which there was significant paedophile activity.

Specifically, it was said that babies were supplied from all over the world. They were bought, injected with drugs and then sent by TNT or DHL to London. The assertions were that babies had been abused, tortured and then sacrificed. Their throats were slit, blood was drunk and cult members would then dance wearing babies’ skulls (sometimes with blood and hair still attached) on their bodies. All the cult members wore shoes made of baby skin produced by the owner of a specified shoe repair shop.”

Trawling and Misinformation Effect

An article in SAFARI’s December newsletter discusses the issues of the malleability of memory in conjunction with trawling operations. Whether as part of an unfocussed police sweep without specific targets or for monetary (compensation) gain, it’s easy to see how trawling operations can benefit from these false, supposedly recovered memories. Indeed, one subject talks about how he was caught twice in to separate trawling operations, even though some of his ‘victims’ did not remember the crimes against him during the first sweep but only recalled them during the second such operation twenty years later. It’s not difficult to see how repeated interviews and questions about abuse during the first sweep resurfaced as ‘memories’ during the later operation.

Of course, none of this should downplay or belittle real allegations of actual abuse. The problem is, how is a jury supposed to decide an historic abuse case with no corroborating evidence based on recall testimony alone?

To access the article, click here.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s