Repression debunked

Psychologists in Denmark have hammered another nail into the coffin containing ‘repression’ – the idea, made popular by psychoanalysis, that negative, emotional memories are particularly prone to be being locked up out of conscious reach.

Simon Nørby and his colleagues at the University of Copenhagen presented dozens of undergrad participants with word pairs, each made up of a cue word and an unrelated target word. Past research has suggested that people are able to deliberately forget some target words while remembering others. But this has been over very short time periods. Nørby’s team wanted to test the effects of deliberate forgetting over a longer time period – a week – and they also wanted to revisit the question of whether emotional words can be deliberately forgotten as easily, or more easily, than neutral words. Past research has suggested they can, but these studies have tended to block emotional word pairs altogether in series of themed trials, thus raising the possibility that their impact may have been diminished by habituation. Nørby’s team avoided this problem by jumbling up neutral and emotional words altogether.

The participants spent time learning 70 word pairs, then they were informed which target words were to be deliberately forgotten and which to be retained. An ensuing training process helped them with this. Participants repeatedly gave the target words when presented with cues for to-be-remembered pairs (if they couldn’t remember it, they were told the target word), whereas they repeatedly withheld and attempted to suppress target words when presented with the cues for to-be-forgotten pairs. After all this, the participants were tested once again on all the word pairs, with their task to recall even those they had deliberately forgotten.

The results of this immediate test suggested that the participants had succeeded, to some extent, in deliberately forgetting those neutral words that they were supposed to forget. Recall for to-be-forgotten neutral words dropped from a baseline of about 80 per cent to about 70 per cent, whereas accurate recall for to-be-remembered words had increased to 95 per cent (unsurprisingly, the final training phase had acted as memory aid for these words). By contrast, suppressed, to-be-forgotten negative emotional words like ‘massacre’ and ‘incest’ remained unforgotten and were recalled just as accurately as to-be-remembered emotional words.

On retesting a week later, to-be-forgotten emotional and neutral words were recalled just as often as to-be-remembered words. In fact, over the course of a week, there was evidence that memory for to-be-forgotten words had deteriorated less than memory for to-be-remembered words. This could be another manifestation of the ironic ‘suppression rebound effect’ which is the finding that deliberately suppressing certain thoughts can make them come back stronger.

Taken altogether, the results suggest that neutral material can be deliberately suppressed over short time periods, but not for as long as a week. Negatively emotional material, by contrast, appears to be stubbornly resistant to deliberate suppression. This flies in the face of the psychoanalytic idea of repression, but is consistent with trauma research suggesting that emotionally salient memories are more persistent than normal, not less.

Nørby S, Lange M, & Larsen A (2010). Forgetting to forget: on the duration of voluntary suppression of neutral and emotional memories. Acta psychologica, 133 (1), 73-80 PMID: 19906363

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

Image credit: fancy

Previously on the Digest:

Can we deliberately forget specific parts of what we’ve read?
How remembering can lead to forgetting.

12 thoughts on “Repression debunked”

  1. But I thought repression was meant to be an automatic or unconscious 'defence'? Presumably one that requires some practice – perhaps from a young age.

    Haven't read the paper but did they have a control group of participants who were not instructed to do anything with the distressing / neutral words?

    And what's the ecological validity of this study? How does a list of words relate to the context in which the concept of repression is used (i.e., early trauma and so on)?

    What's more, being instructed to forget something by someone else seems to be quite a different thing from instructing oneself to forget something (consciously or unconsciously). For a start, instructing oneself involves a volitional component not present in this study. Instructing oneself involves one's own strong desire not to remember or think about something.


  2. Plus don't forget about negative hallucinations – not being able/not wanting to see/hear things – which are inherent part of DSM IV. And selective perception.


  3. I don't think words can have a strong emotional tone on there own. Any word is used peformatively in a context. This is the context which have a tone. A traumatic event or 'period' (like in psychoanalysis) is more akin to a context than to a word…

    And why measuring emotion with only one dimension (valence)? Are fear, sadness and anger the same?
    Of course this is difficult with only 'words'.

    And… perhaps there is some kind of correspondance effect between the hedonic tone of the memorizing and recall contexts. Do you think a person in a happy state could recall easily a traumatic event? Or a person who is sad? Happiness tend to recall moements of past hapiness, not trauma.

    Take a design like that :
    Choose 'neutral' words and ask subjects to memorize them : 1) in a negative emotional context (group 1); 2) positive emotional context (group 2) ; 3) neutral emotional context (control group?).
    Wait one week then ask group 1 to remember the words in a) negative emtional context b) positive one c) neutral one. Do the same with other groups.


  4. How in the hell can you test the existence of repression based on word groups? Call me dramatic, but I think there might be the slightest difference between generally negative words, which may or may not have any relevance to the test subject, and something like, oh, say, the death of your child, or being raped, or the stench of burning flesh. I’m pretty sure it’s been noted that people experience amnesia (or “repression” if you will) as soon as 24 hours after trauma. I can see how it would be good to know that repression didn’t actually exist, for the well-being of some who have had “memories” planted by psychiatrists, but there has got to be a better way to test it than to flash some spooky words on the screen and see if people forget them.


  5. Disappointing to see this tabloid and disrespectful tone towards psychoanalytic ideas on here, “flying in the face” and hammering the “final nail in the coffin” don't reflect well on the BPS's professionalism.


  6. This smacks more of a quest for controversiality than anything very useful. The study is fundamentally flawed:

    It revolved around people forgetting words used frequently by the media precisely because they carry a powerful emotional charge that is attention grabbing! (e.g. 'incest' and 'massacre'.) As we live in a media saturated world, it can easily be said that there is social pressure to notice and be aware of the words.

    Furthermore, as stated by others, traumatically induced repression in its truest sense often occurs as an internal mechanism simply because the person cannot deal with or process the information or experience(s).

    I could go on but really it is not worth the attention. This kind of study usually surfaces either because of bias or because someone somewhere wants attention, to shut down a department, or to externalise and disown their own issues.

    As it is, I would not give the work any credence at all, beyond being an observation of whether people comply with instructions to forget highly charged emotional words. Those who designed the experiment seem to have missed the point completely.


  7. This is ridiculous. I can't believe this is actually supported by a group of academics. The fact that someone remembers the word “Hate” does not mean he remembers something he repressed as a child. Even cognitive science would “debunk” this theory. I mean, honestly….


  8. Forgetting or remembering a word is quite different than forgetting being raped or being tortured. Research shows that traumatic memories are stored in the brain differently than non traumatic memories. In other words, this study has little or no impact on the question of whether traumatic memory exists or not. Research shows that it does and that it is often accurate.


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