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Links to a list of papers on the trauma-memory argument.



A Unified Theory of a Will-oí-the-Wisp

Commentary on "A Unified Theory of Repression"

by Matthew H. Erdelyi


John F. Kihlstrom


Abstract: By conflating Freudian repression with thought suppression and memory reconstruction, Erdelyi defines repression so broadly that the concept loses its meaning. Worse, perhaps, he fails to provide any evidence that repression actually happens, and ignores evidence that it does not.


Erdelyiís (Erdelyi, 2006) "unified theory of repression" is his latest attempt to resuscitate this most central concept within Freudís theory of psychoanalysis (Erdelyi, 1985, 1990, 1993, 1996; Erdelyi & Goldberg, 1979). Unfortunately, the present effort is no more successful than the earlier ones.

Erdelyi gets off to a poor start by attempting to show that Freud defined repression broadly to include the conscious suppression of memories, meaning that the act of repression can itself be performed consciously, so long as the repressed mental contents themselves are denied access to consciousness. While it is true that "Freud used repression and suppression interchangeably" (final draft, p. 3), Erdelyiís own tabulation (1990, pp. 9-10) shows that this equation occurs primarily in Freudís earliest writings (se also Esterson, 2003). It may well have been Anna Freud (A. Freud, 1937) who ultimately dictated that repression must always be unconscious. But apparently by the time psychoanalytic theory had matured, Sigmund Freud himself (S. Freud, 1915/1957a, 1915/1957b) appears to have understood that repression must be unconscious Ė not just if the process is to have any chance of working, but also if the concept is to make any sense at all (for a thorough analysis of the vagaries of Freudís concept of repression, see Macmillan, 1991/1997).

Erdelyi fixates on Freudís earliest, and least coherent, concept of repression because his argument fails without it. As he states (final draft, p. 4), "If repression = suppression, then everybody believes in repression". Maybe, but not so fast. For example, Anderson and his colleagues (Anderson, 2001; Anderson & Green, 2001; Levy & Anderson, 2002), among others (Conway, 2001; Gleaves, Smith, Butler, & Spiegel, 2004; Smith et al., 2003), have argued that deliberate retrieval inhibition, a variant on directed forgetting (Bjork, 1978; Epstein, 1972; Kihlstrom & Barnhardt, 1993) is a viable laboratory model for the clinical repression of traumatic memories. Erdelyi cites this work favorably, even though its relevance to repression has been vigorously disputed (Kihlstrom, 2002, 2004, 2006; Schacter, 2001; for a reply, see Anderson & Levy, 2002). Setting aside the issue of whether repression can indeed be conscious, the to-be-forgotten material in the retrieval inhibition experiments is not traumatic, conflict-laden, or anxiety-evoking. Even extensive practice with retrieval inhibition fails to produce anything even remotely resembling amnesia. And there is no evidence of the return of the repressed material in the form of implicit memories and other "symptoms". Put bluntly, the analogy is baseless -- even more so, if repression does not equal suppression, and repression must be unconscious after all.

Erdelyi similarly overreaches when he offers his and othersí own research on reminiscence effects and hypermnesia (e.g., Erdelyi, 1996) as corroboration for "Freudís claim" (final draft, p. 17) that unconscious memories may be recovered with concentration and repeated effort. But we did not need Freud to tell us that people remember better when they try harder. In any event, none of the stimulus materials in the hypermnesia experiments even approached traumatic significance; and none of the forgetting from which the subjects recovered was motivated, either consciously or unconsciously, by considerations of defense. Like retrieval inhibition, hypermnesia as studied in the laboratory is simply irrelevant to the Freudian concept of repression.

For that matter, so is Bartlettís (Bartlett, 1932) work on reconstructive processes in memory. While it is true that some of Freudís supplementary defense mechanisms, like rationalization and symbolization, have their cognates in Bartlettís list of memory distortions (final draft, Table 1), any equation between the two strips both Bartlettís and Freudís concepts of all their meaning. Erdelyi writes that "The constructions and reconstructions of Freud and Bartlett are the same but for motive" (final draft, p. 20). But since motive is everything in Freud - -whether the sexual and aggressive motives of the Id or the anxiety-reducing motives of repression and the other defense mechanisms of the Ego Ė they are not the same at all. From "The War of the Ghosts" to The Psychopathology of Everyday Life is a "chancey leap" (final draft, p. 21) indeed; letís just not go there.

Retrieval inhibition, elaborative reconstruction, and hypermnesia might serve as mechanisms for repression and the recovery of lost memories, but Erdelyiís paper ignores the most important question of all - -which is whether there is any empirical evidence for repression in the first place. On that score, all we get is the reassurance, in the Abstract, that repression is an "obvious" "empirical fact" (final draft, p. 1) plus two "clinical fragments" -- B.ís conscious suppression (final draft, p. 8) and N.ís paranoid delusion (final draft, pp. 13-14). Erdelyi does refer to "the contentious area of memory for trauma" (final draft, p. 9) Ė but without ever confronting the fact that dozens of formal studies have yielded not a single convincing case of repression in the entire literature on trauma (see, e.g., Kihlstrom, 2006; McNally, 2003; Pope, Oliva, & Hudson, 1999). Apparently, most traumatized individuals remember their traumas all too well; and where trauma is forgotten it appears to be by virtue of processes other than repression.

Erdelyiís first mistake, and it is a big one, is that he defines repression so broadly as to strip the concept of all the features that might make it interesting. As a result, the unification he achieves is entirely Procrustean: the only way the elements can all be fit together is to so severely distort each one of them that they become unrecognizable. His second mistake, and it is equally big, is to ignore the actual empirical evidence about trauma and memory. The result is a unified theory of nothing at all.



Anderson, M. C. (2001). Active forgetting: Evidence for functional inhibition as a source of memory failure. In J. F. Freyd & A. P. DePrince (Eds.), Trauma and cognitive science: A meeting of minds, science, and human experience (pp. 185-210): Haworth Press.

Anderson, M. C., & Green, C. (2001). Suppressing unwanted memories by executive control. Nature, 410(15 March), 366-369.

Anderson, M. C., & Levy, B. (2002). Repression can (and should) be studied empirically. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 6, 502-503.

Bartlett, F. C. (1932). Remembering: A study in experimental ad social psychology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Bjork, R. A. (1978). The updating of human memory. In G. H. Bower (Ed.), The psychology of learning and motivation (pp. 235-259). New York: Academic.

Conway, M. A. (2001). Repression revisited. Nature, 410, 319-320.

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Erdelyi, M. H. (1996). The recovery of unconscious memories: Hypermnesia and reminiscence. Chicago, IL, US: The University of Chicago Press.

Erdelyi, M. H. (2006). The unified theory of repression. Behavioral & Brain Sciences, in press.

Erdelyi, M. H., & Goldberg, B. (1979). Let's not sweep repression under the rug: Toward a cognitive psychology of repression. In J. F. Kihlstrom & F. J. Evans (Eds.), Functional disorders of memory. Hillsdale, N.J.: Erlbaum.

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Gleaves, D. H., Smith, S. M., Butler, L. D., & Spiegel, D. (2004). False and recovered memories in the laboratory and clinic: A review of experimental and clinical evidence. Clinical Psychology: Science & Practice, 11, 3-28.

Kihlstrom, J. F. (2002). No need for repression. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 6, 502.

Kihlstrom, J. F. (2004). An unbalanced balancing act: Blocked, recovered, and false memories in the laboratory and the clinic. Clinical Psychology: Science & Practice, 11, 34-41.

Kihlstrom, J. F. (2006). Trauma and memory revisited. In B. Uttl, N. Ohta & A. L. Siegenthaler (Eds.), Memory and Emotions: Interdisciplinary Perspectives (pp. 259-291). New York: Blackwell.

Kihlstrom, J. F., & Barnhardt, T. M. (1993). The self-regulation of memory: For better and for worse, with and without hypnosis. In D. M. Wegner & J. W. Pennebaker (Eds.), Handbook of mental control. (pp. 88-125). Englewood Cliffs, NJ, USA: Prentice-Hall, Inc.

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Macmillan, M. (1991/1997). Freud evaluated : the completed arc (1st MIT Press ed.). Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

McNally, R. J. (2003). Remembering trauma. Cambridge, Ma.: Harvard University Press.

Pope, H. G., Oliva, P. S., & Hudson, J. I. (1999). Repressed memories: The scientific status. In D. L. Faigman, D. H. Kaye, M. J. Saks & J. Sanders (Eds.), Modern scientific evidence: The law and science of expert testimony (Vol. 1, 1999 Pocket Part, pp. 115-155). St. Paul, Mn.: West.

Schacter, D. L. (2001). Suppression of unwanted memories: Repression revisited? Lancet, 357, 1724-1725.

Smith, S. M., Gleaves, D. H., Pierce, B. H., Williams, T. L., Gilliland, T. R., & Gerkens, D. R. (2003). Eliciting and comparing false and recovered memories: An experimental approach. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 17, 251-279.


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