Psychology professor Christine Blasey Ford vividly recalls being sexually assaulted by Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh when both were teens. Kavanaugh remembers no such event and vigorously denies Ford’s accusation. The potentially historic significance of the allegation has triggered a debate: Is she telling the truth? Or is he, in claiming no such memory?
Without judging either’s current character, psychological science suggests a third possibility: Perhaps both are truthfully reporting their memories.
On Ford’s behalf, we can acknowledge that survivors of traumatic events typically are haunted by enduring, intrusive memories. As Nathan DeWall and I write in Psychology, 12th Edition,
Significantly stressful events can form almost unforgettable memories. After a traumatic experience—a school shooting, a house fire, a rape—vivid recollections of the horrific event may intrude again and again. It is as if they were burned in: “Stronger emotional experiences make for stronger, more reliable memories,” noted James McGaugh (1994, 2003).
Does Ford’s inability to remember ancillary details, such as when the assault supposedly occurred, discount her veracity? Not at all, if we’re to generalize from research on the accuracy of eyewitness recollections. Those whose memory is poor for incidental details of a scene are more accurate in their recollections of the essential event (see here and here).
But if Kavanaugh and his friend were, indeed, “stumbling drunk,” then perhaps they, genuinely, have no recollection of their impulsive behaviors while “severely intoxicated.” Memory blackouts do happen, as we also report:
Ergo, if trauma sears memories into the brain, and if alcohol disrupts them, could it be that both Ford and Kavanaugh are telling the truth as best they can recall it?
(For David Myers’ other weekly essays on psychological science and everyday life visit www.TalkPsych.com)