The Ethics of Research Involving Memories of Trauma
Informed consent and other ethical principles have long been fundamental to research involving human participants, as emphasized for example by the Nuremberg Code (2). But somehow ethics have become lost as a focus of careful, informed consideration in articles examining this area, in part because of the bitter controversy that erupted over recovered and false memories of child sex abuse.
In the early 1990s, the topic became fiercely polarized. Disagreement gave way to demonization of those who disagreed. Those on one side might be portrayed in ways that suggested them to be supporters of pedophilia if not actual pedophiles themselves. Those on the other side might be portrayed in ways that suggested them to be hate-filled, pseudoscientific witch-hunters and True Believers. Advocates claimed that they had discovered a new clinical syndrome whose diagnostic criteria were explicitly analogized to borderline personality disorder, and an epidemic of False Memory Syndrome was announced. Therapists' homes have been picketed. Speakers holding unpopular views have been excluded from conferences.
In such a bitter atmosphere, emerging research tends to be viewed through a tightly restrictive lens focusing on the unforgivingly dichotomized question: does the research provide solid proof of one side or the other of this controversy? There is little room for complexity, nuance, ambiguity, shades of gray, and findings that suggest new questions. There is also little room for careful examination of the ethics of such research.
One striking exception was a landmark exchange of views among 3 scholars--including a professor who had conducted the experiment--on the ethics of one of the most famous and influential studies of attempting to implant false memories (3-5; please see links in the reference section). This exchange has been the central examination of the ethics of research in this area, and is now joined by "Assessing the Ethical Costs and Benefits of Trauma-focused Research."
Newman, Walker, and Gefland's study (1) reminds us that not only are ethical considerations crucial to research in this area, but that they may have additional implications. Informed consent, for example, rests on participants' ability to understand adequately the effects a research project may have on them. But as this study (1) found, some participants who have experienced major trauma may not realistically anticipate the distress such research can cause: "Not surprisingly, individuals with histories of maltreatment, especially sexual maltreatment, were more likely to underestimate their level of upset from research participation on both questionnaires and interviews."
Studies that invite participants to remember trauma may, as this study suggest, themselves be traumatic. As Primo Levi (6) wrote: "the memory of a trauma suffered or inflicted is itself traumatic because recalling it is painful or at least disturbing" (p. 24).
1) Newman, E., & Walker, E.A. Assessing the ethical costs and benefits of trauma-focused research. General Hospital Psychiatry, 1999, vol. 21, #3, pp. 187-196.
2) Trials of War Criminals before the Nuremberg Military Tribunals under Control Council Law No. 10, vol. 2. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1949.
3) Crook, L.S., & Dean, M.C. "Lost in a Shopping Mall"--A Breach of Professional Ethics. Ethics & Behavior, 1999, vol. 9, #1, pp. 39-50.
4) Loftus, E.F. Lost in the Mall: Misrepresentations and Misunderstandings. Ethics & Behavior, 1999, vol. 9, #1, pp. 51-60..
5) Crook, L.S., & Dean, M.C. Logical fallacies and ethical breaches. Ethics & Behavior, 1999, vol. 9, #1, pp. 61-68.
6) Levi, P. The drowned and the saved. New York: Vintage International, 1988.