A Collection of Strange Beliefs, Amusing Deceptions, and Dangerous Delusions

From Abracadabra to Zombies

Book Review

Multiple Identities & False Memories: A Sociocognitive Perspective

by Nicholas P. Spanos
American Psychological Association, 1996

The mind is a strange thing. Stranger still are some of the ideas psychologists and philosophers have devised to explain the mind. Strangest of all, perhaps, is the fact that some of these ideas become dogma and are taught to unsuspecting undergraduates in textbooks, to trusting graduate students by their mentors in their labs and discussion groups, and to the general public by the mass media. Words find their way into our dictionaries and encyclopedias which give the impression that these strange ideas are not strange at all, but known to be true by the experts who have studied them. I am thinking of expressions such as 'unconscious mind', 'hypnosis', 'repression', 'subliminal advertising', 'libido', 'dissociation', 'codependency' (and numerous other 'addictions'), 'collective unconscious', 'penis envy', and all the syndromes and disorders that have multiplied over the years in psychiatric diagnostic manuals. Explanatory concepts in psychology are reified and become entities at a rate of development which would fill with envy any third world country desiring the riches of industrialized nations. Mind is a growth industry.

There have been a few notable critics of the expansive nature of psychological theorizing. Robyn Dawes, Robert Baker, Carol Tavris, Elizabeth Loftus and Margaret Singer come to mind. One voice stands out, however: that of Nicholas P. Spanos, silenced by a plane crash in 1994, but whose words remain with us in his many articles and in this remarkable book submitted for publication just prior to his death. Here Spanos presents his case against the "standard textbook" concepts of hypnosis, memory and multiple identities, as well as casting doubt on the validity of the cottage industry of therapies which use hypnosis and other procedures to ferret out false memories and false entities. In what can only be fairly described as a brilliant marshaling forth of evidence, Spanos makes his argument that hypnosis, repressed memories of childhood abuse and multiple personality disorder are "rule-governed social constructions established, legitimated, and maintained through social interaction" (from the preface by John Chaves and Bill Jones).

In short, Spanos argues that some of the most fundamental concepts and treatable disorders in psychology, as well as some fundamental techniques for the treatment of those disorders, have been created by psychologists with the cooperation of their patients and the rest of society. Thus, many psychologists and therapists are little more than modern day witchhunters, creating their "witches" by questionable assumptions and procedures, misleading the rest of us into believing in "demonic possession" (i.e., repression of memories of childhood abuse and dissociation) and that only the experts know the correct procedures for ridding the world of these evils. The experts create both the disease and the cure, not unlike the creation of Listerine for 'halitosis,' except for the much more devastating consequences of creating "treatable mental disorders."

A rather common view of multiple personality disorder (MPD) is given by Daniel Dennett, who seems to accept the standard view as accurate.

...the evidence is now voluminous that there are not a handful or a hundred but thousands of cases of MPD diagnosed today, and it almost invariably owes its existence to prolonged early childhood abuse, usually sexual, and of sickening severity. Nicholas Humphrey and I investigated MPD several years ago ["Speaking for Our Selves: An Assessment of Multiple Personality Disorder," Raritan, 9, pp. 68-98] and found it to be a complex phenomenon that extends far beyond individual brains and the sufferers.

These children have often been kept in such extraordinary terrifying and confusing circumstances that I am more amazed that they survive psychologically at all than I am that they manage to preserve themselves by a desperate redrawing of their boundaries. What they do, when confronted with overwhelming conflict and pain, is this: They "leave." They create a boundary so that the horror doesn't happen to them; it either happens to no one, or to some other self, better able to sustain its organization under such an onslaught--at least that's what they say they did, as best they recall.
[Consciousness Explained (Little, Brown, and Co., 1991), ch. 13, "The Reality of Selves"]

Dennett exhibits minimal skepticism about the truth of the MPD accounts, and focuses on how they can be explained metaphysically and biologically. For all his brilliant exploration of the concept of the self, the one perspective he doesn't seem to give much weight to is the one Spanos takes: that the self and the multiple selves of the MPD patient are social constructs, not needing a metaphysical or biological explanation so much as a social-psychological one. That is not to say that our biology is not a significant determining factor in the development of our ideas about selves, including our own self. It is to say, however, that before we go off worrying about how to metaphysically explain one or a hundred selves in one body, or one self in a hundred bodies, we might want to consider that a phenomenological analysis of behavior which takes that behavior at face value or which attributes it to nothing but brain structure and biochemistry, may be missing the most significant element in the creation of the self: the sociocognitive context in which our ideas of self, disease, personality, memory, etc., emerge.

But if thinkers of Dennett's stature accept MPD as something which needs explaining rather than explaining away, the task of convincing the psychological community to Spanos' way of thinking is Herculean. How could it be possible that MPD patients have been created in the therapist's laboratory, so to speak? How could it be possible that so many people, particularly female people, could have so many false memories of childhood sexual abuse? How could it be possible that so many people could have been fooled into thinking they were in an altered state of consciousness when they agreed to be hypnotized? How could so many people behave as if their bodies have been invaded by numerous entities or personalities, if they hadn't really been so invaded? How could the defense mechanism explanations in terms of repression for childhood sexual trauma and dissociation for MPD not be correct? How could so many people be so wrong about so much? Spanos' answer makes it sound almost too easy for such a massive amount of self-deception and delusion to develop: it's happened before and we all know about it. Remember demonic possession?

Most educated people today do not try to explain epilepsy, brain damage, genetic disorders, neurochemical imbalances, feverish hallucinations or troublesome behavior by appealing to the idea of demonic possession. Yet, at one time, all of Europe and America would have accepted such an explanation. Furthermore, we had our experts--the priests and theologians--to tell us how to identify the possessed and how to exorcise or execute the demons. An elaborate theological framework bolstered this worldview and an elaborate set of social rituals and behaviors validated it on a continuous basis. In fact, every culture, no matter how primitive and pre-scientific, had a belief in some form of demonic possession, its shamans and witch doctors who performed the rituals to rid the possessed of their demons, and its own sociocognitive context in which such beliefs and behaviors were seen as obviously correct and were constantly reinforced by traditional and accepted social behaviors and expectations.

We know now that the behaviors of witches and other possessed persons--as well as the behaviors of their tormentors, exorcists and executioners--were enactments of social roles. We do not believe that in those days there really were witches, or that demons really did invade bodies, or that priests really did exorcise those demons by their ritualistic magic. Yet, for those who lived in the time of witches and demons, these beings were as real as anything else they experienced. In Spanos' view, what is true of the world of demons and exorcists is true of the psychological world filled with phenomena such as hypnosis, repression of childhood sexual trauma and its manifestation in such disorders as bulimia and other emotional problems, dissociation of the self as one of several defense mechanisms to avoid having to face the horrors of the past, and the unconscious mind as a cellar of horrors which seep through to disturb conscious thought and behavior the way demons used to creep into the world to haunt us.

Spanos makes a very strong case for the claim that "patients learn to construe themselves as possessing multiple selves, learn to present themselves in terms of this construal, and learn to reorganize and elaborate on their personal biography so as to to make it congruent with their understanding of what it means to be a multiple." Psychotherapists, according to Spanos, "play a particularly important part in the generation and maintenance of MPD." It would be unfair to present his case in a review, but anyone should find it significant that most therapists never see a single case of MPD and that some therapists report seeing hundreds of cases each year. It should be distressing to those trying to defend the integrity of psychotherapy that a patient's diagnosis depends upon the preconceptions of the therapist. Typically, an MPD patient has no memory of sexual abuse upon entering therapy, but once the therapist begins encouraging the patient, memories of extremely bizarre sexual abuses emerge, often involving satanic rituals. But the scientific evidence on memory is inconsistent with the claim of amnesia for all these reported sexual horrors.

Multiple selves exist and have existed in other cultures without being related to the notion of a mental disorder as it is in North American culture today. "Multiple identities can develop in a wide variety of cultural contexts and serve numerous different social functions." Neither childhood sexual abuse nor mental disorder is a necessary condition for multiple personality to manifest itself. Multiple personalities are best understood as "rule-governed social constructions." They "are established, legitimated, maintained, and altered through social interaction." In a number of different historical and social contexts, people have learned to think of themselves as "possessing more than one identity or self, and can learn to behave as if they are first one identity and then a different identity." However, "people are unlikely to think of themselves in this way or to behave in this way unless their culture has provided models from whom the rules and characteristics of multiple identity enactments can be learned. Along with providing rules and models, the culture, through its socializing agents, must also provide legitimation for multiple self enactments."

Spanos presents brilliant and analogous scenarios for the development of mesmerism and hypnosis, repressed memory therapy, UFO abduction therapy, past-life regression therapy, spirit and demonic possession and exorcism, glossolalia and multiple personality disorder. And some of his work is suggestive of research one wishes he had lived to fulfill. For example, he wonders aloud about the sociopolitical implications of the fact that it is mostly women who have false memories, yet studies demonstrate that women are no more prone to false memories than men. He notes, too, that the witch hunt for child abusers has focused almost exclusively on day care centers, while it is highly unlikely that such a widespread phenomenon would be restricted to just those places that working mothers might take their children. Before the day-care operators became the focus of attention, most of the abuse stories were of recovered "memories" made in therapy by relatively well-to-do woman against their middle-class parents. Where would he have taken these ideas? One wonders. Look what he does with the false statistics created by the abuse survivor movement:

...support for the notion that childhood sexual abuse is widespread and virulent can be used to support various social and political agendas. Strong advocacy of these ideas is voiced not only by certain aspects of the feminist movement, but also by some sections of the religious right with its support for false reports of satanic ritual abuse made both by adult survivors and by children trapped in day-care sexual abuse panics. In the case of the religious right, perpetuation of the idea that child sexual abuse is prevalent is used to support rather than challenge a conservative and antifeminist political agenda.

Relatedly, the propositions that one third to one half of women have experienced severe sexual abuse during childhood, that such abuse invariably produces serious psychological symptoms, and that half of these abused women suffer psychological sequelae without even being aware that they were abused could be said to undermine a view of women as mature and responsible adults who are as capable as men of economic self-sufficiency, professional attainment, and political acumen. On the contrary, the picture painted by these statistics serves to justify rather than challenge the political and economic inequality of women. After all, from this perspective, the problems of women stem not from economic and politically based discrimination that, with organized effort, can be changed. Instead, these problems are attributed to the "fact" that an astounding one third to one half of the female population has been psychologically and emotionally crippled by childhood events that cannot be altered.

Multiple Identities and False Memories is a book every psychology major and every therapist should read, though it would probably not alter the thinking about alters of those whose livelihood depends upon providing therapy to abuse victims. It would probably be too much to expect the general public or the mass media to take to the book. It lacks the simplicity, entertainment qualia and bizarreness of a Sybil, The Three Faces of Eve, The Five of Me or The Minds of Billy Milligan. The role of such books in influencing not only the general public's beliefs about MPD, but in affecting MPD patients, is documented by Spanos, including the surge of MPD cases following the showing on television of Sybil. However, the numerous social scientists who provide the data and the arguments that MPD is iatrogenic or a social construct will probably not be invited to speak on Oprah. The mass media caters to the public's desire for lurid entertainment. What could be more lurid and entertaining than a nation of women abused as children, subjected to satanic rituals, and driven mad by their abusers? Whether they are reporting the truth, doesn't matter. Their reports are accurate. For those who love the truth, Nicholas Spanos will delight more than any lurid tabloid, Hollywood production or talk-back show. 

About the author: Nicholas Spanos received his Ph.D. from Boston University. From 1975 to 1994 he was Director of the Laboratory for Experimental Hypnosis at Carleton University, Ottowa, Ontario, Canada, where he was a Professor of Psychology. Prior to his appointment at Carleton, Dr. Spanos was a senior research associate at Medfield State Hospital in Medfield, Massachusetts. He was killed in 1994 when the plane he was piloting crashed shortly after takeoff. He authored some 250 articles and book chapters, and was co-author of two important book on hypnosis. 

reviewed November 16, 1997

further reading

Piper, August. Hoax and Reality : The Bizarre World of Multiple Personality Disorder (Jason Aronson, Inc.: 1997).

Hypnosis: the Cognitive-behavioral Perspective, edited by Nicholas P. Spanos and John F. Chaves (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1989).

Hypnosis and Imagination edited by Robert G. Kunzendorf, Nicholas P. Spanos and B. Wallace (Baywood Pub Co.: 1996).

Table of contents of Multiple Identities and False Memories


more book reviews by R. T. Carroll

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