Motivated forgetting amongst perpetrators?

I’m in the middle of a series on the problem of abuse, memory, and recovered memories. You can see the first two posts here and here. But, before I go on to address the matter of dissociation, repression, and re-remembering abuse, I want to point out that motivated forgetting doesn’t just happen to victims. It also happens to perpetrators.

Even when forensic evidence exists, it is common for perpetrators to deny their participation (or downplay it at least) in the offense. Some are quite capable of passing lie detector exams. They appear to able NOT to recall or respond in ways that would signal lying. From a theoretical point of view, we could offer two plausible answers

  1. They are extraordinary liars. They have perfected their craft and are able to beat the best technologies we have to detect their conscious lying.
  2. They have forgotten. By means of practicing an alternative story, by means of inability to see outside their own perceptions, by means of dissociation during the event, they have somehow forgotten. Cover of "Machete Season: The Killers in ...

Could it be that perpetrators use psychological mechanisms to forget–at least in part? I am still taken with Jean Hatzfeld’s accounts of his interviews with imprisoned genocidaires in Rwanda. In Machete Season, he documents how mass killers (already imprisoned and so thus with less need to maintain one’s innocence) seemed unable to speak about their actions in the first person but could speak with greater detail when using 2nd or 3rd person (we…they…).

To my mind, this suggests we are capable of forgetting many things (the motivation for forgetting how you chopped someone up is clear) but that we may remember when using a different portion of our brain and accessing a different perception of self/other. Self-deception takes many forms and is motivated by many  (often unknown to us) reasons.

To read another post I had on this book, see this link.


Filed under Abuse, deception, memory

15 responses to “Motivated forgetting amongst perpetrators?

  1. D.S.

    Because it is difficult for me to be sympathetic to the perpetrator, I am reluctant to think of it as a memory thing. It seems as if they are somehow less culpable for their crime if they forgot. Perhaps the perpetrator thinks the same way and feeling less culpable is part of the motivation for the perpetrator to forget. Is the ability to fool the lie detector because they forgot or is it because they have manipulated truth and created a different “truth” in their mind? (Their conscience seared) Perhaps that is a form of forgetting. Are there different types of forgetting?

    Another thought – If the perpetrator forgot, I think the victim might feel, “How dare they forget!” or perhaps, “Did it really happen? Maybe I’m the one with the messed up memory!”

    Something struck me when reading the clip from “Machete Season” that you had in your other post.
    Talking in the third person, dissociating themselves from their crime…, they are traumatized by what they did! I am not surprised that the victim is traumatized, yet I had never considered that the offender is also traumatized. Would all offenders be traumatized, or is it just certain types of offenses? I suppose that just as one will develop PTSD and not the other, the same would be true about trauma in the offender.

    Then my thoughts jump into a theological track. What is trauma? I think it is harm/damage to the body or psyche. (Is it more?) Sin traumatizes. It harms and damages all people, both the active sinner and the sinned against.

    • Interesting thots. Seems to me that something overwhelming could traumatize the perp. In Rwanda, many felt compelled to slaughter neighbors. They report very mixed feelings and a primary motivation for self-protection.

      I think we ought to avoid connecting culpability and memory.

  2. Tom

    Brutal. I just don’t get how you get from this to motivated forgetting…

  3. Tom

    It is just hard to wrap your head around Rwanda. I’m an anthropologist, but don’t comprehend the cultural and social dynamics that led to the genocide. There’s certainly a psychological one as well. I friend of mind tracks lynchings and mob-justice in Kenya. Similar stuff. It’s brutal…

    But about motivated forgetting, Phil, did Hatzfeld’s interviewees say they forgot what they’d done? He was apparently using a Tutsi interpreter. (I haven’t read the book) There are many different ways that people talk about such experiences in different languages. Much is lost in translation and cultural understanding. There was also lot of alcohol and drugs,.and the violence of the killing… But you are suggesting Hatzfeld is talking about motivated forgetting/repressed memory. Without a bit more detail and explanation, I’m not sure how you made the connection between these prisoners characterization of the events and MF. Have others suggested something like this?

  4. Tom, I think the interviews were all done in french. Hatzfeld is french, the convicted genocidaires all spoke perfect french I would imagine since that was an official language of the country. Now, I read it in English…

    I think we do not yet have a great understanding of what is going on when a person cannot recall or cannot access information. But, assuming that the many reports (not just from Hatzfeld in Rwanda) reveal something happening other than outright lying then we do want to come up with a theory about the mechanism beyond detail decay.

    From your comments it appears you give no credibility to something like repression. I’m in agreement that the concept was misused by many in the 80-90s. However, something is happening other than outright lying that deserves more than just dismissal. Something is happening in DID (even if the whole Richard Kluft approach only made it worse). What is your opinion on the psychological or biological aspects of forgetting?

    By the way, I believe MF is possible to conceive of without buying Freud’s theory of repression.

  5. Tom


    Your probably right about the interviews being in French. French is the natl language. But so is English and Rwanda. In 2006 there were only 2,500 native French speakers and over 6 million Rwanda speakers (guess you and I are stuck though. No native English speakers). Also some Rundi and Swahili. At any rate, I wouldn’t assume French was the “farmers” first language. And translating is tricky.

    I’m still not clear if Hatzfel’s interviewees claimed they did not remember or could not recall/access the atrocities. You didn’t answer my question there. It sounded like they just had a hard time explaining their participation. Given the context, a hazy recollection would be understandable, but explainable in terms other than repression. And there are many alternatives to just detail decay. Also, African discourse is full of imagined duality (See “God, Spirit and Human Wholeness” by Elochukwu E. Uzukwu) and narratives that sound like DID – witches, zombies, poisoning, etc. But if you’re asking, no, I don’t believe these genocidaires can’t remember what happened.

    Anthropologists and psychologists have been collaborating on ethnographic studies of trauma and treatment, both local and western, but I haven’t heard anything about Rwanda and repression – and I’ve been actively exploring the field for several years. No survivors of the holocaust have repressed the memory. No children from Cambodia have recovered memories of Pol Pot’s killing fields. Is there any professional literature on the topic in Rwanda, beside the book here? Point me to it. I’ll read it.

    I’m not an expert. But from what I read, neuropsych and evidence based treatment have turned repression into a scientific and intellectual dead end. I’m not sure how to integrate your “whole-brain psychochemical” view of memory (which fits the research about brain function – and your summary was a nice tour, btw…) with your ideas about repression and MF. I’m also finding it hard to get a grip on concepts, like motivated forgetting, when you don’t use them like everybody else. But I’m curious. Next chapter?

    • D.S.

      Your knowledge leaves me in the dust! Nevertheless, I do want to comment. It is no ‘known’ repressed memory in holocaust survivors or child survivors of the killing fields. We can’t say for certain ‘no one’ unless we have investigated everyone. And…, if the memory is repressed, how would they or we know they have repressed it? — More accurate then to say, no known incidents of recovered memory in holocaust survivors or child victims of Pol Pot. — Perhaps this is just being picky about details, although I don’t think so. Or, I’d not have brought it up!

      Also, the genocidaires memory correlates with the memory of those who threw people into the ovens, not with the the victims of the holocaust.

      Re: language used – I read the book some time ago and don’t remember if it said what language was used for the interviews. It makes sense that it would be French as it was the lingua franca at the time. School instruction was in French. That of course doesn’t mean they would have understood it as well as their first language. Interesting note – in 2008 the language used in school changed to English.

    • Tom, a thought provided me by a colleague…we see more repression and lost memories when trauma is individual and less when it is corporate. The “being present” in a social group while experiencing trauma seems to discourage dissociation and motivated forgetting. Hadn’t thought of this but looking back on my own clinical anecdotes, this seems to fit.

  6. Tom


    I’ll accept your point that one can’t disprove a negative (“x” doesn’t exist), but 67 years after the death camps, I am inclined to think you are indeed just being picky (big smile). We are talking about science though, and you quite correct. The standard for repression should be falsifiability, not proof. So is repression falsifiable? Is there a testable hypothesis that would falsify the theory? In that vein, here’s a link to a very nice piece by Yacov Rofe that summarizes the arguments and research for and against repression.

    About language, the problem isn’t whether people spoke the languages fluently. It is a question of adequately translating categories and terms. So, for example, the English term “witch” doesn’t begin to define or identify the varied and complex meanings in African worldviews which are so misleadingly wrapped into that word. I’m a bit in the dark about Machete Season, but there is the question of adequate exploration of underlying ideas of guilt and such. (Now I’m the one being picky…Lol)

    • Tom and DS, I think both of your responses (the picky admissions) illustrate the fact that we know some things or parts of thigns and we then apply that knowledge to something that we do not know for sure. Here’s what I find interesting. When we become “picky” we can maintain that position without really knowing for sure. I’m guilty as well. Yes, I do not have a falsifiable test for repression. I still believe very deeply that I have observed it (along with dissociation and other motivated forgetting). Tom does not believe, probably based on his experiences. Neither of us can prove our position or disprove it with scientfic method. Both of us can point out the errors made by others. And yet we maintain our positions despite flaws.
      Hmm. There’s probably a social psychological term for this 🙂

      • Tom

        Phil, don’t wave a white flag for me! Repression is a confusing and convoluted topic. We both need to be picky. No apologies (despite the rhetorical devises). But I’m surprised you’re throwing in the towel so quickly. Are you conceding that repression is not science? If it isn’t falsifiable, it isn’t science. If it isn’t science, what is it? BTW, I can think of several ways to falsify repression, so your statement that “neither of us can prove our position…,” is a little too inclusive.

        And you’ve never pointed out errors I’ve made. Do tell what they are. If you can demonstrate my position is flawed, I will change it. That’s what science is about.

      • Tom, sorry. Didn’t mean to speak for you but you are arguing, I believe, that since you haven’t seen repression, since someone can’t prove it, it isn’t real. And when I point out a new definition of motivated forgetting, you painted it/me with something like “this is just new terminology” for the same old thing. Your approach here seems dismissive rather than exploratory. It has felt, in part, that you doubt that I could mean something other than what was originally practiced/believed by some in the popularized recovered memories “treatment.” Am I misreading you? Maybe I am defensive but your questions don’t necessarily look for the common ground but feel more like disbelief based on some bad therapy and theory of the 80s and 90s. I have quoted some of those people because I think they got some things right even as they got other things wrong.

        Don’t worry, I am not throwing in the towel :). I have not figured out a way to falsify repression in a way that satisfies empirical research AND fits the experiences of victims of child sexual abuse. I’m not even sure that is the best word to use for the feature we see in the office. Amnesia? Whatever the matter, there is forgetting that is happening. There is remembering that is happening without therapist efforts to do so. I’m interested in describing what happens as a clinician and yes, trying to understand it from a scientific point of view. Yet, it still is a theory without enough science to define it. I don’t think we’ll have a biochemical explanation that suffices for a very long time, if ever. Doesn’t mean something like repression isn’t happening to some.

        Have I misunderstood you? I have assumed from your comments that you are highly suspicious that repression (and also recovered memories) is real or that if it is real, it is therapist created.

        I’m delayed on my next posts due to preps for the new semester but I have yet to get to the part where we talk about memory work (which in my practice is NEVER the attempt to recover memories). I do hope to get there but other duties keep me from getting to those posts. When I get this out there I think we might be able to have some fun conversations. Bear with me.

      • D.S.

        laughing… 🙂
        now the subject turns to the limits of empiricism….
        Lest you wonder, I’ve not abandoned the conversation. Well, I have, but not b/c of the conversation but b/c of more pressing concerns in my personal life.

  7. Tom

    Phil, In the western world, the new year starts in September. I hear you. Make no apology.

    It would be nice to find some common ground. Don’t rush it though. This blog is good neutral ground to start with, and I’m enjoying the dialogue. You are an unusual person, being willing to talk through this stuff. I’m really not a rigid person. But frankly, I’m more confused by your views than when we started. My disbelief, if you want to call it that, is not based on bad practices the 80s and 90s. It is quite current. When you get to the Priest/Cordill article we can pick that up. From my side, let me ask if you willing to accept the possibility that “bad therapy” is still alive and well?

    If you want to move on, that’s appropriate. I do really want to hear what you have to say about repression and dissociation. Your approaches to “memory work” and your take of “motivated forgetting” and repression will be worth the price of admission. These other items, though, are somewhat foundational.

    We don’t appear to be on the same page about what constitutes a valid scientific theory. I believe in lots of things I can’t prove. God, for instance. But we aren’t talking about religion. I’m confused here. We both support evidence-based treatment. Your piece on critical debriefing was great, btw. But note that EBT depends on falsifiable hypotheses something like the following: 1) If a treatment works, recovery rates will be better than the placebo effect and control groups, and 2) there should be mechanisms that explain why. You’ve got to have something like this when it comes to repression. But it appears you switch standards. Why should repression get a different treatment?

    I don’t want to send you on a wild goose chase looking for evidence of repression. If you could come up with something you’d be famous. There is no scientific or medical evidence for it. Just anecdotes. Maybe we just can’t measure it yet, but without something to falsify, there’s nothing to work with. So when you admit you can’t prove repression, but want me to accept it as a possibility, you’re making an untenable request. Anecdotes are not evidence. Like we learned in kindergarten – if I can’t let you see it, I can’t bring it to show-and-tell. People have been going at this a long time, Phil, so skepticism is the industry standard. Now if you mean something different, then explore away! For my part, I’ll try to remain open, and hope to learn something new…

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