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What Is Motivated Forgetting?

Tricia Christensen
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Motivated forgetting is a concept that arose in early theories of psychology, and many might better associate it with repressed memories. The essential idea is that the ability to recall a memory may be influenced by feelings, by a need to protect the self, or by distorted perception. Why we fail to remember certain things is actually the subject of many theories. Not all of these attribute faulty recollection to some form of emotional motivation.

The theories that introduced motivated forgetting come from Freud and some of his contemporaries. Freud suggested that people frequently have imperfect or no memory recall of traumatic events or of things associated with unpleasant feelings. For example, a person is highly motivated to forget a doctor’s appointment if he fears the doctor.

There is plenty of evidence that many trauma victims don’t have full memories of traumatic events. Many sufferers of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) experience significant memory loss. Freud said this loss stemmed from an unconscious desire to repress the memory and keep the person seemingly comfortable in the present. This repression can also be called a basic defense mechanism.

Freudians also argued that even if recollections couldn’t be accessed, they still caused disturbances for the individual in the present. The way to free people of the pain of these memories was to go back, find the experiences, and relive them. In theory, individuals who were able to remember unconsciously hidden material were eventually more comfortable or freer of neuroses.

The trouble with this theory, as was discovered in the second half of the 20th century, is that people can recall false memories under hypnosis or even when fully conscious. This may be because the original memory wasn’t accurate or because a person wishes to please a therapist. Remembering untrue things is called confabulation, and it also exists in certain illnesses like amnestic-confabulatory syndrome. It is not intentional or conscious, and in a way it might be called motivated inaccurate remembering.

False memories and the idea of motivated forgetting are also connected to certain Gestalt psychology theories. Gestaltists may argue that humans almost always distort what they see and remember. They try to make groups seem equal; end stories that are unended; or change the way things occur to feel better. Thus, motivated forgetting stems from a basic and constant perceptual distortion and may be also caused by repression.

Other theories regarding memory argue there is no such thing as motivated forgetting. For instance, some scientists believe that neurons associated with a memory may degrade over time. This means memories can simply decay.

Alternately, memories might not become solid if the brain is engaged in many other things after an event. It’s been suggested that in the early part of memory formation a great deal of cognitive activity damages the integrity of a recollection. Instead of motivated forgetting, failure to recall could be due to extra cognitive demand that interferes with memory solidification.

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Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a The Health Board contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By bythewell — On Dec 19, 2013

@irontoenail - This is particularly true for people who suffer from PTSD. They've actually discovered that one of the best ways to combat it is to try and get anxiety blockers into the patient right after the traumatic event so that they don't come to associate being completely freaked out with particular memories.

But if the associations are there, some schools of thought are that you shouldn't poke around at them too much.

By irontoenail — On Dec 18, 2013

@umbra21 - That is the premise of many dystopian books, like 1984. Change the history books and soon even people who were there will start to question their own memories.

In real life this phenomenon has really ruined some families as people were encouraged to think abuse had happened in their childhoods, when in fact it had not.

I also think the fact that motivated forgetting theory is based around the idea that confronting painful experiences will help relieve them is flawed. With some people I think it is better to just leave the past where it is and move on.

By umbra21 — On Dec 18, 2013

The memory is such a complex thing. I do believe that sometimes people can repress memories, as well as thinking the decay theory holds weight.

But I know that it's been shown several times that you can essentially plant false memories on people without them even realizing it. They've done studies where they had someone like a friend or family member talk about an incident as though it actually happened and eventually the experimental subject will begin to recall the incident as well, even though it never happened.

It can make you wonder what is real and what isn't in life. If all we have are memories and those can be manipulated, then our perception of the world can be as well.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a The Health Board contributor, Tricia...
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