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Might Brett Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford Both Be Telling the Truth They Remember?

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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:

344978_Kavanaugh Sept 18.png

 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)

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About the Author
David Myers has spent his entire teaching career at Hope College, Michigan, where he has been voted “outstanding professor” and has been selected by students to deliver the commencement address. His award-winning research and writings have appeared in over three dozen scientific periodicals and numerous publications for the general public. He also has authored five general audience books, including The Pursuit of Happiness and Intuition: Its Powers and Perils. David Myers has chaired his city's Human Relations Commission, helped found a thriving assistance center for families in poverty, and spoken to hundreds of college and community groups. Drawing on his experience, he also has written articles and a book (A Quiet World) about hearing loss, and he is advocating a transformation in American assistive listening technology (see www.hearingloop.org).