Memory Distortion in People Reporting Abduction by Aliens
Susan A. Clancy, Richard J. McNally,
Daniel L. Schacter, and Mark F. Lenzenweger
Roger K. Pitman
Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital
False memory creation was examined in people who reported having recovered memories of traumatic
events that are unlikely to have occurred: abduction by space aliens. A variant of the Deese/Roediger–
McDermott paradigm (J. Deese, 1959; H. L. Roediger III & K. B. McDermott, 1995) was used to
examine false recall and false recognition in 3 groups: people reporting recovered memories of alien
abduction, people who believe they were abducted by aliens but have no memories, and people who deny
having been abducted by aliens. Those reporting recovered and repressed memories of alien abduction
were more prone than control participants to exhibit false recall and recognition. The groups did not differ
in correct recall or recognition. Hypnotic suggestibility, depressive symptoms, and schizotypic features
were significant predictors of false recall and false recognition.
Reports of recovered memories of childhood sexual abuse have
been controversial. According to one perspective, exposure to
trauma can result in amnesia for memories that would be too
upsetting to be consciously accessible (e.g., Terr, 1991; van der
Kolk, 1994). Putative mechanisms for this amnesia include repres-
sion and dissociation. Repression has been conceptualized in a
number of different ways ranging from active, motivated suppres-
sion (e.g., Breuer & Freud, 1895/1955) to an automatic uncon-
scious defensive mechanism (e.g., Freud, 1946/1966). Dissocia-
tion refers to abnormal integration of thoughts, feelings, and
experiences into the stream of consciousness and memory (e.g.,
Bernstein & Putnam, 1986) so that traumatic memories can be split
off from consciousness (e.g., Terr, 1991). Although there are
important conceptual differences between repression and dissoci-
ation (for a review, see Singer, 1990), the terms are used inter-
changeably in the literature. These hypothesized processes do,
however, have several features in common: that advocates of
recovered memories believe that they result in amnesia for trau-
matic events; that these buried memories nevertheless influence
thought, behavior, and physiological processes (e.g., Brown, Sche-
flin, & Hammond, 1998); and that they can be retrieved years later
with scant distortion in detail (e.g., Terr, 1994).
Other psychologists question these claims (e.g., Lindsay &
Read, 1994; Loftus, 1993), emphasizing that memory is construc-
tive, that illusory memories can be created (e.g., Schacter, 1999),
and that there is little evidence that memories of trauma obey
different psychological laws than do memories of nontraumatic
events (Shobe & Kihlstrom, 1997). Finally, underscoring the mal-
leability of memory, skeptics have warned that therapies designed
to recover memories of repressed (or dissociated) trauma may
inadvertently foster false memories of trauma (e.g., Loftus, 1993).
This controversy has stimulated scientific research on false
memory (for reviews, see Bjorklund, 2000; Roediger, 1996;
Schacter, Norman, & Koutstaal, 1998). Roediger and McDermott
(1995) revived and modified Deese’s (1959) paradigm to examine
false recall and false recognition of semantically associated words.
In the Deese/Roediger–McDermott paradigm, participants hear a
series of word lists, each comprising associates of a single non-
presented theme word. For example, one list consisted of words
associated with sweet (e.g., sour, candy, sugar, bitter). Following
list presentation, participants performed a recall test, and then
performed a recognition test composed of studied words, nonpre-
sented theme words (e.g., sweet), and other nonstudied words.
False recall occurs when participants incorrectly recall a nonpre-
sented theme word, and false recognition occurs when participants
incorrectly claim to have studied a nonpresented theme word.
Using a variant of this paradigm, we found that women report-
ing recovered memories of childhood sexual abuse were more
prone to exhibit memory distortion than were control participants,
or women who had always remembered their childhood sexual
abuse (Clancy, Schacter, McNally, & Pitman, 2000). Unfortu-
nately, we were unable to establish whether the recovered mem-
ories were false or genuine and, therefore, whether the recovered
memory group’s susceptibility to memory distortion was a func-
tion of cognitive impairments related to abuse or a function of
cognitive characteristics rendering them susceptible to developing
The purpose of the experiment reported here was to examine
memory distortion in people who report recovered memories of
traumatic events that seem unlikely to have occurred: abduction by
space aliens. Claims of abduction by space aliens are becoming
increasingly common (e.g., Bartholomew & Howard, 1998; New-
Susan A. Clancy, Richard J. McNally, Daniel L. Schacter, and Mark F.
Lenzenweger, Department of Psychology, Harvard University; Roger K.
Pitman, Department of Psychology, Harvard Medical School, and Massa-
chusetts General Hospital, Boston.
Mark F. Lenzenweger is now at the Department of Psychology, State
University of New York at Binghamton.
Preparation of this article was supported in part by National Institute on
Aging Grant NIA08441 and National Institute of Mental Health Grant
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Susan A.
Clancy, Department of Psychology, Harvard University, 1232 William
James Hall, 33 Kirkland Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138. E-mail:
Journal of Abnormal Psychology Copyright 2002 by the American Psychological Association, Inc.
2002, Vol. 111, No. 3, 455–461 0021-843X/02/$5.00 DOI: 10.1037//0021-843X.111.3.455
man & Baumeister, 1997). Although narrative accounts of alien
abduction have captured the attention and imagination of the
American public and have spawned many movies, TV shows, and
books, such reports have been ignored by the scientific community
(e.g., Mack, 1994). More recently, psychologists have interpreted
these claims as evidence of memory distortion (e.g., Newman &
Baumeister, 1997), in part because “abductees” seldom evince any
signs or symptoms of mental illness (e.g., Spanos, Cross, Dickson,
& DuBreuil, 1993). Published narratives of alien abduction (Hop-
kins, 1981; Mack, 1994; Streiber, 1987), as well as the narratives
related to us by our participants, follow a characteristic pattern.
When asked to relate his or her abduction experience, the modal
“abductee” begins by mentioning an (apparent) episode of sleep
paralysis. A nonpathological phenomenon, sleep paralysis occurs
when the cognitive and physiologic components of rapid eye
movement (REM) sleep become temporarily desynchronized
(Hufford, 1982; Spanos et al., 1993). That is, the person awakens
from REM sleep and becomes conscious of the full-body paralysis
that normally accompanies REM. Moreover, many people will
experience hypnopompic (“upon awakening”) hallucinations dur-
ing these episodes. Hallucinations vary, but often include electrical
tingling sensations throughout the body, feelings of levitation, loud
buzzing sounds, flashing lights, and most strikingly, visual hallu-
cinations of figures hovering near one’s bed. The full episode
seldom lasts more than a few seconds or minutes, after which the
paralysis wanes and the hallucinations vanish. The modal “ab-
ductee” often assumes that something must have happened after
the onset of the sleep episode but prior to full awakening. They
seek the aid of a hypnotherapist to help understand their anoma-
lous experiences, and it is during hypnotic regression sessions that
they “recall” memories of having been abducted (i.e., being taken
into space ships, sexually experimented on by aliens, etc.). The
striking similarity of these narratives suggests a widely shared
cultural script (Lynn, Pintar, Stafford, Marmelstein, & Lock,
1998). Although at least 15% of the general population has expe-
rienced sleep paralysis episodes (e.g., Hufford, 1982), not every-
one concludes that alien abduction explains these anomalous
In the present study, we used a variant of the Deese/Roediger–
McDermott paradigm to investigate false recall and recognition in
three groups. The first group comprised people who report “re-
membering” alien abduction experiences for which they were
previously amnestic (i.e., recovered memory group). The second
group comprised people who believe that they have been abducted
by aliens but have no autobiographical memories of the event (i.e.,
repressed memory group). This group bases their beliefs on puz-
zling or disturbing signs and/or symptoms (e.g., unusual pattern of
scars, sleep disturbances, depression, panic upon seeing depictions
of aliens on book covers) that they feel are consistent with having
an alien abduction history. Inclusion of a group of participants who
believe they have been abducted, but who have no memories of the
event, enabled us to test whether any false recall or false recog-
nition effects are confined to participants who have “remembered”
their experiences. The third group comprised people who deny a
history of abduction by aliens (i.e., control group).
We tested four hypotheses. According to the first hypothesis,
individuals who report recovered memories of alien abduction are
particularly vulnerable to memory distortion; thus, the recovered
memory group should exhibit higher false recall and false recog-
nition than the repressed memory and control groups combined.
According to the second hypothesis, the repressed memory group
consists of individuals who may be poised to recover “false”
memories (as they have developed alien abduction beliefs). There-
fore, the repressed and recovered memory groups combined should
exhibit higher false recall and false recognition than the control
group. According to the third hypothesis, the repressed memory
group has not (yet, perhaps) recovered false memories; thus, the
recovered memory group should exhibit the highest false recall
and false recognition, followed in turn by the repressed memory
group and then the control group. That is, false recall and recog-
nition should be most pronounced in those who have actually
created false autobiographical memories, least pronounced in the
control group, and intermediate in the repressed memory group.
Finally, because past research suggests a link between UFO-
related beliefs and schizotypy (i.e., latent liability for schizophre-
nia; e.g., Chequers, Joseph, & Diduca, 1997; Spanos et al., 1993),
we predicted that the recovered and repressed groups would score
higher than controls on measures designed to assess schizotypal
features. We also tested subsidiary hypotheses regarding the rela-
tionship between other psychometric measures, false memory cre-
ation, and group status.
The experimental groups were recruited from the community via news-
paper notices saying that researchers at Harvard University were “seeking
people who may have been contacted or abducted by space aliens to
participate in a memory study.” The control group was recruited from the
community via newspaper notices saying that researchers at Harvard
University were “seeking people to participate in a memory study.” Susan
A. Clancy confirmed participants’ group assignments on the basis of their
responses during an interview that yielded details about the basis for the
participant’s suspicion that he or she had been abducted and the circum-
stances surrounding recovery of the memory.
Individuals who reported recovering memories of alien abduction (6
men, 5 women) were assigned to the recovered memory group. None of the
participants interviewed reported continuous memories of alien abduction
(i.e., memories of alien abduction that were never forgotten). On the basis
of participants’ responses to interview questions about the development of
their abduction memories, the sequence of events was similar for all
participants in this group. They began to suspect they had been abducted
after a sleep episode characterized by awakening, full body paralysis,
intense fear, and a feeling of presence. Several participants reported tactile
or visual sensations (i.e., levitating, being touched, seeing shadowy fig-
ures). These reports are strikingly similar to descriptions of sleep paralysis
and hypnogogic hallucations (e.g., Hufford, 1982). All of these participants
subsequently sought explanation for what they perceived as anomalous
experiences and subsequently “recovered” abduction memories. Memories
were recovered both in therapy with the help of certain therapeutic tech-
niques (e.g., hypnosis) and spontaneously, after reading books, watching
movies, or seeing television shows depicting such episodes.
Our use of the term recovered reflects the reported experience of our
participants. Our use of the term repressed reflects the reported inacces-
sibility of the participants’ memories, not any purported mechanism un-
derlying that inaccessibility. Participants endorsed a number of different
explanations for the presumptive inaccessibility of their memories (e.g.,
aliens have control of the memories, abductions occurred in another time
CLANCY, MCNALLY, SCHACTER, LENZENWEGER, AND PITMAN
Individuals who believed they had been abducted by aliens, but who had
no explicit, autobiographical memories of the suspected events, were
assigned to the repressed memory group (5 men, 4 women). Participants in
this group cited a variety of signs and symptoms that they believed
indicated an abduction history (e.g., insomnia, waking up in strange posi-
tions, unexplained marks on the body, preoccupation with science fiction).
Individuals who denied having been abducted by aliens were assigned to
the control group (7 men, 6 women). Participants provided written in-
formed consent and were paid for their participation.
Participants completed the civilian version (Civilian Mississippi;
Vreven, Gudanowski, King, & King, 1995) of the Mississippi Scale for
Combat-Related Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (Keane, Caddell, & Taylor,
1988), the Beck Depression Inventory (Beck & Steer, 1987), the Disso-
ciative Experiences Scale (Bernstein & Putnam, 1986), and the Absorption
subscale of Tellegen’s Multidimensional Personality Questionnaire (Tel-
legen, 1982). Designed to assess disruptions in consciousness, the Disso-
ciative Experiences Scale contains items related to depersonalization,
memory lapses, and absorption. The Beck Depression Inventory assesses
symptoms of depression. The Civilian Mississippi assesses symptoms
associated with PTSD (e.g., intrusive thoughts, psychological numbing).
The Absorption subscale is positively correlated with hypnotic suscepti-
bility (Tellegen & Atkinson, 1974). These questionnaires were mailed to
subjects to fill out prior to their first laboratory visit. They take about
20–40 min to complete.
In addition, participants completed a 400-item Attitudes, Feelings, and
Experiences Survey (see Lenzenweger, 1999) that includes four schizotypy
and schizophrenia-related measures: the Perceptual Aberration scale
(Chapman, Chapman, & Raulin, 1978), the Magical Ideation scale (Eck-
blad & Chapman, 1983), the Referential Thinking scale (Lenzenweger,
Bennett, & Lilenfeld, 1997), and the Paranoid Schizophrenia scale (Rosen,
1952, 1962, cited in Lenzenweger, 1999), a scale derived from the Min-
nesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory. The Perceptual Aberration scale
measures body image and perceptual aberrations (e.g., feeling that parts of
your body are disconnected or changing shape), the Magical Ideation scale
measures belief in unconventional forms of causation (e.g., belief in
reincarnation or that certain numbers have special powers), the Referential
Thinking scale measures ideas of reference (e.g., feeling that strangers are
talking about you or that songs on the radio were written for you), and the
Paranoid Schizophrenia scale measures overt manifestations of schizophre-
nia liability (e.g., hearing voices or feeling that someone has control over
The means and standard deviations for these measures, plus age and
years of education, are shown in Table 1. One-way analyses of variance
revealed no differences among the groups on age or education (ps ⬎ .05).
We used a version of the Deese/Roediger–McDermott paradigm that
varies the number of semantic associates presented (Robinson & Roediger,
1997, Experiment 1). In this paradigm, the twenty-four 15-word study lists
and accompanying critical targets used by Roediger and McDermott (1995)
were modified. The 24 lists were arbitrarily divided into six groups of 4
lists each, and each group was arbitrarily assigned either a 0-, 3-, 6-, 9-,
12-, or 15-item list length. (In the 0-item list length condition, items from
the four lists were included on the final recognition tests but were never
studied.) Thus, the participants heard all of the lists in one group as
consisting of 3 items, all of the lists in another group as consisting of 6
items, and so forth. (For an example of a 15-item semantic associate list,
see Table 2). Participants studied the first 3, 6, 9, 12, or 15 words from each
list as they appeared in the appendix of Roediger and McDermott (1995).
Because effects of list length have been previously demonstrated (e.g.,
Robinson & Roediger, 1997) and because we anticipated that group sizes
would have been too small for counterbalancing purposes, we used a
randomized design where all subjects received the 24 study lists in the
same random order (lists were not blocked by length).
Participants were given booklets and pencils to record their responses on
the recall tests and a sheet of scratch paper to complete distractor math
problems. Subjects read instructions informing them to attend closely to the
presented words because they were going to be asked to recall them later.
Words in each list were presented in a continuous sequence on a tape
recorder. A new word was read every 3 seconds. Following the final word
on each list, participants were given a sheet of paper containing a set of
Demographic and Psychometric Data
memory group Control
Age (years) 47.0 12.4 40.4 14.8 46.1 12.3
Education (years) 15.3 2.5 14.6 3.2 15.1 2.8
Dissociative Experiences Scale 12.0 13.4 19.7 20.7 12.4 21.0
Civilian Mississippi 84.5 23.4 92.3 21.4 78.2 18.2
Absorption subscale 19.4 7.1 19.2 9.3 13.9 5.4
Beck Depression Inventory 9.4 7.3 10.6 5.6 2.1 4.7
Magical Ideation scale 10.7 5.0 11.1 5.5 3.8 3.5
Referential Thinking scale 5.2 6.4 6.2 7.2 3.7 5.2
Perceptual Aberration scale 8.0 7.9 6.6 5.3 3.1 2.3
Paranoid Schizophrenia scale 17.5 8.0 16.0 6.9 13.0 7.8
Note. Because of missing data, degrees of freedom vary. For the Dissociative Experiences Scale, possible
range ⫽ 0 to 100; for the Civilian Mississippi (Civilian version of the Mississippi Scale for Combat-Related
Posttraumatic Stress Disorder), possible range ⫽ 35 to 175; for the Absorption subscale (from Tellegen’s
Multidimensional Personality Questionnaire), possible range ⫽ 0 to 34; for the Beck Depression Inventory,
possible range ⫽ 0 to 64; for the Magical Ideation scale, possible range ⫽ 0 to 30; for the Referential Thinking
scale, possible range ⫽ 0 to 34; for the Perceptual Aberration scale, possible range ⫽ 0 to 35; and for the
Paranoid Schizophrenia scale, possible range ⫽ 0to64.
MEMORY DISTORTION AND ALIEN ABDUCTIONS
four simple two-digit addition problems to solve. After 30 s, a beep
sounded and participants were told that they had 1.5 min to recall the words
from the list they just heard. Participants were warned not to guess on the
recall test, and recall responses were handwritten in the booklets. After 1.5
min, participants were instructed to stop writing, turn the page in their
booklets, and attend to the next study list. This procedure was repeated for
all 20 study lists (four lists each of 3, 6, 9, 12, and 15 items).
An 80-item new–old recognition test followed presentation and recall of
the lists. Forty items on the recognition test were studied words, labeled
true targets (2 items from each of the 20 studied lists). The other 40 items
on the recognition test had not been studied. Twenty of these nonstudied
items were the lures on which the studied lists semantically converged (the
false targets). The remaining 20 items were taken from lists that were not
studied and served as control words: 4 were the related lures on which the
items from the four nonstudied lists semantically converged (the false-
target controls), 8 items were from the four nonstudied lists, labeled
true-target controls (2 items from each of the four lists), and 8 items were
unrelated filler words. In order for the tests to be identical regardless of
which lists had been studied at each length, we randomly chose all of the
true-targets and true-target controls presented on the recognition tests from
among the first three words in each list.
Because we had specific hypotheses, we conducted focused
contrasts that take the form of one-tailed t tests, and we computed
the effect-size correlation for each contrast (Rosenthal & Rosnow,
1985). As research has already demonstrated that false recall and
false recognition rates increase as a function of the number of
semantic associates presented (e.g., Robinson & Roediger, 1997),
we analyzed the data for the 3, 6, 9, 12, and 15 semantic associate
lists combined. One-way analyses of variance showed that the
groups did not differ in their performance on the 0 semantic
associate lists: for false-target controls, F(2, 28) ⫽ 1.41, p ⫽ .26,
and for true-target controls, F(2, 28) ⫽ 1.27, p ⫽ .30. False recall
(proportion of critical lures recalled as being studied) and false
recognition (proportion of critical lures called “old” on the recog-
nition test) rates as a function of group (recovered, repressed, and
control) and of list type (3, 6, 9, 12, and 15 semantic associates) are
shown in Table 3. Also presented in Table 3 are false recall and
false recognition rates for the 3, 6, 9, 12, and 15 semantic associate
According to the first hypothesis, subjects reporting recovered
memories of alien abduction should be especially prone to false
recall and recognition. Applying contrast weights of 2, ⫺1, and ⫺1
to the mean false recall and false recognition rates of the recovered
memory, repressed memory, and control groups, respectively, this
hypothesis fell short of significance for false recall, t(30) ⫽ 1.56,
p ⫽ .07, r ⫽ .27, but was significant for false recognition,
t(28) ⫽ 2.47, p ⫽ .01, r ⫽ .42.
According to the second hypothesis, the repressed and recovered
memory groups should be equally likely to exhibit false recall and
false recognition, and both groups should be more prone to exhibit
memory distortion than the control group. Applying contrast
weights of 1, 1, and ⫺2 to the mean false recall and false recog-
nition rates of the recovered memory, repressed memory, and
control groups, respectively, we confirmed this hypothesis for
false recall, t(30) ⫽ 3.33, p ⫽ .01, r ⫽ .52, and for false recog-
nition, t(28) ⫽ 3.45, p ⫽ .01, r ⫽ .55.
According to the third hypothesis, the repressed memory group
has not yet recovered false memories; therefore, the recovered
memory group should exhibit the highest false recall and false
recognition, followed by the repressed memory group, followed by
the control group, respectively. Applying contrast weights of 1, 0,
and ⫺1 to the mean false recall and false recognition rates of the
recovered, repressed, and control groups, respectively, we con-
firmed this hypothesis for false recall, t(30) ⫽ 2.88, p ⫽ .01, r ⫽
.47, and for false recognition, t(28) ⫽ 3.51, p ⫽ .01, r ⫽ .59.
According to the fourth hypothesis, the recovered and the re-
pressed groups should score higher than the control group on the
following measures of schizotypy: Perceptual Aberration scale,
Magical Ideation scale, and Referential Thinking scale. Applying
contrast weights of 1, 1, and ⫺2 to the mean scores on each
measure for the recovered memory, repressed memory, and control
groups, respectively, we confirmed this hypothesis for the Percep-
tual Aberration scale, t(29) ⫽ 2.01, p ⫽ .03, r ⫽ .35, and the
Magical Ideation scale, t(29) ⫽ 4.20, p ⫽ .01, r ⫽ .61. This
Example of a 15-Item Semantic Associate Word List
Note. The critical lure associated with this list is sweet.
False Recall and False Recognition Data for Each Group by
Number of associates
Average3 6 9 12 15
False recall group
Prop. .05 .18 .27 .50 .43 .29
SD (.10) (.16) (.21) (.36) (.25) (.10)
Prop. .00 .17 .31 .47 .50 .29
SD (.00) (.22) (.24) (.29) (.31) (.13)
Prop. .00 .04 .08 .33 .27 .14
SD (.00) (.09) (.16) (.26) (.28) (.13)
False recognition group
Prop. .03 .35 .53 .75 .83 .88 .67
SD (.08) (.24) (.36) (.26) (.31) (.18) (.15)
Prop. .13 .19 .34 .69 .94 .81 .59
SD (.19) (.29) (.23) (.22) (.12) (.12) (.16)
Prop. .06 .19 .27 .44 .63 .58 .42
SD (.11) (.21) (.19) (.38) (.32) (.30) (.17)
Note. The denominator for each proportion (prop.) listed is 4 (four lists of
each length were presented).
CLANCY, MCNALLY, SCHACTER, LENZENWEGER, AND PITMAN
hypothesis was not confirmed for the Referential Thinking Scale,
t(29) ⫽ 0.89, p ⫽ .19, r ⫽ .16.
Although we had no predictions about true recall (proportion of
words studied that were correctly recalled) or true recognition
(proportion of critical lures called “old” on the recognition test),
we conducted a mixed-design analysis of variance (ANOVA), with
three levels of a between-subjects factor (subject group) and five
levels of a within-subject factor (list type: 3, 6, 9, 12, and 15
semantic associates). There was no significant effect of group for
true recall, F(2, 30) ⫽ 1.72, p ⫽ .20, or true recognition, F(2,
28) ⫽ 0.07, p ⫽ .94, nor was there a significant Group ⫻ List Type
interaction for true recall, F(8, 120) ⫽ 0.87, p ⫽ .55, or true
recognition, F(8, 112) ⫽ 1.67, p ⫽ .12. There was a significant
effect of list type for true recall, F(4, 120) ⫽ 187.92, p ⫽ .01, and
for true recognition, F(4, 112) ⫽ 2.20, p ⫽ .07.
Because individuals reporting recovered and repressed memo-
ries of childhood sexual abuse score higher than controls on
measures of absorption, dissociative experiences, and posttrau-
matic stress disorder (e.g., McNally, Clancy, Schacter, & Pitman,
2000), we predicted a similar pattern of results in this population.
Applying contrast weights of 1, 1, and ⫺2 to the mean scores on
each measure for the recovered memory, repressed memory, and
control groups, respectively, we found that data conformed to this
pattern for absorption, t(26) ⫽ 1.90, p ⫽ .04, r ⫽ .35, but not for
the Dissociative Experiences Scale, t(26) ⫽ 0.48, p ⫽ .32, r ⫽ .09,
or the Civilian Mississippi, t(26) ⫽ 1.20, p ⫽ .13, r ⫽ .23.
Because memory distortion has been linked to dissociative
symptoms (e.g., Clancy et al., 2000; Winograd, Peluso, & Glover,
1998), hypnotic suggestibility (e.g., Labelle, Laurence, Nadon, &
Perry, 1990), symptoms of PTSD (e.g., Bremner, Shobe, & Kihl-
strom, 2000; Zoellner, Foa, Brigidi, & Przeworski, 2000), and
symptoms of schizophrenia (e.g., Brebion et al., 2000), we pre-
dicted a significant relationship between false recall and recogni-
tion and scores on the following measures: Dissociative Experi-
ences Scale, Absorption subscale, Civilian Mississippi, Magical
Ideation scale, Perceptual Aberration scale, Referential Thinking
scale, and Paranoid Schizophrenia scale. Because the results of a
one-way ANOVA showed that the recovered and repressed groups
scored higher than the controls on the Beck Depression Inventory,
we also examined the relationship between false recall and recog-
nition and depressive symptoms. Correlations between psychomet-
ric measures and false recall and false recognition are shown in
Table 4. The Absorption subscale, the Beck Depression Inventory,
and the Magical Ideation scale were significant predictors of both
false recall and false recognition. Dissociative Experiences Scale
and Civilian Mississippi scores were marginally associated with
Participants reporting recovered memories of alien abduction
were more prone than control participants to exhibit false recall
and false recognition of semantic associates. The recovered mem-
ory, repressed memory, and control groups did not differ in terms
of their true recall or true recognition rates. These findings are
consistent with the results of the only other published study that to
our knowledge has examined false recognition in people reporting
recovered memories, in that case, of childhood sexual abuse
(Clancy et al., 2000). If one assumes that the events reported by
subjects in this study—alien abduction—are unlikely to have oc-
curred, the data are consistent with the hypothesis that individuals
who are more prone to develop false memories in the laboratory
are also more likely to develop false memories of experiences that
were only suggested or imagined.
Inclusion of the repressed memory group enabled us to test
whether false recall and false recognition effects were confined to
participants who developed autobiographical memories of abduc-
tion. They were not. These data were in accord with two hypoth-
eses: (a) that the recovered and repressed group would be equally
prone to memory distortion, and both more so than control sub-
jects, and (b) that recovered memory subjects would be more prone
to memory distortion than the repressed memory group who, in
turn, would be more prone than the control group.
Although results of contrast analyses were similar for both recall
and recognition, the false recall rates for all groups were lower
than the false recognition rates. In addition, there was less dis-
crimination among the groups for false recall. The most reasonable
explanation for these findings is that as the recall test occurred
immediately after participants studied the word lists, participants
were less prone to exhibit false recall than on the recognition test,
which occurred after all the lists had been studied. Further, asking
participants to generate studied words is usually more difficult
than asking participants to simply identify studied words. Regard-
less of when the recall test occurs, false recall rates are generally
lower than false recognition rates, just as true recall rates are lower
than true recognition rates. This finding suggests that the recog-
nition paradigm is a more sensitive assay for proneness to devel-
oping false memories than is the recall paradigm.
The recovered and repressed groups did not differ from each
other on any of the measures of personality and psychopathology.
Consistent with other findings on people reporting recovered
memories (e.g., McNally et al., 2000), those reporting recovered
and repressed memories of alien abduction scored higher than
controls on measures of hypnotic suggestibility and depressive
symptoms. Both measures were significantly related to false recall
and false recognition. Individuals reporting recovered memories of
childhood sexual abuse and individuals reporting recovered mem-
ories of alien abduction scored higher than controls on additional
Correlations Between Psychometric Measures, False Recall, and
Absorption subscale .56 .01 .32 .05
Beck Depression Inventory .48 .01 .38 .02
Magical Ideation scale .45 .01 .45 .01
Civilian Mississippi .30 .06 .14 .24
Dissociative Experiences Scale .29 .06 .15 .23
Paranoid Schizophrenia scale .03 .45 .18 .17
Perceptual Aberration scale .04 .42 .29 .06
Referential Thinking scale .26 .08 .09 .33
Note. All p values are one-tailed.
Civilian Mississippi ⫽ Civilian version of the Mississippi Scale for
Combat-Related Posttraumatic Stress Disorder.
MEMORY DISTORTION AND ALIEN ABDUCTIONS
measures (e.g., see McNally et al., 2000, for psychometric char-
acteristics of individuals reporting recovered memories of child-
hood sexual abuse). However, the Absorption subscale and the
Beck Depression Inventory are the only measures on which both
participants reporting recovered memories of childhood sexual
abuse and participants reporting memories of alien abduction score
higher than controls.
Consistent with past research linking schizotypy (i.e., psychosis
proneness) to UFO beliefs and experiences (e.g., Chequers et al.,
1997; Spanos et al., 1993), those reporting recovered and repressed
memories of alien abduction scored higher than controls on mea-
sures of perceptual aberration and magical ideation (i.e., belief in
unusual forms of causality). Perhaps higher scores on these mea-
sures influenced the development of abduction beliefs and the
unusual content of the memories recovered. Magical ideation was
significantly related to both false recall and false recognition.
Although no Deese/Roediger–McDermott research has addressed
the relationship between schizophrenia vulnerability and false
memory creation, these findings are broadly consistent with re-
search suggesting a source monitoring deficit in patients with
schizophrenia (e.g., Brebion et al., 2000).
Researchers have begun to delineate the mechanisms involved
in the creation of false memories. One process clearly implicated
is source monitoring: remembering how, when, and where a mem-
ory is acquired. Recollections of perceived events can be confused,
thereby producing distorted memories (Johnson, Hashtroudi, &
Lindsay, 1993). For example, an individual might watch a movie
about alien abductions as a child and then—years later—come to
believe that the events in the movie actually occurred because he
or she has forgotten the actual source of the memory. False
recognition in the Deese/Roediger–McDermott paradigm is a type
of source monitoring error.
Research indicates that robust false recognition occurs when
people rely on their memory for the general semantic features or
gist of the items they studied (e.g., Reyna & Brainerd, 1995;
Schacter et al., 1998; Schacter, Verfaellie, & Pradere, 1996).
According to this theory, individuals bind together studied items
and generated associates, thereby forming a focused representation
of the semantic gist of the study lists. Related test distractors that
match this semantic gist are then likely to be falsely recalled or
recognized; unrelated distractors that do not match it are likely to
be correctly rejected.
Both false recall and false recognition appear to be more endur-
ing than recall of studied items (Brainerd & Reyna, 1998). Al-
though this finding may seem paradoxical, the semantic features of
a nonpresented “theme word” occur multiple times during study.
List items may cue the critical lure, but not each other (Payne, Elie,
Blackwell, & Neuschatz, 1996). Although strategic factors can
reduce false memory effects (e.g., Schacter, Israel, & Racine,
1999), memory illusions still occur even when participants are
informed as to the nature of the experiment (e.g., Gallo, Roediger,
& McDermott, 2001).
The recovered memory subjects—those who developed auto-
biographical memories of alien abduction—were most prone to
exhibit false recall and recognition in our experiments. These
individuals may rely disproportionately on the general sense or gist
of the items they studied. Do these findings bear directly on false
memories of traumatic events? To the extent that some false
memories reflect the gist of past experience, illusory memories of
alien abduction may be accurate representations of some aspect of
a person’s past (e.g., sleep paralysis). Memories can be accurate in
the sense that they refer abstractly to an experience, yet can contain
many details that arise from source monitoring errors rather than
from that particular experience (Schacter et al., 1998). That the
recovered memory group was most prone to exhibit source mon-
itoring deficits in this study may explain why, after perhaps un-
dergoing suggestive psychotherapies, reading books, or watching
movies about alien abduction, this group eventually “recalled”
false memories, whereas the repressed memory group did not.
Our study has limitations. First, the sample sizes are small.
Second, we did not formally screen participants for traumatic
events other than the reported alien abductions; consequently, the
results are vulnerable to the criticism that other kinds of trauma in
the histories of the recovered memory subjects may have resulted
in cognitive deficits that induced a proneness to false recognition.
However, such an interpretation is inconsistent with the finding
that the recovered memory subjects scored similarly to controls on
instruments designed to assess symptoms related to trauma (e.g.,
Dissociative Experiences Scale, Civilian Mississippi). Further-
more, trauma victims prone to false recall and recognition in
Deese/Roediger–McDermott studies also exhibited other memory
deficits, including greater intrusion of nonstudied words and lower
levels of correct recall (Bremner et al., 2000; Zoellner et al., 2000).
In this experiment, the memory deficits exhibited by those report-
ing recovered memories of abduction by space aliens were con-
fined to a greater propensity for falsely recalling and recognizing
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Received August 10, 2001
Revision received January 9, 2002
Accepted March 4, 2002 䡲
MEMORY DISTORTION AND ALIEN ABDUCTIONS