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.