Piaget’s Nurse

The story of Piaget’s nurse has recently been used in a UK newspaper article about false memory. ( Guardian March 22 2016 ).

.One of the most famous was provided by the influential developmental psychologist Jean Piaget. He had a clear memory of almost being kidnapped at about the age of two and of his brave nurse beating off the attacker. His grateful family were so impressed with the nurse that they gave her a watch as a reward. Years later, the nurse confessed that she had made the whole story up. Even after he no longer believed that the event had taken place, Piaget still retained his vivid and detailed memory of it. ( Guardian March 22 2016 ).

This anecdote is used time and time again by false memory advocates.

So I thought it would be intreresting to link to an article written in 1999 by Frank Leavitt.

Leavitt writes about false memory writers employ strategies of stroytelling and anecdotes in order to convince other people that their arguments are correct.

Leavitt poses the following questions

  • What scientific value does the popularization of

    this anecdote serve?

  • Does the fact that a famous person recants mean, ipso facto, that the memory is incontrovertibly false?

  • Should recantations by the famous carry more evidential weight

    of a false memory?

Leavitt describes how the piaget story was first used by FM advocates in 1993.

The story was used to provide evidence that whole memories can be implanted into a person’s real-life autobiography


“Science by anecdote has achieved a special status in the
recovered memory debate. Its power is attested to by
publications that are virtually dominated by creative
storytelling and anecdote (Loftus, 1993; Loftus, Nucci &
Hoffman, 1998; McElroy & Keck, 1995; Ofshe & Watters, 1994;
Schacter & Curran, 1995).

In a 1993 American Psychologist article, Elizabeth Loftus, Ph.D.
profiled an anecdote from the life of a famous Swiss
psychologist, Jean Piaget, widely known for his insights and
writings on child development, as evidence that “whole memories
can be implanted into a person’s real-life autobiography” (p.
531). The manufactured past interpretation of the anecdote has
gone on to find considerable life in other publications (Chu,
Matthews, Frey, Ganzel, 1996; Loftus & Ketcham, 1991; Morton,
1997). Of what scientific value does the popularization of
this anecdote serve? Does the fact that a famous person recants
mean, ipso facto, that the memory is incontrovertibly false?
Should recantations by the famous carry more evidential weight
of a false memory?

Let us look at the facts as penned by Piaget (1951). Until the
age of 15, Piaget was convinced that a man had tried to kidnap
him when he was a child. According to his personal account, he
was securely strapped in a carriage being pushed by his nurse
when a man ran up and tried to grab him. Protective straps and
the heroic effort of his nurse who interposed herself between
him and the man saved him. The memories held for this incident
included a crowd gathering, a policeman in a short cloak with a
white baton, scratches on his nurse’s face, a tube station and
the thief running away. Certainty about this memory was cast
into doubt by a letter from his former nurse to his parents
confessing to making up the kidnapping story and faking the
scratches. The new information factually contradicted Piaget’s
memory of the incident and set the stage for a dramatic shift in
his decade old beliefs about the botched kidnap attempt. Piaget
became totally convinced that the kidnapping experience never
happened. He embraced the idea that the memory was invented and
unrelated to fact. According to Piaget, “I, therefore, must
have heard, as a child, the account of this story, which my
parents believed, and projected into the past in the form of a
visual memory.” The old beliefs that had been held with deep
conviction for more than a decade became no more than relics of

Is this anecdote indisputable evidence of the creation of a
false memory in a famous child psychologist? Did Piaget really
have more reason to believe the nurse’s version of events at the
age of 15 than the version at an earlier age? The answer to
both is no, if you believe that science requires impartial
examination of data, unfettered by personal bias. According to
Spellman (1996, p. 337), “when judging a potential cause, one
must control for all other potential causes .” With single
anecdotes, more than one explanation is virtually always

Reliability of data should have a bearing on opinions expressed
by clinicians and scientists. The chief data source is the
nurse who we know is not a reliable historian. Her later
confession that the event never happened directly contradicts
her former statements to the Piaget family. Therefore, one or
both must be false. Thus it is possible that Piaget remembered
correctly, but was tricked into believing that it did not happen
based on a false confession (misinformation) by the nurse.

Since the Piaget anecdote contains the seeds of several
explanations, what is the safest course when two explanations of
approximately equal possibility co-exist (Spellman, 1996)? Is
there a basis for making an informed decision? Was the false
memory explanation that has come to be popularized in print
justified? Without outside verification, all we know is that
Piaget believed there was a kidnap attempt, and subsequently
believed that there was not (Gleaves, 1994). Whether or not the
later statements of the nurse were more truthful than the
earlier ones is unknown. Thus, whether or not it was a bogus
event is also unknown.

The false memory interpretation is also based on a misconstrual
of the relationship between self-report, belief and visual
memory. Piaget related his personal story of the kidnapping
incident in a book entitled, “Play, Dreams and Imitation in
Childhood” published in 1951 that was translated into english a
decade later (Piaget, 1960). Since Piaget was born in 1896,
the account was authored more than 50 years after the incident
and contained statements convincingly indicating that Piaget
still retained visual memory of the moment of the kidnapping
scene over an extended period of time. “I can still see, most
clearly the following scene. I was sitting in my pram which my
nurse was pushing when a man tried to kidnap me. My brave nurse
tried to stand between me and the thief. She received various
scratches and I can still see vaguely those on her face” Later
on, in the short narrative, Piaget reiterated, “I can still see
the whole scene and can even place it near the tube station”
(Piaget, 1960, p. 188).

Fortuitously, the personal account of Piaget provides a novel
glimpse of how the general principles guiding the study of
“memory change” in the laboratory translate to natural settings
involving trauma. The account is a natural analogue of a
paradigm routinely using in laboratory studies of short-term
“memory” change. The classic laboratory paradigm is comprised
of several basic components: a) a visual memory is presumably
experimentally established, b) misleading or contradictory
information is introduced and assumed to induce a change of
memory, c) the extent to which visual information is
misremembered is then assessed by self report, and d) visual
memory alteration is inferred from change in self report.
Ostensibly, visual memories that falsely redefine the past
arise quickly from these simple procedures (Loftus & Pickrell,

Piaget’s narrative is similar in that involves the introduction
of information contradictory to visual memories held and
examination of post-information changes in self-report. It
differs in that the event was traumatic, the memory was in
long-term storage and there was extended opportunity for the new
(mis)information to alter visual memories of the event. These
aspects more nearly echo the elements of memory in childhood
sexual abuse. Further, in the Piaget’s account, a distinction
is made between two processes; change in belief and change in

This anecdote has several important implications, primary among
them is that self report, conviction of belief and visual memory
are distinct processes that may operate independently .
Information from an external source can alter a belief, produce
a change in self-report and not alter memory. Using Piaget’s
account as a point of departure, it is obvious that the nurse’s
correspondence was sufficiently persuasive to cause Piaget to
reinterpret long held beliefs of an abduction attempt as false.
However, the information in the nurse’s letter was never
incorporated in his old visual memories. His profound change
in belief did not redefine old visual memories or unlocked new
ones. The change in conviction did not precipitate the
manufacture of new images or impair recall of old memories. His
visual memories of the abduction attempt at 50 were no different
than his visual memories of childhood and adolescence.

That it is a major error for memory investigators to assume that
changes in memory and self report operate as parallel processes
was highlighted in a critical review of laboratory studies of
memory suggestibility (Alpert 1995, p. 14). According to
Alpert, the general finding that some “individuals tell a
different story in response to suggestion” does not argue for an
intrinsic link between change in report and alteration of
memory. Shifts in self-report can be explained with an equal
degree of certainty on the basis of individuals giving “a
compliant report in response to social factors. Their report of
an event may have changed while their memory may have remained
intact.” Differentiation of these processes needs to be
explicitly considered in laboratory studies of “memory change.”

A number of other lessons can be drawn from the Piaget anecdote.
First, Piaget anecdote does not represent indisputable evidence
of the fallibility of memory. The popularized false memory
interpretation may be an entirely illusory opinion. Second, the
same authors with equal force could have profiled this highly
personal account of a childhood traumatic experience as an
exemplar of the enduring stability of adult held memories of
childhood. Third, change in self-report is not particularly
dependent on a change in memory and is therefore not an adequate
measure of memory change. A person may think differently about
a situation without altering memory for the situation. Fourth,
the highly memorable nature of traumatic events may serve as a
barrier to memory change. Finally, the anecdotal model could
serve as a framework for studying the memory change paradigm in
the natural setting that overcomes ethical issues inherent in
the process.

A final lesson focuses on sampling from inappropriate
groups. Extrapolating from the cognitive processes of children
to the cognitive processes of adults who recover memories
(Loftus, 1993) is generally not endorsed by the scientific
community. The Piaget anecdote is about an alleged memory
implanted in a child at a young age leading to both a visual and
semantic memory that persist despite disconfirming evidence and
verbalization of a new self report. The recovered memory debate
is about the alleged introduction of memories to grown adults
that somehow redefines both visual and semantic childhood
memories of earlier events, leading to new self reports.

Levitt later published another article on the same subject, the abstract of which is:

An article in the 1993 issue of the American Psychologist entitled “The reality of repressed memories” (Loftus, 1993) forms the foundation for how many contemporary professionals understand the recovered memory/false memory controversy. The message conveyed to the readership was that recovered memories are by-products of therapy. Paradoxically, the message enjoys wide-ranging influence on the basis of “facts” that lack the rigor of science. Status was established on the basis of speculative theory, artifacts of interpretation, and the power of selectively filtered information. The message illustrates the dilemma posed for readers without personal familiarity with the subject matter, when messages are advanced on the basis of imperfect disclosure of prevailing knowledge. This article revisits the “evidence” and acquaints readers with the many errors of omission and fact that plague the false memory message (Loftus, 1993), and that cloud the science concerning memory and learning.

Alpert, J. L. (1995). Professional practice, psychological science
and the delay memory debate. In Treating Trauma in the Era of the
Recovered Memory Debate (pp. 5-23)., Northvale, NJ: Jason Aaronson.
Chu, J. A., Matthews, J.A., Frey, L. M. & Ganzel, B. (1996). The
nature of traumatic memories of childhood abuse. Dissociation, 9,
Gleaves, D. H. (1994). On “the reality of repressed memories.”
American Psychologist, 103, 440-441.
Loftus, E. (1993). The reality of repressed memories. American
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Loftus, E. & Ketcham, K. (1991, pp. 17-18). Witness for the
defense. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press.
Loftus, E.F., Nucci, M., & Hoffman, H. (1998). Manufacturing memory.
American Journal of Forensic Psychology, 16, 63-75.
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McElroy, S. L. & Keck, P. E. (1995) . Recovered memory therapy:
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False ? (pp. 39-63), Madison, CT: International Universities Press.
Ofshe, R. & Watters, E. (1994). Making monsters. New York, NY:
Charles Scribner’s Sons.
Piaget, J. (1951). “Play, Dreams and Imitation in Childhood. London,
England: Heinemann.
Piaget, J. (1960). Play, Dreams, and Imitation in Childhood.
Translated into english by C. Gattegno and F. M. Hodgson. New York,
NY: Norton.
Schacter, D. L., & Curran, T. (1995). The cognitive neurosciences of
false memories. Psychiatric Annals, 25, 726-730.
Spellman, B. A. (1996, p. 337). Acting as intuitive scientists:
Contingency judgments are made while controlling for alternative
potential causes. Psychological Science, 7, 337-342.

Author’s Note

The author gratefully acknowledges the invaluable feedback of Suzanne
B. Yellen, Ph.D. on an earlier draft of this article.


Child Abuse & Neglect, 1999, 23, No. 12, pp. 1221-1224.

Manufactured Memory, Altered Belief and Self
Report Mirage: The Alleged False Memory of Jean
Piaget Revisited

Frank Leavitt, Ph.D.

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