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New Book Challenges Scientific Validity Of Multiple Personality Disorder

February 26, 1997
American Psychological Asssociation
Research psychologist Nicholas P. Spanos, Ph.D., presents a thoroughly documented argument that Multiple Personality Disorder is not a disease at all, but a social construction.

Contact: Doug Fizel, Deputy
Director, Public Affairs E-mail:, Phone: (202) 336-5700 Institution: American
Psychological Association

New Book
Challenges Scientific Validity Of Multiple Personality Disorder

Date: January 1, 1997 Contact: Doug Fizel Public Affairs
Office (202) 336-5700 (e-mail)


"Multiple Identities and False Memories: A Sociocognitive
Perspective" Likely to Stimulate Professional Debate

WASHINGTON -- Since the mid-1970s there has been tremendous
growth in the diagnosis of Multiple Personality Disorder (MPD) --
the development of sometimes hundreds of separate personalities
within the same body, often ascribed to childhood physical or
sexual abuse. But according to research psychologist Nicholas P.
Spanos, Ph.D., Multiple Personality Disorder (recently renamed
Dissociative Identity Disorder or DID), is not a
"disease" at all, but a "social construction"
that serves the various purposes of MPD patients, their
therapists and elements of society. He recommends that the
diagnosis be abandoned.

"Multiple Identities and False Memories: A Sociocognitive
Perspective," published by the American Psychological
Association (APA), was written by Dr. Spanos shortly before his
death in a plane crash in 1994. It is a wide-ranging and
thoroughly documented examination of the scientific literature on
the phenomenon of Multiple Personality Disorder and its possible
connection to recovered memories of childhood sexual abuse,
reports of satanic ritual abuse, past-life regression and claims
of alien abduction.

One of the common threads running through these phenomena is
the use of hypnosis to retrieve "lost" memories and
reveal hidden identities. Dr. Spanos, who was one of the world's
leading experts on the study of hypnosis, offers his conclusion
that some of the most common beliefs about hypnosis simply are
not true.

For example, Dr. Spanos cites and describes the many studies
that demonstrate that hypnosis does not produce a unique state of
consciousness (i.e., a trance state) and does not cause people to
lose control of their senses, thought processes or behavior. Nor
does it improve the accuracy of recall. "Hypnotic
behavior," he writes, "is a goal-directed social action
and is much more ordinary than it initially appears." And,
he argues, it is the misunderstanding of what hypnosis is -- and
is not -- that is the base on which current theories of MPD, as
well as past-life regression and many of the therapies to recover
"lost" memories, rests.

Dr. Spanos examines the concept of "multiple
identity" as it has manifested itself through history and
across cultures, examines the social, cultural and political
contexts in which it has arisen and concludes that the current
"disease theory" of MPD, with its association with
childhood physical and especially sexual abuse, cannot
"provide a general account of this phenomenon that takes
into consideration its cross-cultural and trans-historical

He notes, for example, that the symptomatology of MPD itself
has changed over time. In the 19th century, MPD patients
typically displayed no more than two or three "alter"
personalities, all of which were human, and many of them engaged
in some form of transitional behavior, such as sleep or
convulsions, to switch from one "alter" to another.
Today, MPD patients display many more "alters,"
sometimes into the hundreds, and sometimes those
"alters" are animals or reincarnated past lives, and
the patients rarely engage in any transitional behavior when
switching between and among them.

What has changed, Dr. Spanos argues, is not the
"disease," but the social, political and economic
contexts in which the phenomenon of multiple identity has
occurred over time and across cultures. In 16th- and 17th-century
Europe, for example, there were frequent occurrences of people --
usually women -- displaying more than one personality. The
difference between now and then, he notes, is that in earlier
times, "alter" personalities were considered demons and
were diagnosed and treated (through exorcism) by priests.
Meanwhile, in other cultures and in other times, there have been
"spirit mediums," whose bodies were supposedly
inhabited by the personalities of the dead so they could
communicate with the living.

Whether enactments of multiple identities serve the purpose of
promoting a religion (or denigrating another), identifying
"witches," defrauding credulous customers or simply
getting care and attention for someone who feels they don't have
enough, Dr. Spanos argues that those enactments are guided by
rules and expectations, specific to the time and culture in which
they are manifest, that are understood and given legitimacy by
both the authority figures involved (be they members of the
clergy or psychotherapists) and the observing audience.

For example, he notes that in today's North American culture,
the concept of MPD is generally understood and widely accepted;
it has been described and portrayed in numerous books, movies,
documentaries and on daytime TV talk shows and techniques for
diagnosing it and treating it are presented at workshops and
conferences. But, he points out, there is little if any evidence
that MPD occurs spontaneously, and while the number of those who
diagnose and treat it has grown tremendously in the past two
decades, many psychotherapists with long experience have never
seen a case of it. Dr. Spanos cites surveys suggesting that most
of the cases of MPD have been generated by relatively few

Why Here? Why Now?

Why MPD has become so prevalent in late-20th Century North
America is a complicated issue, Dr. Spanos writes. He contends
that this has come about because of several factors, including a
convergence of several powerful social forces. General interest
in MPD itself was renewed in the late 1950s and the early 1960s
by the popular book and movie about a woman with MPD, The Three
Faces of Eve. By the early 1970s there was growing societal
awareness and concern about the issue of child abuse; at first
physical abuse and then later child sexual abuse, culminating in
accusations of mass molestation and even ritual abuse of children
in daycare centers. The enormously popular book and TV movie
Sybil in 1973 (about another woman with MPD) helped bring the two
issues -- MPD and child abuse -- together in the public mind.

Two other important phenomena occurred during the 1970s and
1980s, Dr. Spanos notes: the growth of the feminist movement,
whose social goals of such things as the right to abortion, pay
equity, encouragement of women to become economically self-
sufficient were (and are) opposed by another growing social and
political force: the religious right. Ironically, Dr. Spanos
observes, elements of both forces have come to embrace the modern
association between MPD and childhood sexual abuse; some
feminists believe that MPD, which rarely occurs in men, brings
recognition to the problem of the sexual abuse of women while
some on the religious right see MPD as evidence of the existence
of sexually abusive satanic cults.

Book: Multiple Identities and False Memories: A Sociocognitive
Perspective by Nicholas P. Spanos, Ph.D., 352 pp, $29.95,
American Psychological Association. Order Department

The American Psychological Association (APA), in Washington,
DC, is the largest scientific and professional organization
representing psychology in the United States and is the world's
largest association of psychologists. APA's membership includes
more than 142,000 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants
and students. Through its divisions in 49 subfields of psychology
and affiliations with 58 state, territorial and Canadian
provincial associations, APA works to advance psychology as a
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American Psychological Asssociation. "New Book Challenges Scientific Validity Of Multiple Personality Disorder." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 26 February 1997. <>.
American Psychological Asssociation. (1997, February 26). New Book Challenges Scientific Validity Of Multiple Personality Disorder. ScienceDaily. Retrieved May 7, 2017 from
American Psychological Asssociation. "New Book Challenges Scientific Validity Of Multiple Personality Disorder." ScienceDaily. (accessed May 7, 2017).