Challenging Conventional Beliefs that Dissociative Identity Disorder is Strictly Trauma Based

Conventional wisdom for most beliefs is eventually challenged and the diagnosis of Dissociative Identity Disorder, or multiple personalities, is no exception.

During the proliferation of this mental malady in the mid 1980s, it was believed that extreme and repeated childhood sexual abuse caused the mind of the victim to split into additional personalities and then bury the trauma from awareness so they could cope with an inescapable situation. That conventional wisdom was challenged and science has since demonstrated that the human mind does not repress trauma in this manner, nor does the mind develop multiple personalities as a coping mechanism.

Dissociative Identity Disorder and multiple personalities are not found in people worldwide and, therefore, conclusions are drawn that this mental illness is culturally specific. Before the argument is made saying that other cultures have it but aren’t aware of it or it is undiagnosed, let’s wonder and question why this illness is not manifesting itself worldwide without interventions from Western cultures? When people in the United States display depression, it is similar to depression seen in Europe, Asia and South America. Why is Dissociative Identity Disorder so special? Question, question, and then question some more.

Social and psychological scientists are not the only ones responsible for challenging theories that aim to explain human behavior. We, the public, are equally responsible for challenging theories and must use logic and reason when deciding if explanations of our behavior make sense. The case of Dissociative Identity Disorder, commonly referred to as multiple personalities, is a perfect example of the need to challenge conventional wisdom because the wisdom in this case was grossly misleading and many patients and their families suffered from treatment that sometimes proved harmful and sometimes fatal.


Dissociation and Dissociative Disorders

Challenging Conventional Wisdom

  1. Steven Jay Lynn, Binghamton University (SUNY)
  2. Scott O. Lilienfeld, Emory University
  3. Harald Merckelbach, Maastricht University*
  4. Timo Giesbrecht*
  5. Dalena van der Kloet*

Current Directions in Psychological Science, February 2012, vol. 21 no. 1 48-53. doi: 10.1177/0963721411429457   free pdf here


Conventional wisdom holds that dissociation is a coping mechanism triggered by exposure to intense stressors. Drawing on recent research from multiple laboratories, we challenge this prevailing posttraumatic model of dissociation and dissociative disorders.

Proponents of this model hold that dissociation and dissociative disorders are associated with (a) intense objective stressors (e.g., childhood trauma), (b) serious cognitive deficits that impede processing of emotionally laden information, and (c) an avoidant information-processing style characterized by a tendency to forget painful memories.

We review findings that contradict these widely accepted assumptions and argue that a sociocognitive model better accounts for the extant data. We further propose a perspective on dissociation based on a recently established link between a labile sleep–wake cycle and memory errors, cognitive failures, problems in attentional control, and difficulties in distinguishing fantasy from reality.

Conclusions: We conclude that this perspective may help to reconcile the posttraumatic and sociocognitive models of dissociation and dissociative disorders.


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