A few days ago, I read a sensationalist news article that said multiple personalities are not caused by trauma. The research suggesting this was published in Current Directions in Psychological Science, a not-too-well-known psychological journal, and was written by Lynn et al. (2012).
The authors first explain two models of dissociation: the post-traumatic model, which is the most conventional, and the sociocognitive model. The former is based on the idea that dissociation is a coping strategy for dealing with severe trauma, while the latter suggests that dissociation is a cognitive style influenced by suggestion from therapists, sensationalist media portrayals, and susceptibility to fantasy or hypnosis. The authors strongly favor the sociocognitive model, and present some evidence for this, such as the fact that dissociative amnesia cannot be objectified and, in fact, people with DID have a better memory for to-be-forgotten sexual words in a directed-forgetting task.
The authors do not say that there is absolutely no role for trauma in the origins of dissociation. In fact, they claim early trauma causes persons to be more fantasy0prone, which could predispose them to cued dissociation. They also state that sleep deprivation causes dissociation, and post-traumatic symptoms often impair sleep.
In my opinion, indeed, therapists should be careful not to suggest dissociation to clients, and I do not deny that some cases of DID have been created by untethical therapists. However, the authors go so far as to say that there is often no link between trauma and psychopathology when controlling for family history of mental illness. This is a nature-based view of psychopathology which I find rather unfulfilling. Besides, as a person who knew she had alters before ever having seen a therapist, I do not feel it is appropriate to say all cases of DID have been fabricated.
Besides, even if DID is a form of mass hysteria, this doesn’t make it less real. Women – and DID occurs mostly in women – still have a hard time in today’s society. Even if DID itself does not start when a girl is two-years-old and being sexually abused, this abuse, together with other, maybe less severe, acts of oppression, may cause her to develop a psychological coping mechanism that involves fantisizing and psychological traits usually seen as unstable. Mass hysteria is still hysteria, and hysteria is a real mental illness. I am not going to buy it that people with DID are naturally attenton-seekers who want to fabricate trauma in order to have a florious story to tell.
Lynn SJ, Lilienfeld SO, Merckelbach H, Giesbrecht T, and Van der Kloet D (2012), Dissociation and Dissociative Disorders: Challenging Conventional Wisdom. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 21(1):48-53, DOI: 10.1177/0963721411429457.