James Ost (1973 – 2019)

Colleagues with 'a true memory'.

Our friend and colleague James Ost passed away in February 2019, too soon and unexpectedly, after a short battle with cancer diagnosed only six weeks earlier. He leaves behind his wife and young son, as well as a sizeable James-shaped hole in the Department of Psychology at the University of Portsmouth.

It is difficult to overstate the loss for us in Portsmouth and, indeed, the scientific community as a whole. James was the heart and soul of our department. Transitioning from undergraduate student to Head of Department over a period of 25 years, he contributed in no small measure to a positive departmental culture, through his kindness, subversive wit (including unforgettable impersonations), integrity and unstinting selflessness in the support and encouragement of others.

James’ academic legacy lies in his contribution to our understanding of remembering, memory distortion and false memories. Fascinated by the controversial ‘recovered’ memory debate as an undergraduate, he joined a movement of academics concerned about the potentially devastating impact of such false memories on the lives of the individuals involved. James went on to examine false memories of childhood sexual abuse in his PhD work, supervised by Alan Costall, approaching the issue from an innovative angle. Venturing out of the laboratory, he sought to understand what memory distortion looks like ‘in the wild’, by examining actual cases of retractors – people who initially (e.g. in the course of therapy) disclosed childhood abuse but later retracted these ‘memories’. Apart from deepening our understanding of retractors and possible routes to false memories, this body of work includes a well-received theoretical analysis exploring social influence on remembering and a historical piece on misinterpretations of Bartlett’s theory of remembering (Ost & Costall, 2001a, 2001b).

James’ fascination with the topics of memory distortion and social influence continued through his career when he shifted his focus beyond the psychotherapeutic context and studied other types of real-life memory phenomena, resulting in the publication of over 40 articles, chapters and an edited book titled False and Distorted Memories (Nash & Ost, 2017). His published work reflects breadth and depth of approach across theoretical and applied issues and includes theoretical synthesis, experimental examination of remembering in applied contexts (e.g. influence of police interviewers or co-witnesses on eyewitness reports) and surveys of laypeople and clinicians’ memory beliefs.

Notably, for James, research was not an abstract academic pursuit – he never lost sight of the serious implications of memory distortion, particularly within the criminal justice context. To this end, he served as a member of the scientific and professional advisory board of the British False Memory Society and, on several occasions, as an expert witness on memory for Courts of Justice. He regularly commented on issues pertaining to false, distorted or contaminated memories, seeking to apply scientific knowledge and understanding in a wide range of applied contexts, including advising police investigators in cases where potential for the contamination of witness memory presented a challenge. He also sought wider public engagement with memory issues, collaborating on a BBC documentary on false memory and with artist A. R. Hopwood on a 2014 exhibition exploring false memory. This exhibition, funded by Wellcome Trust, included an LP featuring Exit Latency Silences from James’ experiments – recorded periods of ‘thinking in silence’ at the end of individual recall protocols, before participants decided they couldn’t remember any more.

James’ enthusiasm for his subject was exemplified in his brilliant teaching – numerous awards and other student accolades bear testimony to his skill. He was an inspirational PhD supervisor, emphasising both methodological rigour and the applied contribution of experimental work, and a wonderful mentor who truly cared for his students. James was passionate about science outreach and encouraged his students to engage with professional groups (such as the British False Memory Society), present at conferences  and science festivals, or chat about psychological science with visitors from the community on open days and during science fairs.

James was also an exceptional role model for maintaining work-life balance – although passionate about his work, he never compromised his family time. Perhaps most importantly, James conveyed to all of us that academic work should be fun (well, serious fun). And the serious fun extended beyond work. In addition to being an exceptional academic, James was a great musician. His band Bonemachine (James played electric guitar) recorded three CDs. James was also happy to practice (and even perform) music with colleagues irrespective of  their level of musical skill! Last not least, he had a keen interest in martial arts and held a black belt in Ninpo Taijutsu.

Although cut tragically short, James’s work has made an invaluable contribution to the science of memory distortion. His legacy will live on and continue to influence the field, his students, friends and the colleagues he has worked with. He will continue to be a strong meme in our department and beyond – something we think he would have liked.

Hartmut Blank, Alan Costall, Lorraine Hope & Eva Rubínová 
(for the Department of Psychology, University of Portsmouth)

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