Brian Williams & Memory Distortion

the blurred line between truth and self-deception

Brian Williams is in trouble. Today, he was suspended for six months. As quick as we are to demand retribution, we should pause and look to cognitive science for some insight.

First, the context: Williams said that in 2003, he was in a helicopter forced down by enemy fire — a now mistaken recollection. He said that the mistake was a result of “constant viewing” of video showing him inspecting the impact area of the helicopters downed in the incident and “the fog of memory over 12 years made me conflate the two, and I apologize.”

See, we like to believe in the myth that we are in constant control of our minds and memories, that logic and reason will always rule our most key decisions. However, this is almost rarely the case; we are driven by our fickle emotions and our infallible, malleable memories. Our mind is constantly remaking and examining the millions of bits of information it processes every nanosecond.

Studies have proven, again and again, that memory distortion is real. A few examples:

Memory research professor Lawrence Patihis of the University of California, Irvine told a New Republic reporter about his study in which he mentioned video footage of Flight 93 crashing in Pennsylvania on Sept. 11, 2001. One in five participants said they remembered seeing it. No such footage exists.

In a 1995 landmark study, Elizabeth Loftus, distinguished professor the at the University of California, Irvine, suggested to adult participants that at age five they had been lost in a shopping mall and rescued by an elderly person. About a quarter of the adults fell sway to this suggestion.

In another study, researchers Kimberly Wade, Maryanne Garry, Don Read, and Stephen Lindsay showed people a Photoshopped image of themselves as children, standing in the basket of a hot air balloon. Half of the participants later had either complete or partial false memories, sometimes “remembering” additional details from this event — an event that they never experienced.

Lastly, my most favorite study on memory distortion comes from Braun. Her research has found that even passive advertisements can affect memory. She writes, “there is evidence that cues that get people to think over and over again about manufactured childhood events can be a relatively easy way to create false memories or beliefs about childhood.” Through priming with nostalgic advertising, she heard participants tell very detailed stories about visiting Disney, even with those participants who have never visited the resort.

Writers are all too familiar with how infalliable and malleable memory is. In a Big Think piece, Jonathan Franzen perfectly articulates his own experience in fact-checking some of his writing:

“It became clear to me that my memory was very unreliable, and I always thought it was titanically reliable. It was an icebreaker of a memory compared to the flimsy, tenious memories of other people… It was jaw dropping, things that I remembered more vividly than my own high school graduation, or first day of college — I had clear, crystal memories of things things. Never happened. That was very humbling, but it’s much more fun to make fun of other people’s inability to know, than one’s own.” Jonathan Franzen

What Franzen goes on to brilliantly describe is the “betrayal” that someone can feel when this truth isn’t actually really true. Christopher Winner, an astute journalist and friend in Rome, honestly shares his own experience in the active creation of myth while in Tehran… and how listener experience and expectation is a critical piece of the puzzle:

“Unfortunately, myth-making of tapestry size means you’re instantly stuck with your yarn, whether a jeep, a scorched helicopter, or tales of womanizing. Encouraging strangers to participate in your “being there” means admirers and detractors will demand the tall tale remains tall, lest they feel cheated (or vindicated), which is when rage rises and heads roll.” Christopher Winner, The American

The authors of a wonderful Slate piece, believe “after decades of well-documented, prominent cases of memory distortion, people whose professions put a premium on facts and truth — journalists, politicians, business leaders, judges, lawyers, and public figures — should be aware of these limits. In fact, they have a responsibility to understand the fallibility of their memories and to take steps to minimize memory mistakes. If you are relying exclusively on your own memory when saying anything of consequence, especially when someone’s reputation is at stake, you must think twice.”

While the authors have recommendations and rules in places for avoiding false memories, I question how realistic it is for us to continue to believe our consciousness is more powerful from our unconsciousness that makes up at least 95% of our thinking, behavior and emotions.

In the end, Brian Williams simply lost the metaphoric tug of war we all wrestle with: we want to live our lives pretending we understand ourselves and our decisions. Yet, our truth is that our minds are always at work creating conflicts, paradoxes and falsehoods that defy the logic we so dearly believe in.

If only our minds were as simple and uncomplicated as we so desperately believe they are.

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