Sunday, October 11, 2009

Thanks for the Memories

How good is your memory? I seem to be blessed with a particularly faulty memory, including a shockingly poor ability to remember if I've seen a face before.

Do you remember the famous Hillary Clinton whopper where she talked about her mortal peril in Bosina? She said, “I remember landing under sniper fire. There was supposed to be some kind of a greeting ceremony at the airport, but instead we just ran with our heads down to get into the vehicles to get to our base.”

Her account is at odds with the facts (we have video), but the question remains, was she lying? We'll never know, but there is a remarkable amount of scientific research demonstrating the malleability of our memories. It is entirely consistent with scientific research to suppose that Hillary actually believed the Bosnia account as she told it.

Elizabeth Loftus used Clinton as an example in a lecture where she recounted lots of other juicy info about memory. Here are some tidbits:
  • There is no evidence for "repressed memories" as popularly understood.
  • Researchers have been able to "encourage" people to remember childhood incidents like getting lost in the mall or getting sick after eating an egg salad sandwich--that never happened.
  • People can convincingly recount their memories of seeing Bugs Bunny at Disneyland, after reading a key piece of bogus advertising as a seed for the impossible memory. (They don't have Bugs at Disneyland, as you probably know.)
  • That false memory of the egg salad sandwich made those who were susceptible to the memory less likely to eat egg salad sandwiches up to four months later.
  • False positive memories about asparagus made people more likely to claim they would order asparagus at a fancy restaurant.
Isn't it crazy how changeable our memories are? I recounted the following information to a colleague. A few days later she included the material in a training exercise and got all the numbers wrong. Apparently, our memories about memory research is also susceptible to corruption. (Hence this post.) Ginger Campbell is summarizing the research presented in the book "On Being Certain" by Robert Burton. Here is an excerpt that will probably surprise you. Emphasis mine.

So within a day of the Challenger explosion he interviewed 106 students and he had them write down exactly how they heard about it, where they were, what they were doing, and how they felt. Two and a half years later, he interviewed them again and he found that for 25% of them their second account was significantly different from their original journal entries. In fact, more than half the people had some degree of error and less than 10% gave all the details exactly the same as they had originally.

Even so, before they saw their original journals, most of them were certain that their memories were absolutely correct. In fact many of them, when confronted with what they had originally wrote down, still had a high degree of confidence in their false recollections- even when faced with journals in their own handwriting, because they just felt that their current memories were correct. In fact, there was one student who said, "That's my handwriting but that's not what happened."
The moral of this story? Give people the benefit of the doubt and trust their sincerity until you have solid reason to believe otherwise. Thanks for the lesson, Secretary Clinton.

Friday, October 09, 2009

A Few Nobel Suggestions

The game is over for this year's Nobel Peace Prize competition. President Obama beat out contenders like Piedad Cordoba (Colombian senator that has helped free hostages), Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad (Jordanian professor who has fostered interfaith tolerance and dialog), Sima Samar (Afghan human rights activists), and 202 other nominees.

If the prize committee isn't aware of enough people with previous accomplishments, perhaps I can name a few for their consideration for next year. This list is just off the top of my head; surely with a little pondering you can augment the list with other worthies.

  • Bill Clinton. He didn't do so well as president, but since then he seems to be working hard with his Clinton Global Initiative. I'll bet there are a raft of accomplishments there we can cite in the nomination letter.
  • Bono. He's invested his fame heavily into promoting good causes.
  • Bill and Melinda Gates. Their work against malaria has been particularly noteworthy.
  • WWII veterans. Go with the large group concept that Time pioneered with their Person of the Year award in 2006. These soldiers sacrificed a lot to bring peace to the world. Sure it hasn't been perfect, but it was no small thing. Before the rest of them die off, let's give them this final honor.
  • Napoleon Dzombe. Yeah, you've never heard of him, but the stuff he's accomplished is remarkable.
  • George W. Bush. Love him or hate him, you can't deny that having Saddam off the world stage is a good step in the cause of peace.
  • Margaret Thatcher. Her health is failing, but she is the last of the trio, including Ronald Reagan and John Paul II, who did so much to resist the march of communism and help bring it down.
If none of those are good enough, and you need something more aspirational, perhaps you can select my kids. They bring such a huge smile to my face that perhaps they could bring world peace if I just shared them with the world.