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.

1 comment:

Jason The said...

The abilities of the human brain to create a reality we fully believe to be true, but isn't in any epistemic sense has always amazed me.

As an addition to your story, I remember reading in Isaac Asimov's "The Brain" book series that in certain cases of multiple personality disorder, some "personalities" had chemical dependencies or medical needs (such as eye glasses or even kidney treatments) that fooled even doctors, while other "personalities" in the same person required no such assistance.

It's frightening in a way. But also very intriguing.