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#OtvTIPS: Why Our Memory Fails Us

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NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON, the
astrophysicist and host of the TV series
“Cosmos,” regularly speaks to audiences
on topics ranging from cosmology to
climate change to the appalling state of
science literacy in America. One of his
staple stories hinges on a line from
President George W. Bush’s speech to
Congress after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
In a 2008 talk, for example, Dr. Tyson
said that in order “to distinguish we
from they” — meaning to divide Judeo-
Christian Americans from
fundamentalist Muslims — Mr. Bush
uttered the words “Our God is the God
who named the stars.”
Dr. Tyson implied that President Bush
was prejudiced against Islam in order
to make a broader point about scientific
awareness: Two-thirds of the named
stars actually have Arabic names, given
to them at a time when Muslims led the
world in astronomy — and Mr. Bush
might not have said what he did if he
had known this fact.
This is a powerful example of how our
biases can blind us. But not in the way
Dr. Tyson thought. Mr. Bush wasn’t
blinded by religious bigotry. Instead,
Dr. Tyson was fooled by his faith in the
accuracy of his own memory.
In his post-9/11 speech, Mr. Bush
actually said, “The enemy of America is
not our many Muslim friends,” and he
said nothing about the stars. Mr. Bush
had indeed once said something like
what Dr. Tyson remembered; in 2003
Mr. Bush said, in tribute to the
astronauts lost in the Columbia space
shuttle explosion, that “the same
creator who names the stars also knows
the names of the seven souls we mourn
today.” Critics pointed these facts out;
some accused Dr. Tyson of lying and
argued that the episode should call into
question his reliability as a scientist
and a public advocate.
When he was first asked for the source
of Mr. Bush’s quotation, Dr. Tyson
insisted, “I have explicit memory of
those words being spoken by the
president. I reacted on the spot, making
note for possible later reference in my
public discourse. Odd that nobody
seems to be able to find the quote
anywhere.” He then added, “One of our
mantras in science is that the absence
of evidence is not the same as evidence
of absence.”
That is how we all usually respond
when our memory is challenged. We
have an abstract understanding that
people can remember the same event
differently. The film “Rashomon” made
this point more than 60 years ago, the
Showtime series “The Affair” presents
each episode from two conflicting
viewpoints, and contradictory witness
testimony is a crime drama trope. But
when our own memories are
challenged, we may neglect all this and
instead respond emotionally, acting as
though we must be right and everyone
else must be wrong.
Overconfidence in memory could
emerge from our daily experience: We
recall events easily and often, at least if
they are important to us, but only
rarely do we find our memories
contradicted by evidence, much less
take the initiative to check if they are
right. We then rely on confidence as a
signal of accuracy — in ourselves and
in others. It’s no accident that Oprah
Winfrey’s latest best seller is called
“What I Know For Sure,” rather than
“Some Things That Might Be True.”
Our lack of appreciation for the
fallibility of our own memories can lead
to much bigger problems than a
misattributed quote. Memory failures
that resemble Dr. Tyson’s mash-up of
distinct experiences have led to false
convictions, and even death sentences.
Whose memories we believe and whose
we disbelieve influence how we
interpret controversial public events, as
demonstrated most recently by the
events in Ferguson, Mo.
Erroneous witness recollections have
become so concerning that the National
Academy of Sciences convened an
expert panel to review the state of
research on the topic. This fall the
panel (which one of us, Daniel Simons,
served on) released a comprehensive
report that recommended procedures to
minimize the chances of false memory
and mistaken identification, including
videotaping police lineups and
improving jury instructions.
A critical concern about eyewitness
memory is the sometimes tenuous
relationship between the accuracy of a
witness’s memory and his confidence in
it. In general, if you have seen
something before, your confidence that
you have seen it and your accuracy in
recalling it are linked: The more
confident you are in your memory, the
more likely you are to be right. But new
research reveals important nuances
about this link.
In a paper published earlier this year,
the cognitive psychologists Henry L.
Roediger III and K. Andrew DeSoto
tested how well people could recall
words from lists they had studied, and
how measured they were in their
recollections. For words that were
actually on the lists, when people were
highly confident in their memory, they
were also accurate; greater confidence
was associated with greater accuracy.
But when people mistakenly recalled
words that were similar to those on the
lists but not actually on the lists — a
false memory — they also expressed
high confidence. That is, for false
memories, higher confidence was
associated with lower accuracy.
To complicate matters further, the
content of our memories can easily
change over time. Nearly a century ago,
the psychologist Sir Frederic Charles
Bartlett conducted a series of
experiments that mimicked the
“telephone” game, in which you
whisper a message to the person next
to you, who then passes it along to the
person next to them, and so on. Over
repeated tellings, the story becomes
distorted, with some elements
remaining, others vanishing, and
entirely new details appearing.
When we recall our own memories, we
are not extracting a perfect record of
our experiences and playing it back
verbatim. Most people believe that
memory works this way, but it doesn’t.
Instead, we are effectively whispering a
message from our past to our present,
reconstructing it on the fly each time.
We get a lot of details right, but when
our memories change, we only “hear”
the most recent version of the message,
and we may assume that what we
believe now is what we always
believed. Studies find that even our
“flashbulb memories” of emotionally
charged events can be distorted and
inaccurate, but we cling to them with
the greatest of confidence.
With each retrieval our memories can
morph, and so can our confidence in
them. This is why the National
Academy of Sciences report strongly
advised courts to rely on initial
statements rather than courtroom
proclamations: A witness who only
tentatively identifies a suspect in a
police station lineup can later claim —
sincerely — to be absolutely certain
that the defendant in the courtroom
committed the crime. In fact, the mere
act of describing a person’s appearance
can change how likely you are to pick
him out of a lineup later. This finding,
known as “verbal overshadowing,” had
been controversial, but was recently
verified in a collective effort by more
than 30 separate research labs.
The science of memory distortion has
become rigorous and reliable enough to
help guide public policy. It should also
guide our personal attitudes and
actions. In Dr. Tyson’s case, once the
evidence of his error was undeniable,
he didn’t dig his hole deeper or wish
the controversy away. He realized that
his memory had conflated his
experiences of two memorable and
personally significant events that both
involved speeches by Mr. Bush. He
probably still remembers it the way he
described it in his talks — but to his
credit, he recognizes that the evidence
outweighs his experience, and he has
publicly apologized.
Dr. Tyson’s decision is especially apt,
coming from a scientist. Good scientists
remain open to the possibility that they
are wrong, and should question their
own beliefs until the evidence is
overwhelming. We would all be wise to
do the same.
There’s a further twist to Dr. Tyson’s
tale. Years before he misremembered
what Mr. Bush said about 9/11, Mr.
Bush himself misremembered what he
had seen on 9/11. As the memory
researcher Daniel Greenberg
documented, on more than one occasion
Mr. Bush recollected having seen the
first plane hit the north tower of the
World Trade Center before he entered a
classroom in Florida.
In reality, he had been told that a plane
had hit the building, but had not seen it
— there was no live footage of the
plane hitting the tower. Mr. Bush must
have combined information he acquired
later with the traces left by his actual
experience to produce a new version of
events, just as Dr. Tyson did. And just
as Dr. Tyson’s detractors assumed that
he had deliberately lied, some Bush
critics concluded that he was
inadvertently leaking the truth, and
must have known about the attacks in
advance.
Politicians are often caught
misremembering their past, in part
because their lives are so well
documented. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s
2008 presidential campaign was
momentarily sidetracked by her own
false memory of a time when, on a trip
to Bosnia as first lady, she had to skip a
greeting ceremony and run from her
plane under sniper fire. As often
happens, her memory was an
embellishment of a real event, a hooked
fish that got bigger in the retelling —
there was fighting in the region, but
not close enough to be a threat. Our
memories tend to morph to match our
beliefs about ourselves and our world.
Mrs. Clinton did go to dangerous places,
but on the tarmac in Bosnia she was
met by children, not bullets.
Do our heroes have memories of clay?
Dr. Tyson, Mr. Bush and Mrs. Clinton
are all intelligent, educated people.
Ordinary memory failures say nothing
about a person’s honesty or
competence. But how we respond to
these events can be telling.
Politicians should respond as Dr. Tyson
eventually did: Stop stonewalling, admit
error, note that such things happen,
apologize and move on. But the rest of
us aren’t off the hook. It is just as
misguided to conclude that someone
who misremembers must be lying as it
is to defend a false memory in the face
of contradictory evidence. We should be
more understanding of mistakes by
others, and credit them when they
admit they were wrong. We are all
fabulists, and we must all get used to it.

This Article was written By CHRISTOPHER F. CHABRIS and featured on NYT
and DANIEL J. SIMONS.

Christopher F. Chabris , a psychology professor at
Union College, and Daniel J. Simons , a
psychology professor at the University of Illinois,
are the authors of “The Invisible Gorilla: How Our
Intuitions Deceive Us.”

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