Thursday, March 27, 2008

The Foibles Of Memory

Hillary Clinton is taking some pretty hard hits over her faulty memory of a trip to Bosnia. Many have been willing to accuse her of making up a story to augment her claims to be a foreign policy expert and Commander in Chief. While I understand the concept that people should have perfect memories, should be able to recount personal experiences as if they are describing videotape, and should never make mistakes of memory this significant, that's not how memory works.

In psychology, there's a famous example of a faulty memory reconstructed from the stories of others, provided by Jean Piaget.
I can still see, most clearly, the following scene, in which I believed until I was about fifteen. I was sitting in my pram, which my nurse was pushing in the Champs Elysees, when a man tried to kidnap me. I was held in by the strap fastened round me while my nurse bravely tried to stand between me and the thief. She received various scratches and I can still see vaguely those on her face. Then a crowd gathered, a policeman with a cloak and a white baton came up, and the man took to his heels. I can still see the whole scene, and can even place it near the tube station. [Piaget, J., Play, Dreams and Imitation in Childhood, (1951), p. 188]
The problem? Piaget's nanny had fabricated the story in order to try to collect a reward. He learned that the story was false when he was fifteen, but he nonetheless continued to have vivid memories of something that never happened.

What does this have to do with adult memories? Well, our memories are faulty as well. One famous example?
In the 1980 presidential campaign, Ronald Reagan repeatedly told a heartbreaking story of a World War II bomber pilot who ordered his crew to bail out after his plane had been seriously damaged by an enemy hit. His young belly gunner was wounded so seriously that he was unable to evacuate the bomber. Reagan could barely hold back his tears as he uttered the pilot's heroic response: "Never mind. We'll ride it down together." ...this story was an almost exact duplicate of a scene in the 1944 film "A Wing and a Prayer." Reagan had apparently retained the facts but forgotten their source [Schacter, Daniel L., Searching for Memory: The Brain, The Mind, and The Past (New York: Basic Books, 1996), 287).
It now appears that Clinton's memory was contaminated by accounts of a trip to Bosnia, albeit one taken by others six months prior to her trip. It's possible to see how the memory may have been constructed. As Clinton is preparing for her trip, she hears tales of the trip that preceded her. She's traveling with Chelsea, so this worries her. As they fly in, due to concerns about danger, she and Chelsea really are moved to the cockpit and the plane makes a fast descent. What followed? A landing strip greeting probably indistinguishable in any meaningful detail from hundreds of other such greetings she experienced as First Lady. Over time, the mundane details of the trip are forgotten. Meanwhile, she confuses the story of the prior, more harrowing trip with that of her own trip. This didn't happen immediately, but occurred over a period of years. During that time as she retold and built upon her story, nobody stopped to correct her - the memory became historically inaccurate but was real to her.

Everybody's head contains distorted memories; most of us are fortunate enough that nobody cares what we remember, and it's not a media story when our distortions come to light. Here's one of Joe Scarborough's:
…[T]his Bosnia story smacks of gotcha politics. If [Hillary Clinton] had the reputation of being an exaggerator-in-chief, like Al Gore, it would matter. If she had said I invented the Internet, it sticks. One of these gaffes sticks when it compounds an existing problem…
Do you, like Joe Scarborough, remember Al Gore saying that he 'invented the Internet'? If so, you're remembering something that never actually occurred.


  1. The best defense of the Senator’s tall tale that I have heard to date.

    Although I agree with your points in general, it appears to me that the example of Piaget isn't particularly relevant, when you take into account the fact that he was an infant at the time in question and the last time I check the good Senator was an adult at the time in question. (As an aside, I wonder what, if anything Chelsea had to say about the incident . . .)

    Similarly, my (unsupported by any independent research) hunch is that you are more likely to "blur" routine memories (who you met at the receiving line at the White House when you are the First Lady) then you are "remarkable" memories (who you met in the receiving line on your one and only trip to the White House).

    I'd probably take that argument a step farther, and argue that you are more likely to add or subtract related memories (you met several famous people in the reception line and over time you add or subtract from/to the list) then you are to add unrelated details (Someone shot at us while we were in the reception line or remembering that you went to a reception at the White House when you never actually did, etc.)

    The running while under sniper fire story isn't quite as troubling as the "the CIA tried to ruin my daughter's wedding" fiasco", but it is in the same ballpark. I suppose in some ways (and isn’t this sad) it is less troubling because I see it as lying/embellishing the truth as opposed to an example of a politician who suffers from psychotic breaks . . .


    PS - On an unrelated tangent, whether he took the credit for "inventing" it or "creating" it, he is still an arrogant jerk.

  2. The Piaget example does involve memories formed during childhood, but those memories did not go away once Piaget learned that they were false. If your point is that it is easier to implant false memories in small children than in adults, I'll concede.

    You've probably already seen this.

    I'm actually not that interested in defending Hillary Clinton here. I'm more interested in confronting popular conceptions of the way memory works, and the notion that if somebody tells a story that is obviously untrue we can infer that they are deliberately lying. Often that is the case, but sometimes they're honestly relating their memory - but their memory has become completely detached from historical fact.

    Every see Rashomon, or any of its progeny, depicting the same event through the eyes of different people? At some level we all know it happens. But at another, when we go to court, we pretend that eyewitness testimony has a special, elevated status - "He saw it with his own eyes, so it must be true." Well, not necessarily....

  3. Actually, I hadn't seen the parody you provided the link for . . . I certainly hope the misspelling of "Tet" was unintentional.

    To some extent you are resurrecting the old canards/gripes about "eye witness identification." On the one hand I'd like to dismiss all such arguments with a backhand swipe at the status of the person raising the argugment as a member of the defense bar . . . on the other hand, I have to acknowledge how much trouble I would have trying to pick a young man out of a line-up if I only saw him once briefly.


  4. It's a British site. That looks to me like adolescent British humor.


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