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.