Saturday, November 12, 2011

Memory Problems Are More Significant When You're BS'ing

Rick Perry's inability to recall which government agencies he wanted to eliminate has evoked some sympathetic responses about human memory:
Texas governor Rick Perry's public "d'oh" moment makes for excruciating viewing, yet such is the fragility of memory, it's amazing this kind of thing doesn't happen to politicians more often.

Memory slips are a part of everyday life, from failing to remember a famous actor's name, to going upstairs to get something only to arrive and realise we've forgotten what we went there for. A pertinent study by Icelandic psychologists published in 2007 involved 189 healthy participants aged 19 to 60 keeping a diary record of these kind of memory slips. After a week, the participants had made an average of 6.4 errors each, with the younger ones actually making more errors than the older folk.
That particular article suggests possible reasons that Perry couldn't recall the hire agency because of context ("recall is easier when it's performed in the same context as encoding... If Perry could have simulated the stress of a live debate when he was preparing what he was going to say about the agencies, he would have been more likely to remember all three names when in a real stressful situation.") or interference with competing memories ("The very fact that Perry was able to recall the first two agencies could well have made it more difficult for him to name the third.")

I remain inclined to think that there was a different cause. But either theory reminds me of a video of Jim Morrison performing a Doors song while on the verge of nodding out. His microphone stand is probably the only thing holding him up, but he still hits every note and remembers every word. It's practiced, internalized, believed. But had you asked him to perform, let's say, "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" the experience would have probably been more like Ozzy Osbourne's classic fail.

If Perry's memory problems are simply those that could happen to anybody, it is reasonable to say that it was a matter of how he prepared for the debate. That is, he was not presenting to the debate audience a list of policies that he had carefully contemplated and developed. He was presenting a list that somebody had handed to him, nothing more than a mindless talking point, something that he hadn't thought about, didn't believe, and didn't care about. He was regurgitating somebody else's thoughts onto his audience, and some of it got stuck in his throat.

It's not outside the realm of possibility that somebody can forget one of a list of points, even a short list, that they've internalized. And there are countless examples of people, including politicians, fumbling for a word or using the wrong word even when it's obvious that they know what they have in mind. What was disturbing about Perry was that the answer did not seem to be at the tip of his tongue. The reason it stands out from other similar cases is not that politicians rarely make mistakes, but that it felt like he didn't actually know what the third agency was supposed to be. That he was up there, BS'ing his audience.

The fact that Romney was able to offer up an agency to complete the list ("the EPA") reflects, I think, the shallowness of the Republican race - but really the shallowness of most modern political campaigns. Nobody in their right mind would propose that our nation would be improved by abolishing the EPA, but it's perfectly legitimate for Republican political leaders to engage in anti-EPA demagoguery. It's more than legitimate - it's expected. Call it the surprise of the night: Perry actually pushed back against that suggestion with "Reform, but not abolish". In this insipid political climate, he probably would have earned a round of applause if he had simply grabbed the EPA as #3 rather than continuing to fumble.

It would have been interesting to see how Perry answered a follow-up question, "What does the Department of Commerce do", because I expect that he would have fumbled that answer as well. Another question might be, "Why the Commerce Department?" or "How much money would that save - when we're talking about multi-trillion dollar budgets, isn't the Department of Commerce's annual budget in the realm of a rounding error?" When it's obvious that a candidate is simply reciting talking points prepared by others, why won't our nation's media hold his feet to the fire?

Jon Huntsman, who has suggested that the GOP cannot afford to run away from science, was challenged to identify which of his opponents stood against science. He demurred. I'll give him the benefit of the doubt, that his demurral was to avoid looking like a jerk on camera, as it's easy for a direct response to lead to unpleasant exchanges, "What about so-and-so" follow-ups, accusations of being unfair, etc., but the moderator from that debate no excuse. The precedent is here:
Mitt Romney's recent flip-flop on global warming, and the ease with which he proposed the EPA as an agency that should be abolished, illustrates a problem for Republican candidates. They have helped cultivate a culture of scientific ignorance on the part of their base, and they are handsomely rewarded for doing so by certain industry groups. Romney is not the favorite candidate of the scientifically ignorant base, and I don't think his flip-flop was meant to earn favor with them. I think he was signalling to the energy industry and similar industries that he will allow more pollution, energy exploration in environmentally sensitive areas, won't attempt to regulate greenhouse gases, etc., to keep their money rolling into his campaign.

Mark Twain quipped, "Always tell the truth, then you don't have to remember anything." Romney momentarily lived that philosophy, expressing concerns about global warming consistent with science, then walked them back in the interest of his political career. Perry? He was presenting a packaged talking point that meant nothing to him and that he knows has no political future. And it overloaded his memory circuits.

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