Everybody Is Stupid Except You

The truth about learning and memory.

The Fatal Flaw of the Storyteller

Your memory changes every time you tell a story.

A recent New York Times series revealed a lot about Apple's manufacturing process in China. Although the articles were fascinating, they weren't full of drama or poignant moments. They weren't stories.

This American Life ran the opposite sort of story. Mike Daisey, a storyteller adopting the guise of a journalist, told about his own investigation of Apple. His story was chock full of dramatic moments. It was also full of lies.

To their credit, This American Life put together an amazing show chronicling in graphic detail what went wrong. In part, it came down to a he-said she-said problem.

Daisey admits that parts of his story aren't true (at least the way normal people define true). But there are other elements he claims are true. His translator, who was with him the whole time, says they are false. For example, he says he spoke to a factory worker who said she was 13 years old. He also says she spoke to him in English. His translator says none of the workers said they were 13 and none of them (on this day at least) spoke in English.

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Who to Trust?

These events took place two years ago, so both parties have had plenty of time to forget. Mr. Daisey also has a reason to lie, and a track record of doing so. But let's assume Mr. Daisey really believes what he is (now) saying. 

We have one person (Mr. Daisey) who has spent two years developing and telling this story over and over again, and one (his translator) who hasn't thought about it at all. So who should we trust? Mike Daisey has been rehearsing and strengthening his memories for years; he's basically been studying the story. The intuitive answer is he should remember it more accurately. This intuitive answer is wrong.

Police have to be very careful when questioning witnesses. They basically treat a witness's memory like a crime scene: once you go over it a single time, it's irreversibly disturbed. For example, asking a biased question, even unintentionally, can make a witness tell their story a little differently. Doing so doesn't just change the story; it changes the witness's memory, permanently and irreversibly. And this isn't just true of witnesses. The more we tell stories, the more our memories change. 

Recipe for a False Memory

There's a basic recipe for making a false memory: imagine a scene in vivid detail, do so repeatedly, and believe that what you're imagining is real. Consider again Mike Daisey's supposed conversation in English with a 13-year-old girl. He has surely replayed this incident in his memory dozens or hundreds of times. He surely remembers it each time in detail. Even if it never happened, this would make it seem completely real to him. And of course it's in English—his imagination speaks English, not Mandarin Chinese. What he's really remembering, each time he tells the story, is whatever he remembered the last time he told the story. His translator may have rehearsed less, but her memory is also less warped. 

I personally try to be careful about remembering stories too often, because I know they're subject to change. I know the second time I tell a story, what I'm remembering is the first time I told the story. And the 201st time, I'm really remembering the 200th time. Many of our memories are records of our own stories, not of events that actually took place.

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Nate Kornell, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Williams College.

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