Public figures who make erroneous claims about events from their past become the target of scorn, ridicule, and potential job loss. Brian Williams is the most recent to receive such condemnation, but he’s far from the only one to fabricate events placing him in a more favorable light than he deserves. Psychologists have long known that human memory is subject to frailty.
The ordinary person makes faulty self-attributions in memory all the time. Most of us have a desire to view our identity in a positive way. As a result, when events occur that challenge our self-image, the memory of those events morph over time until eventually the rough edges are smoothed over and we emerge the hero.
It’s also easy to implant a false memory in someone; the Deese-Roediger-McDermott technique dramatically demonstrates this. Just read someone a list of words from a category, but don’t include the category name. Then, ask your “subject” to recall the words that you just presented. Chances are, the category name will appear in the words they repeat back to you.
From a strictly cognitive point of view, false memories represent a variety of mental errors we are prone to make, such as forgetting who said what (“source” memory) or being led to think something happened that didn’t (“priming”). The Deese-Roediger-McDermott technique is an example of false memory caused by priming.
Forgetting is more than cognitive slippage when it comes to memory for your past. The error made by Brian Williams reflects the intersection of identity and memory—a process known as autobiographical memory. Within the category of autobiographical memory is self-defining memory, a vivid recollection of a past event that reflects what you value most about your life history.
When you erroneously recall a past event, you do so in a way consistent with the way you wish, ideally, to see yourself. This is what happened to Williams. He created a false self-defining memory in which he "remembered" himself as being in a helicopter shot down over Iraq in 2003. In fact, his helicopter was not shot down. As the years went by, his desire (perhaps unconscious) to see himself as a heroic news reporter in this incident led him to reshape his recall until he apparently believed it to be true.
In scouring the literature for a recent publication on false autobiographical memory to provide perspective on the Williams situation, I came across a 2007 paper by the University of Plymouth’s Giulana Mazzoni and the University of Firenze’s Manila Vannucci that provides insight into self-enhancing false memories. They contrasted the “memory impairment” hypothesis—that false memories reflect flaws in how we process information—with the “biased reconstruction” hypothesis, which assumes that we build false memories over time.
As Mazzonni and Vannucci state, in biased reconstruction, “lack of memory needs to be compensated by reconstructive inferential processes that use the outcome information as an anchor” (p. 210). This means that when you don’t remember an event, you essentially create it at the time when you’re trying to recall it. You judge whether the event might have occurred based on the way you think about yourself now. These authors believe that it is biased reconstruction that accounts for false autobiographical memories, particularly when these are shaped by social expectations.
These reconstructive processes we use in autobiographical memory aren’t deliberate. You don’t start out intending to remember something that didn’t happen in a way that proves to be self-enhancing. It’s only when you can’t remember an event that reconstruction kicks in. You try to make sense out of it based on the way you view yourself in general. If you wish to view yourself as the hero, you'll introduce memories of yourself as acting in heroic ways.
Let's take an example from everyday life: Perhaps you pride yourself on being socially skilled. However, a relative confronts you about your behavior during a family occasion when you were rude to a guest. You’ve got no recollection of the event at all and, in fact, thought you were being unusually gracious at the time. Stunned by the confrontation, you’ve got no way to account for this discrepancy. In fact, a few months ago, in retelling the event to a friend (before the revelation), you describe it in a way that emphasizes just how socially adept you are. Instead of being rude, you describe yourself as welcoming and friendly—“Yes, I saw Jane, and I told her how nice she looked."
As you dispute your relative’s claim, details start to emerge that confirm its veracity. Slowly, bits and pieces of the interaction drift back into your awareness, and you are now wiser, if not sadder, about your rudeness. The realization that your memory is inaccurate only adds to your embarrassment. Fortunately, your memory-shattering relative reassures you that this was an anomaly from your normally pleasant social behavior.
Let's take another example: Maybe you pride yourself on having a great memory. Ironically, being forced to realize that you forgot something important (such as an appointment with a new client at work) brings you face-to-face with your own fallibility. Again, though, as time goes by, the shifting sands of memory lead you to recall the event as the client's fault, not yours.
There’s no need to be ashamed when your mind creates or distorts events from the past. Unless you’re a news reporter, a candidate running for office, or a celebrity whose every move is documented in the press, most people will not give you a particularly hard time about your memory slips.
As the years go by, memories from your past become more and more integrated into your sense of self and become part of the retelling of your life story. Their “reality” may fade, but their centrality to your sense of self continuously matures over time. Recalling less and less about the painful events and more about the happy ones may even help you adapt with the life challenges you face as you get older.
On those occasions when you are forced to confront a mental lapse that doesn’t coincide with your self-image (or reality), you can gain useful lessons about yourself. What is it about your identity that causes you to want to see yourself as, for example, socially adept? Are there reasons that you recall the times you remember something but not the times you forgot? These questions help you understand your personal values, and perhaps even their roots. Maybe you had a teacher who criticized you so harshly for forgetting test material that you can't bear to confront your ordinary mental foibles.
It can be tough to admit that your behavior doesn’t measure up to your thoughts about your behavior when that behavior reflects negatively on your sense of self. Without beating yourself up too hard, the insights you gain can promote your fulfillment, both now and when you look back on the story of your life.
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Mazzoni, G., & Vannucci, M. (2007). Hindsight bias, the misinformation effect, and false autobiographical memories. Social Cognition, 25(1), 203-220. doi:10.1521/soco.2007.25.1.203
Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2015