"Oh, what a tangled web we weave
When first we practice to deceive!"
One of the great difficulties with successfully telling lies may be remembering to whom you've told which story. Although memory researchers have generally ignored this problem, Gopie and MacLeod recently looked at remembering to whom you've told information - what they called destination memory. They found that remembering to whom you've told a fact is more difficult than remembering from whom you've learned a fact. For memory, to is harder than from. Destination memory may be related to a host of real world memory problems, including the tangled web of lies.
Like most of you, I've been on the receiving end of destination memory failures. We've all had friends and family members tell us the same story multiple times. Sometimes, I try to quickly note that I've already heard this. If the person is repeating a joke, I might quickly cut to the punch line. When I can't forestall the retelling, I feel like I'm stuck in the movie "Groundhog Day" and forced to repeat the same events over and over again.
In addition, I frequently experience problems with destination memory as a college professor. For example, I have to remember whether I've already told a class a particular story. Although my students enjoy some of my stories, they don't like the third or fourth retelling (I can tell by the rolling eyes and exasperated sighs when I'm repeating myself). The opposite problem of destination memory is just as bad - believing I've already told a class something and assuming the students have that information. In this case, I get blank stares and head shakes. Either way, I would prefer remembering whether or not I have already told something to a group of students.
When describing destination memory, Gopie and MacLeod likened it to source memory (memory of where, when, and from whom you learned something). They argued that both involve memory for the episodic content of an experience. In contrast to destination memory, source memory is well studied. We know that source memory fades more rapidly than memory for the knowledge learned on a particular occasion. For example, someone can look familiar to me even when I can't recall where and when I met them (see my earlier post: "Haven't I Seen You Somewhere Before"). The tangled web quote is an excellent example of source memory problems. Although Sir Walter Scott wrote the lines in his poem Marmion, the line is frequently misattributed to William Shakespeare (such was my own belief until my wife suggested I double-check).
Destination memory may explain one stereotype of older Americans - the tendency to repeat the same stories over and over again. Source memory is related to development and aging. Typically, researchers have found that young children and older adults experience more difficulty tracking the source of information they learn. Since destination memory shares a reliance on episodic memory with source memory, I suspect it will also display age differences: Tracking destination memory may become more difficult as people age. Older adults may know that they want to share a story with you, but may not be able to remember that they have already told you the story.
Lying may present a particular problem for destination memory. Gopie and MacLeod argued that people are more self focused when planning and sharing information than when receiving information. This additional self focus means less focus on, and thus less memory of, one's conversation partner. Telling lies may involve a lot of self focus as one tries to construct a believable story. If one tells different stories to different people, then remembering who heard which version is going to be hard.
Keeping things straight will be simpler is we stick to the truth. We may repeat ourselves, but we won't confuse which audience heard which story.
Of course, you could choose to stick with a single misleading story. You could tell everyone the same lie. As the pathological liar said on Saturday Night Live, "That's the ticket."