Sometimes we get caught telling a whopper. But sometimes, our whopper may not actually be a lie. Maybe it is a memory error. How should you respond when you get caught?

Last week the White House Chief of Staff, General John Kelly, said something that wasn’t actually true. He clearly told a whopper. Many people in the media quickly assumed that he was lying.

Here’s the short version of what happened, in case you don’t follow every bit of news from the White House (or if you are reading this a few months from now and have forgotten this temporary crisis). By the way, I know that everyone who reads this short version will see it as a biased retelling, but we must get to the misinformation provided by General Kelly. So the quick version: President Trump called the family of a service member who was killed in action. In offering his condolences, he made some awkward statements that many have found insulting. A member of Congress (Representative Frederica Wilson), who is a close friend of the family, reported on the nature of President Trump’s comments. General Kelly, White House chief of staff, defended the President. In doing so, he told his whopper. He complained about other behaviors by Representative Wilson. In particular, he stated that when she spoke at the dedication of a federal building, she claimed to have obtained the money for the building, and said she did so by personally calling then President Obama. General Kelly claimed everyone in the audience was stunned. Unfortunately for General Kelly, there was a video of Representative Wilson’s comments. She did not do or say anything like what General Kelly claimed. She complimented many other people, including republicans. She wasn’t even a member of Congress at the time, and the audience applauded her.

So clearly General Kelly’s description of the event does not match the video evidence.


One possible explanation is that General Kelly lied. He deliberately made false statements in an attempt to make Representative Frederica Wilson look bad. He did so in an effort to support the White House and President Trump (his boss, after all). Probably there are lots of people who have lied to support their bosses. In the news media and on social media, people seem to assume that such a blatantly false description must be an intentional lie.

Of course, there is another possibility.

General Kelly was at the event. He may honestly remember Representative Wilson’s comments as he described them. Memory is imperfect. We can easily be led to believe things that are not true. Following leading questions, we can identify the wrong person as the perpetrator of a crime. We can be led to believe that we spilled punch at a wedding or rode in a hot air balloon as a child.

So maybe General Kelly has a false memory. Of course, I don’t think anyone has been providing General Kelly with false information. Nonetheless, we can also create false memories completely by ourselves. In such a case, someone’s general beliefs may lead to a reconstructed memory that is erroneous. Maybe General Kelly has an atrocious view of members of Congress. Maybe he believes that all of them lie and exaggerate, claiming more credit for things than is actually the case. Maybe he particularly thinks these things for representatives with whom he disagrees, such as Representative Wilson. In that case, he would reconstruct a memory of her that is consistent with his general belief system.

Sometimes we make honest mistakes. Given my knowledge of how fragile memory is, I prefer to give people the benefit of the doubt (here’s another post in which I suggested a public figure may have had a memory error). Memory errors are common. We remember something happening in a particular way. Other people have different memories. In most situations, these conflicts don’t have huge ramifications. Also in most situations, there isn’t video evidence.

But this description that General Kelly provided matters. And there is video evidence. This isn’t quite the simple case of you and me disagreeing about what happened five years ago.

Luckily, there is a simple solution is such circumstances. Apologize. Acknowledge that your memory is in error. Simply say that you misremembered. If General Kelly asks me, apologizing is what I would recommend.

Of course, if you’re lying, you can use the same apology. Simply claim it was a memory error rather than a lie. After all, if you lied in the first place, what’s wrong with another lie to cover it up? Sorry. My memory isn’t perfect and I made an error.

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