A few years ago, there were twin sisters both enrolled as graduate students in the Cognition and Development program at Emory University, where I teach. We were in a seminar discussing childhood memories, when Katie (pseudonym) recalled a memory of being on the backyard swings, and trying to swing too high, propelled herself into the air and onto the ground. Her twin sister, Kelly, said, “What do you mean? That was me!”. In addition to creating animated class discussion, this exchange spawned a family dispute.
A study by Mercedes Sheen, Simon Kemp and David Rubin confirms what many of us have experienced in our own families – siblings dispute what happened to who in childhood. This is more frequent in twins (and we can think of all kinds of reasons why), but it also happens in siblings, especially if they are close in age. Disputes over what happened to whom in childhood points to a larger phenomenon of disputed family memories. I can recall many times when my sister, three years older than me, and I disagreed about our childhood experiences, sometimes about who experienced a particular event, but more often, about other details, such as relatives who were there or not, and most especially about our different evaluations of the experience, one of us raving about how much fun it was and the other sure it was a disaster. My sister still tries to convince me how much fun I had on a roller coaster that I recall as one of the most traumatic experiences of my life!
Memory researchers know a lot about how these kinds of errors in memory are constructed over time. We blend memories from similar experiences together; we add bits and details from one event into memories of another; we make inferences based on what we know now about what must have happened then. Sometimes we are aware of this, we consciously reconstruct the memory: “Well, I can't really remember, but I know it was when I was in 5th grade, and we were living in Des Moines…” and so forth. But most of the time, these kinds of inferences and blendings happen automatically, outside of our conscious awareness, and we are completely sure that we are remembering accurately. Yet our family may remember it differently, and be just as sure that they are right!
Last week, Sue Shellenbarger, who writes on work and family matters for the Wall Street Journal, called to ask me about disputed family memories: why do parents and children, or siblings, sometimes disagree about shared family experiences and, more importantly, why does it matter? Ms. Shellenberg spoke with me and many other key researchers in this area, and wrote an intriguing column exploring this question. She also got me thinking more about it. Sometimes these family disputes are just funny, or slightly frustrating. But sometimes they are deeply meaningful, especially when families disagree about difficult experiences. When families experience stressful events, being able to talk about it openly, and validate each other’s emotions and reactions, can be an important part of the healing process.
In our research in the Family Narratives Lab, we study how families talk about difficult experiences together, experiences such as the death of a grandparent, or an especially turbulent family fight. Many of the families we study are able to talk openly and honestly about these experiences, and individual family members’ reactions. When they disagree, whether about the facts of what happened (e.g., No, Aunt Bertha was not at Grandpa’s funeral, so she could not have been the one that cooked breakfast for you; I think it was Aunt Linda you are thinking about?), or, especially the emotional aspects of the experience (e.g., Actually, I was very sad, I just didn't cry because I did not want to upset my mother), they do so in more open ways, explaining, negotiating, consulting each other’s’ memories, and ultimately agreeing on a shared story. This is good for families; although the agreed upon memory may deviate in some details form what may have actually happened, all family members perspectives are honored. Adolescents in these families show high levels of self-esteem and self-efficacy, the idea that one is an effective agent in the world.
In contrast, some of the families we study are quite disharmonious, simply negating each other’s’ facts and feelings, with little opportunity to talk it through or negotiate different perspectives. This is not so good. Adolescents in these families, perhaps not surprisingly, are not doing so well. These kinds of family interactions set the stage for difficult family memories over time. Laughing over who really was the one who fell off the swing may provide entertainment, but disputing emotional perspectives over family tragedies and difficulties may lead to family rupture.
So, what can you do, either at the time of a family challenge, or later, when different perspectives become apparent? Open family communication entails listening to each other, trying to understand events from others’ perspectives, rather than imposing your own. When there is a dispute, stop and listen. Explain, negotiate, consult. Maybe it is not your family member who got it wrong, maybe it is you.
Sheen, M., Kemp, S., & Rubin, D. (2001). Twins dispute memory ownership: A new false memory phenomenon. Memory & Cognition, 29(6), 779-788.
Shellenbarger, S. (2017). The family memory you think you have. Wall Street Journal, June 28.
Bohanek, J. G., Marin, K. A., Fivush, R., & Duke, M. P. (2006). Family narrative interaction and children's sense of self. Family process, 45(1), 39-54.