Joe Biden and the Case for False Memories

Memories, false memories, non-believed memories, and politicians.

Posted Aug 30, 2019

Recent news reports indicate that while campaigning for president, Joe Biden has told a compelling story of wartime heroism and of awarding a soldier a medal. Unfortunately, the story appears to be false. But Biden probably isn’t lying. Instead, Biden has demonstrated a common memory error.

When we remember, we often feel that we are completely accurate. Our memories feel true. We can see the details. We know we don’t remember everything, but we do recall many things⁠—and we trust those recollections. But memory isn’t like a video of a past event.

Instead, we reconstruct our memories each time we remember and share a story. We take some details from one event in memory. Maybe add in a few details from similar, but different, events. Combine that with some general knowledge. Mix these pieces together and create a new memory. We can also lead people to create false memories. When we simply give people a few suggestions, they can create rather dramatic false memories (see spilled punch and false memories).

How do we know that Joe Biden’s memory is probably false? His story has recently been checked by reporters at the Washington Post. Biden has repeatedly told a story about awarding a medal to a soldier who had recovered the body of a fallen comrade. This supposedly occurred in Afghanistan when Biden was Vice President. But the Post reporters checked and could not find support for the story. Biden didn’t give such a medal when visiting Afghanistan. Biden has actually told variations of this story since his time as a senator⁠—going back to 2008, before he served as VP. The Post tracked the changes in the story over time. They considered other events that Biden may have combined into the story he now tells. But the final conclusion is simple: Biden’s story isn’t true.

This example is a goldmine for a cognitive psychologist who studies memory. We know that everyone makes these errors. Obviously, politicians do. For example, Ronald Reagan liked to tell an old war story. But that story most likely came from a war movie (Johnson, 2006). More recently, reporters fact checked various stories from Ben Carson’s autobiography when he ran for president. Some of Carson’s autobiographical memories were also probably constructions. As I noted about Carson, the rest of us should be glad that the fact checkers don’t follow up on every autobiographical story that we tell. Some of our beloved memories would undoubtedly be false memories. Maybe most would be false memories, at least to a certain extent.

This is why the Biden story is so interesting. The reporters looked at the various versions of the story that Biden has told for the last several years. They tracked the changes as he talked with different audiences. They considered other events that may have been combined to create the version Biden currently tells.

This is what memory researchers can seldom accomplish. We can lead people to create false memories⁠—something many of us have done (for a nice review, check Scoboria et al, 2017). But we never do the long-term versions of tracking the memories as they continue to change. When the study is over, we don’t track people down. We don’t look at changes in memories over the course of years. But Biden’s memory is completely consistent with the predictions of memory theory. People reconstruct. They reconstruct each time they recall an event. The memories may continue to change as we continue to share the story.

Finally, I want to make an important point. The observation that politicians share memories that don’t match what actually happened isn’t necessarily problematic. Politicians remain human, so we should expect their memories to be reconstructed like everyone else’s. The only meaningful question to ask is how they respond when confronted with the different versions. Do they acknowledge that their memories have changed? This could provide evidence for something else fascinating about memories.

We sometimes are confronted with clear evidence that what we remember isn’t true. Nonetheless, we continue to remember the event. But now, we may have a memory that we no longer trust. Alan Scoboria called these non-believed memories (Scoboria et al., 2014). The memory remains, but we no longer trust it.

I discovered one of my memories cannot be true. I recalled attending a conference and wandering around an interesting city with a good academic friend. The problem? That friend did not attend that conference. My memory is clearly false. But the memory remains. I can still see and recall the event in my mind. Now I know, however, that the memory is false. I no longer believe my memory.

All of us reconstruct memories. Most of us have some memories that we no longer believe. The difference between politicians and the rest of us? Most of us don’t have reporters fact-checking every experience we share with others.

References

Johnson, M. K. (2006). Memory and reality. American Psychologist, 61, 760-771.

Scoboria et al. (2014). The role of belief in occurrence within autobiographical memories. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 143, 1242-1258.

Scoboria, A., Wade, K., Lindsay, D. S., Azad, T., Strange, D., Ost, J., Hyman, I. E., Jr. (2017). A mega-analysis of memory reports from eight peer-reviewed false memory implantation studies.  Memory, 25, 146-163.  DOI: 10.1080/09658211.2016.1260747

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