For years, Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson has claimed that he was offered a full scholarship to attend the United States Military Academy at West Point but turned it down to attend Yale. Carson has repeated this claim on numerous occasions and even includes it in his book Gifted Hands. Although the story is inspirational, there’s a problem—it never happened.
When Kyle Cheney of the news site Politico published a story claiming that Carson had fabricated the event, the candidate protested vehemently, insisting that his words had been misrepresented. Cheney had reported that the USMA had no record of an application from Ben Carson, and furthermore that there’s no such thing as a “full scholarship” to West Point since the military academy charges no tuition or fees.
As a high school student, Carson had been a member of the ROTC, and West Point would have been a logical next step in a military career. To get into West Point, you need a nomination from a high-ranking member of the government. Carson claimed that by “offer” he meant that military leaders he met through ROTC told him they could arrange a nomination for him. And as for the “full scholarship”—well, all students at the Military Academy get a full scholarship, so what’s the big deal?
If you’re a Democrat, you probably view this as a clear case of dissembling—getting caught in a lie and trying to twist it into a truth. If you’re a Republican, you no doubt see this incident as yet another witch hunt by the liberal media. If you’re a cognitive psychologist, you know this is one more example of just how unreliable our memories are. And if you have an inclination toward the paranormal, you might even consider this to be another instance of the Mandela effect.
According to paranormal researcher Fiona Broome, the Mandela effect occurs whenever a vivid personal memory is found to conflict with the historical record. Broome recalls TV reports from around 1980 that Nelson Mandela had died in prison. Naturally, she was surprised to learn of his release and election as president of South Africa in 1994. When she shared this experience with friends at Dragon Con, she learned that others had had similar “false memories.”
Broome believes memories that are out of sync with recorded history occur because our minds get entangled with alternate universes. According to the “Many Worlds” hypothesis proposed by quantum physicists Hugh Everett and Bryce DeWitt, the world splits into parallel universes every time a quantum event happens. Thus, while Nelson Mandela did not die in prison in the 1980s, at least in this universe, there is some other universe in which this did occur. And Broome’s memory of the event is proof that her mind has come into contact with that alternate universe!
Michael Shermer, editor of Skeptic Magazine, does an excellent job of debunking the Mandela effect. So there’s little I can add to his arguments. Besides, if you buy into the idea of memories from alternate universes, no amount of logic or reasoning will dissuade you from your beliefs. But if you’d like to learn more about the ways our memories change over time, you can watch Elizabeth Loftus’s fascinating TED Talk on the unreliability of memory.
From my perspective as a cognitive psychologist, there’s more than faulty memory behind the Mandela effect and Ben Carson’s imaginary scholarship from West Point. It’s not just that our memories are unreliable, it’s that our intuitions about how memory works are inaccurate as well.
We’d like to think of memory as a record of our past. However, as I’ve argued elsewhere in this blog, record-keeping isn’t part of our memory’s job description. Instead, it’s charged with helping us predict the future to guide behavior, and to this end it selectively stores bits and pieces of our experience that might come in handy. Our memories simply aren’t concerned with historical accuracy, and any bits of information acquired later that may help with future predictions get woven into the fabric of memory as though they’d always been there.
When we attempt to recollect the past, we’re asking our memories to do something they were never designed for. Instead of calling up a series of events as they occurred, the mind scrounges up bits and pieces of stored experiences and constructs them into a story that makes sense in the present. And each time a story is retold, whatever embellishments that might have been added for literary effect get encoded along with the original events. That’s why “the fish that got away” gets bigger and bigger with each retelling.
I doubt Carson ever intentionally lied about West Point. I can see how an impressionable youth being told that he was a good candidate for the Military Academy (which, incidentally, has free tuition) can turn into a middle-aged politician telling people he’d been offered a full scholarship from West Point. Understanding that human memory works this way, however, doesn’t exonerate Carson.
Public officials in this country have always undergone the scrutiny of the press. And in our information age, there’s no such thing as a private record. Any claim by a public figure can be fact-checked, and it should be, too. But this also means that anyone making a public claim should first fact-check their own memory. Just because you remember something “as if it had happened yesterday,” this doesn’t mean that you recall it correctly.
Admitting that your memory of an event is incorrect can be difficult. Instead of meekly eating our slice of humble pie, we become defensive: “That’s not what I meant.” “You’re twisting my words.” “You’re taking me out of context.”
Or else we concoct elaborate stories to explain why our memories are true even when it’s obvious they’re not. As far as I know, Carson hasn’t invoked the Mandela effect. But who knows? Maybe in some alternate universe, Ben Carson really did get an offer of a full scholarship from West Point. Just not in this one.
Broome, F. The Mandela Effect. Retrieved from http://mandelaeffect.com/.
Cheney, K. (2015, Nov. 6). Exclusive: Carson claimed West Point ‘scholarship’ but never applied. Politico. Retrieved from http://www.politico.com/story/2015/11/ben-carson-west-point-215598.
Loftus, E. (2013). How reliable is your memory? TED. Retrieved from http://www.ted.com/talks/elizabeth_loftus_the_fiction_of_memory.
Shermer, M. (2015, Sept. 20). The “Mandela effect.” Skeptic. Retrieved from http://www.skeptic.com/insight/the-mandela-effect/.
Weigel, D. & Fahrenthold, D. A. (2015, Nov. 6). New front-runner Ben Carson faces closer scrutiny of his life story. The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/newly-minted-frontrunner-ben-ca….
David Ludden is the author of The Psychology of Language: An Integrated Approach (SAGE Publications).