The Politics of Memory
How to distinguish honest misremembering from deliberate attempts to mislead.
Posted Nov 29, 2017
If people say “I don’t remember” when giving testimony, how can we tell if they truly don’t recall or if they do know but simply don't want to admit it? It's difficult to determine with certainty, but it is possible to make reasonable judgments about the veracity of such testimony.
Memory can be accurate, allowing us to retain important events in our lives, as well as necessary practical and personal information. Memory is also demonstrably fallible—but fallible in predictable ways.
What Do We Remember Well?
We remember beginnings and endings. We remember emotional events and consequential events, typically retaining information about location, our own emotions and the emotions of others, perceptual details, and what we were doing at the time. We remember anchoring events and turning points in our lives. We also remember the general characteristics of repeated events. Overall, we remember what we need to remember to conduct our daily lives.
What Mistakes Are Typical?
Mostly we forget—a lot. We forget details, verbatim conversations, items that do not have direct meaning (such as people’s names), where we placed things, what we are not paying close attention to, the middles of sequences, the original sources of memories, dates, and the frequency of events.
We also make errors of commission, many of which are composite images: specific images from different time periods overlaid on one another, as in superimposed imagery. People can be inserted into scenes in which they were not present. The people are remembered accurately and the locations are remembered accurately, but the people are not placed in the correct locations. Ordinarily, this kind of mistake may not be serious, but in public statements and in legal settings, it can be.
Regarding Controversial Statements by Public Figures
During his confirmation hearings for Attorney General in January of this year, Senator Jeff Sessions denied ever meeting with the Russian ambassador during the 2016 presidential campaign. In fact, he met with the ambassador twice.
Memory research tells us that the gist and details of infrequent and noteworthy events are typically remembered very well. Therefore, it is reasonable for a memory psychologist to assume that Jeff Sessions did remember the meetings with the ambassador but said otherwise.
If we’ve done something more than three times, we often have difficulty recalling the details of each instance. Although, as events are repeated, our memory for the gist of these events actually grows stronger. It is possible, therefore, that Alabama Senate candidate, Roy Moore, honestly forgets many of the specifics of his intimate interactions with teenage girls when he was in his early thirties. However, it is unlikely to the point of implausibility that Moore forgets all of these details and even more unlikely that he forgets the gist of these interactions.
More broadly, those people who have sexually harassed employees in their workplace are able to remember doing so. They can also recall some of the specifics (especially involving the initial harassments and the most recent), but—unfortunately—if they have engaged in harassment multiple times, they may forget details that the victimized people remember very clearly.
What about mistakes of commission? When presidential candidate Donald Trump said he remembered seeing “thousands and thousands” of Arab Americans “cheering” in New Jersey “as the World Trade Center came tumbling down,” he was inaccurate. No such event occurred. But could that inaccuracy be a mistake of memory? Reuters recorded images of a small number of people cheering in the streets of East Jerusalem when they heard about the attack on the World Trade Center—images that were shown on the major networks of FOX, CNN, and NBC. In fact, NBC showed the footage just after a live report from the vicinity of the collapsed World Trade Center.
Thus, a composite image could have formed in memory from these juxtaposed events, and candidate Trump could have been honestly misremembering.
When Mr. Trump stuck by his version of memory, he reportedly said that he, Donald Trump, had “the world’s greatest memory.” This last statement shows flawed metamemory—faulty knowledge about the strengths and limitations of one’s own memory system. When Mr. Trump later proposed that he didn't remember saying he had the world's greatest memory, that statement was plausible. We are not very reliable at a verbatim recall of our own words.
One resonant conclusion from research on mistaken memories is that very few personal memories are simply made up—or fabricated. Mistakes of commission usually result from blending memories whose components accurately represent original experience. Even erroneous memories represent much of the original experience accurately. If a remembered event appears to arise from nothing in the world, chances are it originated from an inaccurate second-hand source or was purposely made up.
One example of such a statement is the claim by President Trump that President Obama wiretapped Trump Tower during the 2016 presidential campaign.
Final Words on Misremembering and Misleading
When inaccurate statements are made, we cannot tell definitively if a person is lying or honestly misremembering, but we can make reasonable judgments about honesty—based on what people typically forget, what they remember very well, and mistakes of commission that occur only rarely. I urge discretion in diagnosing the dishonesty of statements, but I also urge proactive skepticism if public figures apparently forget easily remembered information or if they describe memories that do correspond at all to documented events in the world.