Update: Fixed some typos.
You probably think that you remember how you first heard about the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. When I think back to the events of that day, I feel like I’m playing back a video recording of the events as I experienced them. That experience of vividness is misleading, though. Highly emotional and meaningful events produce memories that are more vivid, but those memories are subject to the same distortions that affect more run-of-the-mill memories. In The Invisible Gorilla, we reported a test of my memories for 9/11. I wrote out a detailed description of everything I could recall: who was with me, what I was doing, where I was, what I did after first hearing about it, what I did for the rest of that day. The narrative I produced was extensive and detailed. I then emailed each of the people I remembered having been with me that day and asked them to recall their own memories for that day’s events. I told them nothing about what I remembered. As it turns out, 2 of the people I remembered being there had definitive evidence that they weren’t. And, I hadn’t remembered the person who was actually in the room with me at the time we first heard and was there for the entire morning!
One of the main reasons we suffer from the Illusion of Memory is that we rarely have the opportunity to test the accuracy of our vivid memories. We just trust that those rich details we can remember must reflect what actually happened. I encourage you to try this test for yourself — you might be surprised by the discrepancies between your own memories and those of the people who were with you.
Although most people don’t get regular evidence of memory distortions, celebrities and politicians do. Yet, the media often examines the claims politicians make about their past. For example, Hilary Clinton famously claimed during the 2008 presidential primary to have come under sniper fire when landing in Bosnia some years earlier. Yet, contemporary media coverage revealed a greeting ceremony on the tarmac in which a Bosnian child read her a poem — no snipers. We can’t say for certain if Hilary was lying or misremembering, but what was striking during the primary was the assumption that she must have been lying. The sort of recollection would be entirely consistent with more typical memory distortion.
Thanks to a tip from a reader of our blog, I encountered an even more dramatic example of proven memory distortion. In a 1995 film, Captain Robert Daniell was interviewed about his experiences with the British army when he helped liberate the Belsen concentration camp. The details of the interview are documented in an edited volume about the Belson camp (Reilly et al, 1997):
Daniell recounted how he was the first British soldier to go into Belsen and how he ’saw the gas ovens, which had been cleaned out because there was no fuel to run them. This was why there were so many corpses lying around … It was pathetic. There were worn paths to each of the gas chambers and on the side a pile of spectacles at least 6ft high.’”
Daniell reported that “it is as clear to me now as it was then.” The only problem is that Belsen didn’t have gas chambers. Daniell’s memory conflated his personal experiences with later coverage of other extermination camps as well as inaccurate popular media coverage of Belsen. Think about that for a moment — most of us would assume that our memory for liberating a Nazi camp would be indelibly printed in our mind. It would be something we couldn’t forget. How could you forget it. But, memory doesn’t work like a video recording, and our memories can (and often do) change over time.
Unfortunately, people use mistaken memories like Daniell’s to support revisionist conspiracies about what actually occurred in Nazi Germany. They assume that he was lying about his experiences to cover up some conspiracy. Rather than supporting conspiracies, the example illustrates why we shouldn’t rely solely on individual memory to document historical events. Even if it feels as clear now as it did at the time, what we remember is not necessarily what happened.
As we discuss in The Invisible Gorilla, many conspiracy theories capitalize on memory distortions. A similar pattern emerged from George W. Bush’s mistaken recollection of having seen the first plane hit the World Trade Center (footage of that plane hitting the towers didn’t exist at the time — some footage was discovered months later by a documentary film crew that had accidentally recorded it). Conspiracy theorists assumed that Bush must be remembering correctly, which meant that he must have know about the attack in advance. Far more likely is that his memory was distorted via the same mechanisms that lead to my memory distortion as well as those of politicians and soldiers.
The next time you hear a politician or celebrity make a false claim about what they remember, keep in mind that they might not be lying maliciously. They might not even realize their memory is wrong (and if you tell them, they might not believe you).
Big chest thump to Michael Stopp for directing me to the quotes from Daniell.
Reilly, J., Cesarani, D., Kushner, T., & Richmond, C. (1997). Belsen in history and memory. Frank Cass: London.
Just about anything written by Elizabeth Loftus about memory distortion.