Two faces in another dimension.
Recent research on the malleability of memory gives us pause to reconsider just how true our stories are. It turns out that we are more suggestible than we’d like to believe. In the 1990s more and more people were coming forward and accusing relatives of sexual abuse. It turned out that the psychotherapeutic community had made a profoundly incorrect assumption that many of the symptoms women in particular were complaining about might have their roots in abuse. Through subtle suggestion and techniques like hypnosis, they encouraged clients to recall a time when a relative or neighbor physically took advantage of them. The only problem was that in many of these cases, it was unequivocally proven that the accused could never have perpetrated these crimes. They were out of the country, they never visited the victims at that time, etc. Research psychologists were beginning to suspect that these memories had been falsely implanted.
In a classic study to examine this issue, Elizabeth Loftus and Jacqueline Pickrelli brought together pairs of siblings and asked the older brother or sister in private about three events that occurred to both of them. They wrote these up in a small book, then added a fourth story that was purely fictional about the time the younger sibling got lost at the mall and that kindly old woman comforted them and helped them get reunited with their parents. The researchers asked the younger sibling to read these stories and affirm whether or not they remembered them. The findings were shocking. Twenty-five percent of the children reported that the false memory was true. When told at the conclusion of the study that the investigators had made up one of the stories, 20% of all participants failed to identify the made-up story as the one. Even more troubling was the fact that months later many of those who thought that the false memory was true still believed it had happened. In follow up studies nearly 25 percent of the participants not only “remembered” the implanted memory but also filled in the missing details.ii While there are interesting challenges and issues with these studies’ methodology, they do illustrate how suggestible we are. How can any of us be certain that a memory is for sure true?
Frederick Bartlett, a Cambridge psychologist, was the first to chronicle this phenomenon.iii He had research subjects read a North American folktale called “The War of the Ghosts,” that depicts a battle between ethereal Indian warriors. When they had concluded reading the tale, Bartlett simply asked them to retell the story. For starters, it turned out that a person’s world view impacted their account in important ways. They distorted the written facts of the story, leaving out important and sometimes essential elements if those pieces of the story contradicted their personal beliefs. At other times subjects would emphasize certain portions of the story while deemphasizing others. Whereas all the subjects started out with the same “experience,” what each told varied widely.
So it is with each of us, even if we have shared common experiences with others. Our telling invariably will diverge over time, often emphasizing diverse facets of the same event. From these studies we can begin to see how we can all read the same story about a political event, or hear a leader deliver a charged speech, and each walk away with a wildly divergent story about what was said and how it was expressed. It’s one of our Achilles Heels and is fertile ground for cultivating the deeply divisive political polarization we’re witnessing today.
Next Week: How the Future Bleeds into the Past
i The Formation of False Memories, Psychiatric Annals, 12/December 1995
ii Bessel Van Der Kolk, M.D. (2014). The Body Keeps the Score. Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. New York: Viking. pp. 191–192. ISBN 978-0-670-78593-3.
iii Remembering: A Study in Experimental and Social Psychology, Cambridge University Press, 1932.