Thinking critically about false memories

Introducing false memories

Many of us recognise intuitively that our memories aren’t perfect and that we can not only forget things but also misremember others.

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False memories?

False memory research is a burgeoning field where scientists systematically study the fallibility and malleability of human memory.

Their findings can be divided into two categories.

  1. Spontaneous false memories

People can naturally mistake the face of an innocent for that of a rapist, confuse road signs seen during an accident, believe that the car collision was more violent if “crashed into” is used rather than “ran into” during the questioning and so on and so forth.

2. “Unnatural” false memories

The most spectacular forms of false memories are doubtlessly people misremembering being victims of satanic ritual or abducted by space aliens.

The genesis of such fictional memories generally follow these steps:

a) The person goes to a therapist with unspecific problems such as depression, overweight or anxiety.

b) The therapist convinces the person that it is likely he or she had a terrible experience she has repressed.

c) The therapist uses suggestive methods (such as hypnosis) to push the person to try to remember what she allegedly went through.

d) The persons gets persuaded she really experienced all these things.

recovered-memory
So-called “recovered memories”

Plenty of experimental studies have shown that manipulative techniques can spawn entirely fictional memories.

For instance, the cognitive psychologist can tell the test subject that his parents reported he was lost in a mall as a child and give him some true details related to his childhood in order that he gets convinced the person conducting the test really knows of his past. Researchers also often tell subjects to remember real past events in order to increase their confidence in the procedure.

And then, they are asked to imagine having experienced the fictional event. The subjects generally don’t remember it at first but after three sessions of suggestive imagination, many of them can form vivid memories of having gone through this.

The same method can even be applied to a fictional criminal action such as assaulting someone with a weapon or being viciously attacked by an animal.

In any case, there appears to be two necessary conditions for the genesis of such “big” false memories.

a) The person believes that the cognitive psychologist or therapist is in a position to know things about their past they don’t remember.

b) Suggestive techniques (whereby the person imagines having experienced these things) are used.

If these two conditions are satisfied, a certain number of test subjects confuse their imagining the false event with their remembering it really happened.

There is one important limitation of these studies which is often missed out on, though.

To the best of my knowledge, such radical false memories (also called “full” false memories” as the event never occurred) almost always come up through (conscious or unconscious) manipulation and not spontaneously.
(An exception might be memories “retrieved” many decades after an event such as being bombarded during World War 2).

In other words, it is statistically highly unlikely that a woman having kissed a man during an evening would remember being raped by him four years later without any manipulation.

And if this happens, you can bet a lot of money she has some serious mental health issues.

Hillary Clinton’s bizarre “false memories”

During the presidential campaign of 2008, Hillary Clinton was harshly criticised after having claimed she landed under sniper fire in Bosnia whereas she actually took part in a peaceful ceremony.

A memory researcher tried to attribute this to false memories.

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It would be a horrible cliché to begin a post about the reconstructive nature of autobiographical memory with a Proust quote, so instead I’ll begin with something only slightly less cliché: beginning something about memory by talking about my own experience. You see, I’m southern, as anyone who’s ever heard me pronounce the words “pen” and “pin” exactly the same, or refer to any soft drink as a “coke,” can attest. In the south, it’s not uncommon to find people sitting around a grill, or a kitchen table, or pretty much anything you can sit around, participating in what might be described as story contests. These are basically pissing contests, but with words instead of, well, other stuff. The contest usually begins with someone telling a crazy story (usually from their youth), which is followed by someone else telling an even crazier story, and so on, back and forth, until someone tells a story so crazy that nothing believable could ever top it. Now, it goes without saying that these contests involve a great deal of, shall we say, creative interpretation of the events being described. And of course, everyone involved is well aware of this. In fact, because the same people often participate in these contests with each other over the years, you can actually watch the stories change: what started as a mildly dangerous activity changes to an extremely dangerous one, then a deadly one, and ultimately, in the “same” story, the story-teller barely cheated Death. The fish you caught became bigger, and the struggle with the one that got away longer and more grueling.

I’ve participated in many of these contests over the years, and generally do pretty well, because I’ve done a lot of stupid things that really did involve an uncomfortable proximity to death, and as anyone who knows me will readily tell you, I have an uncanny ability to hurt myself in bizarre ways (like the time I got a pencil stuck deep between two toes when I tripped on an Afghan blanket). As I’ve told my stories over the years (I have a long list of them ready to be told at a moment’s notice), and… umm… creatively interpreted them to make them more exciting (than the other person’s), I’ve added a detail here, or increased a measurement (by an order of magnitude) there. That’s just the way the game works.

But here’s the thing: in many cases, I don’t remember which parts really happened and which parts I added for effect in the course of one of those contests. This is a simple case of source monitoring failure. I can’t tell whether I’m remembering the event itself or one of the times I told the story of the event. And what’s worse, the vividness of the memory, or how much I can picture it in my head, doesn’t help, because my brain is just as good at coming up with images of things I made up creatively interpreted as it is at coming up with images of things that actually happened. The reason for this, of course that when my brain is remembering something, it’s just putting it together on the fly from bits and associated pieces. And every time I recall an episode, that recall becomes another associated episode, and the memory for the original episode is therefore altered, making it really easily to mistakenly recall things you thought or said about the episode long after it happened as part of the original episode. In other words, memory is just a form of makin’ shit up.

Why am I telling you all of this? Well, if you’ve been following politics at all, you’ve no doubt heard about Hillary Clinton’s latest gaffe. In a speech last week, she said this about a trip to Bosnia in 1996:

I certainly do remember that trip to Bosnia… we came in in an evasive maneuver… I remember landing under sniper fire… there was no greeting ceremony… we ran with our heads down, we basically were told to run to our cars… there was supposed to be some kind of a greeting ceremony at the airport, we basically were told to run to our cars, that is what happened.

Sounds harrowing, right? Well, it turns out that it didn’t really happen that way, and there’s video to prove it. It seems there weren’t any snipers, or evasive maneuvers, and instead of running to the cars with their heads down, they had a little ceremony on the tarmac. Oops.

Since it became clear that Clinton’s story wasn’t accurate, bloggers and the mainstream media have been taking her to task, and understandably so. If you’re telling a story that’s supposed to demonstrate your experience with dangerous foreign policy situations, and it turns out the story isn’t really true, you’re going to hear about it. But I think it’s unfair to accuse Clinton of lying. Don’t get me wrong, I think all politicians lie, and I’m no fan of Clinton (I voted for her opponent in my state’s primary), but this appears to be a pretty straightforward failure of memory to me, and I’d bet a lot of money that source monitoring has its dirty little hand in it.

To see why I think this is a memory rather than honesty issue, read the following recollection of the trip by Lissa Muscatine, who was on the plane with Clinton (from here):

I was on the plane with then First Lady Hillary Clinton for the trip from Germany into Bosnia in 1996. We were put on a C17– a plane capable of steep ascents and descents — precisely because we were flying into what was considered a combat zone. We were issued flak jackets for the final leg because of possible sniper fire near Tuzla. As an additional precaution, the First Lady and Chelsea were moved to the armored cockpit for the descent into Tuzla. We were told that a welcoming ceremony on the tarmac might be canceled because of sniper fire in the hills surrounding the air strip. From Tuzla, Hillary flew to two outposts in Bosnia with gunships escorting her helicopter.

Add to that the report by a U.S. general who was there on the ground that they were aware of security threats at the time, and the interference of all the other landings that Clinton made in Europe and elsewhere, plus the fact that Senator Clinton has likely told this story many times (it’s in one of her books), and you’ve got a situation that’s ripe for source monitoring errors.

Let’s look at what might have happened. In Germany, Clinton got on a plane that was used specifically because of its ability to maneuver during landings to avoid incoming fire. Undoubtedly, they were told that this was the reason for using the plane. They had flak jackets and Clinton was put into the armored cockpit for the descent, again as a precaution against incoming fire. Add to this the fact that there were credible threats, meaning she was probably rather anxious, and we all know that stress doesn’t make for better overall memory, even if it makes us remember perceptual details better. Hell, maybe even Clinton and her entourage were rushed, after the meeting on the tarmac, to their cars because they were on a tight schedule (not because of the threats), and you get a situation that’s easily distorted by the reconstructive processes of memory into something like the version that Clinton told. In fact, I’d bet that they even told Clinton or someone on her team that in the case of incoming fire, they would have to be rush to their cars with their heads down, instead of having the scheduled ceremony on the tarmac. All this could easily add up to a memory in which the threat, the fear, the flak jackets, etc., add up to a difficulty in remembering what actually happened and what she was afraid might happened. And the fact that Clinton seems to remember it so vividly, contrary to being evidence that she’s lying, is likely just a product of her brain filling in the gaps and building a coherent representation of the episode, just like it’s supposed to do.

None of this makes Clinton’s version of the events in Bosnia in 1996 more accurate, of course, nor does it excuse her and her campaign from not quickly verifying her memory to make sure she wasn’t misremembering. But it doesn’t mean she’s lying, either, and since she’s clearly a rational and intelligent person, it’s unlikely she’d lie about something that easily verified anyway. Instead, my money’s on a mundane, though potentially costly, error resulting from the reconstructive nature of memory. At least, until someone demonstrates otherwise, I’m willing to give her, and her memory, the benefit of the doubt.

As Montaigne put it, “The memory represents to us not what we choose but what it pleases.” Sorry,I had to end with a cliché too!

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I think there are many problems which emerge from this account once you start systematically investigating the case.

The chronology of Hillary Clinton’s recounting of the facts

In order to assess the plausibility of any false memories, we must carefully reconstruct the way the story evolved.

detective-work

In this case, it looks like this:

a) In 1996, Clinton went to Bosnia and participated in a peaceful meeting there.

b) In 2003, in her autobiography entitled “Living History”, Clinton stated:

“Security conditions were constantly changing in the former Yugoslavia, and they had recently deteriorated again. Due to reports of snipers in the hills around the airstrip, we were forced to cut short an event on the tarmac with local children, though we did have time to meet them and their teachers and to learn how hard they had worked during the war to continue classes in any safe spot they could find. One eight-year-old girl gave me a copy of a poem she had written entitled ‘Peace.’ “

This story already contains an embellishment as the event was not cut short. But it isn’t far from the truth.

c) December 30, 2007

“We landed in one of those corkscrew landings and ran out because they said there might be sniper fire. I don’t remember anyone offering me tea on the tarmac there.”

Apart from “running out”, this account is remarkably similar to what she wrote in her autobiography. She only spoke of a threat of actual sniper fire in both cases and would certainly have mentioned her real exposure to the danger if she had believed to have experienced that.

d) February 29, 2008

“I remember, particularly, a trip to Bosnia where the welcoming ceremony had to be moved inside because of sniper fire.”

Here, she strongly insinuated that the sniper fire was real rather than a mere potential threat.

e) March 17, 2008

I remember landing under sniper fire. There was supposed to be some kind of a greeting ceremony at the airport, but instead we just ran with our heads down to get into the vehicles to get to our base.

This is her tallest statement about the story. Here she asserts having fled from actual snipers who were shooting at her.

March 25, 2008

“Now let me tell you what I can remember, OK — because what I was told was that we had to land a certain way and move quickly because of the threat of sniper fire. So I misspoke — I didn’t say that in my book or other times but if I said something that made it seem as though there was actual fire — that’s not what I was told. I was told we had to land a certain way, we had to have our bulletproof stuff on because of the threat of sniper fire. I was also told that the greeting ceremony had been moved away from the tarmac but that there was this 8-year-old girl and, I can’t, I can’t rush by her, I’ve got to at least greet her — so I greeted her, I took her stuff and then I left, now that’s my memory of it.”

Revealingly, Clinton did NOT tell: “my most recent memories of the event diverged from what actually happened“.

Instead, she said she was aware all along she wasn’t being shot at by real snipers and tried to put the controversy behind her by saying she “misspoke”.

April 16, 2008

Well Tom I might told you, I may be a lot of things, but I am not dumb…and I wrote about going to Bosnia in my book in 2004. I laid it out there. And you’re right…on a couple of occasions in the last weeks, I just said things that weren’t in keeping with what I knew to be the case and what I’ve written about in my book and you know, I am embarrassed by it, I have apologised for it, I’ve said it was a mistake and it is I hope something you can look over.

Evaluation

It is highly dubious that Hillary wouldn’t lie if something can be easily verified. For instance, she denied having changed her mind on gay marriage even though it could be clearly seen she was against it before.

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Whilst Hilary Clinton did speak of having a different memory of the event in Bosnia, she always emphasised after the scandal that she was well aware she didn’t face actual snipers.

It seems unlikely she would have lied about this if she indeed mistakenly and innocently thought it had been the case.

It is also extremely improbable she would come to erroneously believe she faced real snipers within only four months without her memory being manipulated.

For all these reasons, it is very implausible that Hillary Clinton misremembered landing under sniper fire, even though she might have been honestly mistaken about other aspects of her recollection.

Conclusion

Scientists working on false memories have done a very good job by showing the unreliability of alleged “recovered memories” of being abused and by demonstrating that eye witnesses can be wrong about important details related to a criminal case. I don’t want to criticise the value of their research and investigations.

Nevertheless, they haven’t, in my opinion, shown that “human memory is totally unreliable” in that people can spontaneously remember a totally fictional event such as being shot at (except, perhaps, many decades after a traumatic war).

Before being considered genuine cases of false memories, incidents such as Hillary Clinton’s gaffe need to be carefully examined in order to assess the plausibility of false memories having caused them. Alternative explanations (such as that of a megalomaniac lie) need to be carefully ruled out.

It is worth mentioning a similar story.

Newsman Brian William came under heavy criticism after having said the helicopter he was in was hit during the war on Iraq whereas it was actually a helicopter flying 30 minutes ahead of him which had been the victim of the attack.

Bildergebnis für brian williams helicopter

Many specialists have jumped to the conclusion this MUST have been a false memory.

Unfortunately, they failed to critically consider the context. Brian Williams had already strongly embellished the story only one month after the event, he has a stark tendency to aggrandise his role (as can be seen in other cases) and he himself recognised that

This came clearly from a bad urge inside me. This was clearly ego-driven, a desire to better my role in a story I was already in. That’s what I’ve been tearing apart, unpacking and analyzing.”

In his case, mythomania seems a (much) better explanation than the type of false memories found in the general population.

Of practical importance to all of us is the amount of trust we should put in our own memories. I remember the following incident. As I was a teenager, I used to hang out with a guy deeply involved in cannabis traffic. One day, he was tricked by another drug dealer. To avenge himself, he wrote a graffiti insulting that person. Several days later, as my friend and I were sitting in a former washhouse in his village, the other drug dealer showed up along with three or four accomplices. They were armed with heavy baseball bats. I remember laughing out of nervousness. My friend apologised and the men departed. He later rebuked me for having laughed as this might have led them to strike us down or hurt us badly.

Is it possible I dreamed up the whole thing? Yes.

Is it likely? Absolutely not.

I didn’t remember that after a “recovery therapy” or a psychological experiment. Therefore, I feel very confident that the things I mentioned truly occurred, even though I might be mistaken about details (such as the faces and number of the assailants).

Based on both common sense and our current knowledge of memory, I believe this is a rational and healthy way of considering our past.

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