Every time you remember something, you apply mental Photoshop

The news this week has heavily featured Brian Williams, and not because he’s been anchoring the NBC newscast. He said that he was in a helicopter hit by an RPG, but other soldiers present said he wasn’t. Scandal has erupted, currently leading to a 6-month suspension and possibly ultimately ending his career. The furor seems based on the belief that he deliberately lied; after all, how could you possible believe you’d been in a helicopter that had been hit by an RPG, when in fact you were a good hour behind it?

Actually, believing such a blatantly false story is far easier than you think.

Psychologists have known of the malleability of memory since at least 1974, when Elizabeth Loftus and John Palmer published the original false memory study highlighting the dangers of leading questions. Witnesses to a car accident who were asked a leading question, “How fast were the cars going when they smashed into each other?”, or a not-so-leading question, “How fast were the cars going when they hit each other?”. That simple switch in verbs didn’t just make people say that the cars had been going faster  (41 instead of 34 miles per hour), it also led a third of them to say there was broken glass at the scene, when there hadn’t been any.

The past 40 years of research have only shown again and again how dramatically malleable our memories are. So malleable, in fact, that a little Photoshop and a few interviews encouraging people to imagine what it might have been like can lead them to believe they actually went up in a hot air balloon:

A little Photoshop, and a photograph has the potential to convince people they once rode in a hot air below. Figure 1 from Wade et al. (2002).

A little Photoshop, and a photograph has the potential to convince people they once rode in a hot air below. Figure 1 from Wade et al. (2002).

…I’m still pretty certain it occurred when I was in form one (6th grade) at um the local school there…Um basically for $10 or something you could go up in a hot air balloon and go up about 20 odd meters…it would have been a Saturday and I think we went with, yeah, parents and no it wasn’t, not my grandmother…not certain who any of the other people are there. Um, and I’m pretty certain that mum is down on the ground taking a photo”. (Wade et al., 2002, p. 600).

Now, the photograph is a nifty 21st century lesson on the possible risks of Photoshopped photos. But the photo isn’t necessary or even all that impressive at creating a false memory. A simple story works much better. Take that same photograph, and describe it in just a few sentences:

When you were between 4-6 years old, you and your dad went up in a hot air balloon in Wanginui. You didn’t go far off the ground because the ropes anchoring the balloon were still attached. It was around May/June; a colder season. (Garry et al., 2005, p. 360).

With that simple beginning, some 40% of volunteers developed some false memory of the balloon ride – and said that they could relive the balloon ride in their mind and actually see it in their mind’s eye. Some 30% said they could feel the emotions of the ride, and 20% said outright that they believed the balloon ride had really happened. All that from just setting the stage for a story, and letting people imagine what it had been like.

Now imagine Brian Williams starting with a relatively mundane helicopter ride – as mundane as it can get in a war zone, so probably featuring plenty of adrenaline and emotion. At that time, in 2003, his memory would have been very precise and accurate, all the details and timeline vivid. But over a few months or years, some of those details lose their crisp edges, blurring together and fading. This doesn’t stop people from asking about the events, though, so every now and then you dust those memories off. To make the story more appropriate for a conversation – not too self-aggrandizing, and definitely not a therapy session – some details will be deliberately left out of a story. And because they are left out of the story, they will fade more quickly, or vanish altogether. Meanwhile, in the case of a news anchor who is covering other events of the war all the time, other memories might intrude. Other helicopter rides, other video footage of Iraq and RPGs. Echoes and images from those events might sneak into the original memory of that one helicopter ride. At least one accounting of Williams’ story shows how it has changed over the years, suggesting that this has indeed been a gradual morphing of the memory rather than immediate boastful grandstanding.

For most of us, these memory shifts and intrusions pass unremarked, because there is no one to call us on the inaccuracy of what we’re “remembering”. I can recall a few false memories of my own. My sister and I have had some vehement debates about whether, that one year in our childhood, the duct tape marking territory went down the middle of our shared bedroom (as she claims) or shared playroom (as I know to be true). There was the time I thought a high school teacher had told a story during an interview I conducted, and it turned out he had mentioned it in a speech to the entire graduating class. I try not to think about how many other false memories might be floating around inside my head.

The common perception seems to be that memory is like a photograph or a movie, that might be misplaced (when forgotten entirely) or faded (when forgotten in part), but still true to life in whatever you can still see. In fact, our memories are more like a Word document: we change them every time we use them. Think of writing a paper, draft by draft. You write your first draft, and save it. Later, you open it to make changes, deleting text here and adding it here. Come back a week later and open one more time. Pick a sentence. Did you write that the first time? Or was it when you opened it up to edit? A year from now, will you remember how many drafts you went through, or whether there’s any real connection between what you wrote in the first draft, and what you ended up with in the final version? We might need fancy Photoshop software to alter our photographs, but all we have to do to alter our memories is try to remember them. Most of us are just lucky enough not to have the entire media machine ready to pounce on us the moment our “memory” turns out to be more story than fact.

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