False memory theory

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We like to think of ourselves as a collection of our memories, and of each memory as a snapshot of an event in our lives. Sure, we all know that our minds aren’t as sturdy as our computer’s hard-drive, so these snapshots decay over time, especially the boring ones — that’s why most of us can’t remember what we had for breakfast 12 years ago. We are even familiar with old snapshots rearranging their order and losing context, but we don’t expect to generate vivid and certain memories of events that didn’t occur. How could we have a snapshot of something that didn’t happen?

This view of memory is what makes Brian Williams’ recent fib about being on board a helicopter that was hit by two rockets and small arms fire in Iraq 12 years ago, so hard to believe. There was indeed a helicopter that was forced to land on that day, but the downed aircraft’s crew reports that Williams was actually on a helicopter about an hour behind the three that came under fire. Williams has apologized for his story, saying he conflated his helicopter with the downed one. To this, Erik Wemple voices the popular skepticism that “‘conflating’ the experience of taking incoming fire with the experience of not taking incoming fire seems verily impossible.”

But research into false memories suggests that such constructed memories as Williams’ do occur. In this post, I want to discuss these sort of false memories, share a particularly interesting example, and then discuss what this might mean for journalism.

Psychology of false memories

There is plenty of fiction in our sense of self; to start us off, I want to share a particularly dramatic story of this told by Daniel L. Schacter at a recent World Science Festival. You can watch Schacter discuss the error of memory with a journalist and a few other scientists, or just skip the video and read on:

Donald M. Thomson is an Australian memory researcher and lawyer specializing in eyewitness testimony. One evening in 1975, a woman was brutally raped and left unconscious in her apartment, upon awakening she called the Sydney police and named Thomson as her assailant. The next day, she confidently picked him out of a police lineup and Thomson, despite his protest, was arrested for assault and rape.

There was only one problem: the facts didn’t check out — he couldn’t have done it. At the time of the rape, he was on live television discussing the science of faulty eye-witness testimony. The woman had been watching the show when the actual criminal broke into her home and assaulted her, and in the high stakes atmosphere of the event, she had encoded the face she was seeing on the TV — Thomson’s — as the face of her rapist. She wasn’t lying. To her, this memory was vivid and convincing, but it was a constructed memory that did not accord with the facts. All charges were dropped and Thomson was released after the police were able to confirm his alibi. Of course, not everybody has as convincing a defense as Thomson’s, and many innocent people have been put away in jail on eye witness testimony based on false memories. There is even an organization in the US — the Innocence Project — that specializes in exonerating such wrongfully convicted individuals.

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Q&A

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Why is the theory of genetics false?

in real science, anything with the word theory in-front of it means it hasn't been disproven - for example gravity is a theory.

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