Misremembering is real

BrianWilliamsSince I wrote about Brian Williams’s fall last night, the “coliseum culture” has all but overtaken the media. Some journalists, like David Carr on the Times’s media beat and columnist David Brooks, try to be fair— sort of. Those who defend Williams (up to a point) comment on the triviality of Williams’s tall stories compared to his history of accurate reporting. (Though his entire record is now being avidly scrutinized for other instances of misrepresenting his experience or falsifying his accounts.)

I assumed that Williams’s war stories were attributable to his vanity, a kind of self-aggrandizement. David Carr and Jon Stewart believe that Williams came to a point where his judgement was swayed by his celebrity and influenced by the “infotainment” that has largely taken over network news. But I wasn’t fair to the beleaguered news anchor. I assumed my theory was true; I didn’t consider other possible motivations.

Now I know there is an even more plausible explanation that isn’t being considered.

Williams may have indeed “misremembered” as he claimed in his first explanation/apology for his factually false recollections. Memories can in fact fade, shift and distort over time, as shown by numerous rigorously controlled studies. Tara Parker-Pope questions the pileup on Williams in view of the “fallibility and the malleability of the human memory”:

memory experts see the issue differently, noting that the well-documented story, told differently many times by Mr. Williams, actually offers a compelling case study in how memories can change and shift dramatically over time.

Parker-Pope quotes Elizabeth Loftus, a leading memory researcher and a professor of law and cognitive science at the University of California, Irvine:

You’ve got all these people saying the guy’s a liar and convicting him of deliberate deception without considering an alternative hypothesis — that he developed a false memory. It’s a teaching moment, and a chance to really try to get information out there about the malleable nature of memory.

Suppose, for example, that you were riding in a helicopter in a dangerous war zone and you saw the chopper in front of you being hit. How would you react? Wouldn’t you see an image of your chopper under fire with you trapped inside, captured, injured or even dead? That fear would grip you in the moment and would probably generate frightening nightmares long afterwards. Williams experienced that situation, and his terror would have been real.

Over time, as the memories are retrieved, or we see news footage about the event or have conversations with others, the story can change as the mind recombines these bits of information and mistakenly stores them as memories. This process essentially creates a new version of the event that, to the storyteller, feels like the truth.

If Williams experienced something like that and is now being excoriated for a relatively common reaction, will he be forced to fabricate further by producing a humiliating, false confession? Might he be compelled to enact the crime he was accused of?

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