Saturday, February 07, 2015

Brian Williams, Memory, And What It Means For Everyone

An ADN letter writer today wasn't taking any crap about Brian Williams:
"The article about Brian Williams and his “misremembered” story in the paper is an unbelievable spin. The spin is even incorrect. Mr. Williams wasn’t in the helicopter behind the one that was shot at, either he was going in the opposite direction. Get your facts straight. A lie is a lie no matter how you want to spin it to protect one of your own."

I didn't know who Brian Williams was until the other day when reports about his inaccurate helicopter story came out.  I assume the letter writer above was responding to the ADN story (from the Washington Post) about a psychologist saying that memories can get conflated and we believe we remember things we heard about as things that happened to us.

It must be nice to live a world of black and white of the letter writer and to be so certain about what one knows.

Is he, without a doubt, a liar?  Was this a case of lying to bolster his credentials?  Or was it conflation of memories?  The event had enough witnesses that lying about it seems a bit stupid.  Someone would eventually challenge it.  But lots of successful people have a history of getting away with lies, or other abuses of their positions of power, so they may think they'll never get caught.  And they may start believing . . .   oh yeah, that's the point the psychologist was making.

Memory expert Lawrence Patihis said, in a New Republic interview:
In one of our studies, about 20 percent of our participants generated false memories of an event when something false was suggested. [For instance, if Patihis mentioned video footage of Flight 93 crashing in Pennsylvania on September 11, one in five participants said they remembered seeing it. No such footage exists.] If we repeated the false suggestion many times over a period of weeks or months, I am sure an even larger percentage would develop a false memory.
In the case of Brian Williams, that misleading information may have been in the form of seeing the footage of him and his film crew examining the damage of the helicopter that was actually hit, and seeing it over and over again.

Most somewhat sentient beings in the US have heard about convicted criminals who have been exonerated through DNA testing.  You can watch a 60 Minutes episode of such a case here, where a rape victim tells the story of how she identified this guy, how certain she was, and how mortified she was ten years later when DNA proved it was another, similar looking, man.

OK, recognizing the face of a stranger you've only seen once is hard.  I remember when my wife had her purse snatched in a subway station in NYC. I was looking eye to eye at the snatcher playing tug of war with the purse before he turned with it and jumped from the platform, ran across the tracks and caught a train going the other way.  A light skinned black man with dreadlocks.  Pretty easy.  But when the police later showed me a book of faces of light skinned black men with dreadlocks, I knew it was impossible to pick one over the other with any certainty.

But in the 60 Minutes episode (it's in four parts on YouTube) Leslie Stahl also talks about how the suspect's alibi turned out to be for a different weekend than the one of the crime.  His memory too was faulty. And he had good reason to get it right.  The faulty alibi story hurt him at the trial.  But that's still different from the idea Williams' creating a false memory.

But the last part of the 60 Minutes piece talks about showing people advertisements of Disneyland that included someone dressed as Bugs Bunny.  Then they were asked later about their memories of Disneyland.  A number of the experiment subjects said they remembered meeting Bugs Bunny, and when asked for details, they came up with stories of handshakes and more.  Of course, Bugs Bunny was a Warner Brothers character, not a Disney character and would never have been at Disneyland.  But the fake ad planted a seed that allowed people to remember meeting Bugs at Disneyland.  This is like the Patihis example above. (I wasn't so lucky on my first trip to Disneyland.  I don't remember meeting Micky, Donald, or Bugs.  I did see Richard Nixon, but that's another story.)

And I have a couple of old, old friends who remember things we did together  very differently than I do.  So I'm sure that memory is malleable.

Scientific American has an article that lists four myths about memory that most people believe:

  1. Memory works like a video camera, recording the world around us onto a mental tape that we can later replay.
  2. An unexpected occurrence is likely to be noticed—even when people’s attention is elsewhere.
  3. Hypnosis can improve memory—especially when assisting a witness in recalling details associated with a crime.
  4. Amnesia sufferers usually cannot remember their identity or name.
Number 1  is particularly relevant to the Williams case. The explanation notes that
"research . . . has shown events to be recalled based on “goals and expectations,” . . . It also “contradicts the well-established idea that memory retrieval is a constructive process,” too, which can be shaped by assumptions and beliefs"

Not only do we see events and interpret them in a way that aligns with what we want to see, we remember events the way we want them to have been. I'm sure everyone whose been married more than ten years has remembered an event entirely differently from what their spouse remembered. But what does that mean for us beyond the Brian Williams story?

  • Does it mean we should be more sympathetic to people whose memories proven fictional?
  • Should we be more skeptical of everyone's memories?
  • Should we be more skeptical about our own memories?
  • How can we verify other people's memories as well as our own?
  • How do we distinguish between those who intentionally recreate a false past from those who simply misremember?  

  1. I suspect each one of those questions is deserving of its own post, and I certainly don't know the answers to them.  But it would appear to me that a good strategy is to work on how we talk about such things.  Try to be more tentative rather than certain in our discussions.  Instead of "You're wrong" try "I don't remember it that way."
  2. Find other witnesses to give their accounts of the same event.  
  3. Google can often locate contemporaneous accounts of an old event.  For example, I located online audio of speeches I attended as a student at UCLA in the 1960s.  Let's just say there was a lot I forgot.  
I don't suspect the letter writer will be persuaded by any of this.  I do think that if you know people over a period of time, you gain more insight into whether they are likely to be lying or not.  

I also know that we tend to assume that other people behave the way we would behave.  So people who tell the truth (except maybe when a friend asks "can you tell that I've lost weight?") are more willing to give someone the benefit of the doubt.  People who frequently lie, will more likely assume that someone else is lying.  If you are dealing with a liar, giving the benefit of the doubt puts you at a disadvantage compared to the person who assumes he's lying.  But if you assume everyone you're dealing with is lying, I suspect your life won't be all that happy.  The key, for me, is to maintain a degree of skepticism, and find ways to test for the truth.  

This is one of those posts that jump right in to the basic theme of this blog - how do you know what you know?  If you were looking for answers, sorry to disappoint.  I learned long ago that the more I learn, the less I know.  Not because learning is a bad thing, but because you as you learn, you discover that the universe of things you don't know expands faster than the universe of things you do know.  


  1. You're right about faulty memories, but you have left out the fact that Williams is supposed to be a professional journalist, devoted to the truth above all else and trained to find and record it. While eyewitnesses to dramatic events may indeed have their memories colored by outside factors, the professional journalist is trained to observe accurately and his retelling of the story ought to be more credible -- much as you would expect a doctor to more accurately describe a sick person's condition or an artist to more accurately describe somebody's face. Surely at the time of the helicopter incident he either wrote down or spoke his recollections of the day, which he could go back to if he needed reminding.

    I suspect Williams is guilty of repeated retelling of a dramatic event, which got "enhanced" over time with a greater role for himself in the story. We all know how after you tell a story many times your memory of the event gets trumped by your memory of the story -- don't we all use the same punch lines, the same details that we used the last five times we told the story? Perhaps that's what happened with Williams in recent years. But at some point a decade ago the initial story got embellished with a couple of very false details, and I have to believe that was deliberate. Either that, or Williams is a total fraud as a journalist, ignorant of how to do his job and dismissive of the ethics of the profession.

    I speak as a former journalist. I'm continually offended by the faux journalists who practice on Fox News, etc. and who are just as willing to tell lies as truth. But I'm surprised and disappointed to find that occurring in supposedly legitimate journalism operations.

  2. Good point that I didn't cover. We do expect more from professionals, but I'm guessing false memories was not part of Williams' journalism education. And while we'd like to think of professionals as being able to separate their personal and emotional lives from their work lives, I've seen way too many who can't. But your point that as a professional journalist he should be better at it than others is well taken.

  3. This morning's newspaper clarified that Williams's first "misstatement" came almost immediately after the incident, so the excuse of time-warped memory doesn't work.

    1. Kathy, this Jon Stewart segment voices part of my reaction, though I really hadn't articulated it in my own head. I don't watch much tv and didn't know who Brian Williams was. But it seemed like a lot of overkill. This is the sort of thing Gary Trudeau has been covering for years with Roland Burton Hedley, III. Yes, reporters should not exaggerate their experiences, but the really important issue is when the lie is about the news itself. Stewart nails what I hadn't thought out enough.

  4. Brian Williams got caught more than once telling this 'story'.

    Tha'ts unacceptable, and there's really no excuse for it.

    The right was up in arms and demanded that he be fired.

    You don't hear those same people demanding that Bill OReilly be fired, and OReilly has repeatedly lied about being in combat, he's even repeatedly lied about being under fire while in combat, ...yet OReilly never even served a day in his life in any capacity whatsoever.

    Joni Ernst, R, Iowa is claiming to have been in combat, yet she also states she has no combat action badge.

    The right wing is silent when one of their own lies. And it doesn't matter what the lie is, if it's a Republican lie, it's just fine and dandy.

    If it's a member of the 'librul' press? Hang em.

    Unfortunately, Brian Williams calls into question every news report he's ever made.

    One has to wonder what else he may have 'embellished' or misreported.

    With OReilly and Joni Ernst, ….you can bet they're going to continue to lie.

    It's what they do, it's who they are, …it's all they've got.


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