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If the past is a palimpsest, what are we?
May 28, 2010 12:12 AM   Subscribe

Ten days ago, Slate Magazine conducted an experiment modeled on the Ministry of Truth in George Orwell's 1984: they asked readers to look at eight photographs of notable political moments from the past decade and share their memories about each. Over 5,000 people participated in the first three days, but what they didn’t know was that four of the pictures were significantly doctored, and one was totally fabricated.

How they did it. The results of the study are discussed in the first part of an ongoing eight-part series titled The Memory Doctor. Written by William Saletan (previously, more recently), the series explores the life and work of psychologist and memory expert Elizabeth Loftus and raises questions about what we think we remember and how our memory is and might be used by therapists, lawyers, advertisers and governments.


Very brief TL;DR of the first five parts of the series:

“We altered four images, took a fifth out of context, and mixed these five fake scenes (which involved Joe Lieberman, Dick Cheney, George W. Bush, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama), with three real ones. Half of our readers who participated in the experiment remembered the fabricated episodes as true, and when they were asked to guess which of the four incidents they had seen was fake, 37 percent picked the wrong one.” These figures are consistent with previous findings in memory-implanting experiments: "the average rate of false memories is about 30 percent, but when visual images are used to substantiate the bogus memories, the numbers can increase."

The entirely fabricated picture of Obama shaking hands with Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2009 elicited the most interesting memories.

The study was based on the work of Elizabeth Loftus, a woman with a painful past who switched from studying math to memory and went on to testify as a memory expert in over 250 court hearings and trials (including those of Oliver North, O.J. Simpson, Michael Jackson and the Unabomber). Her studies have demonstrated the gullibility and fallibility of eyewitness memories and coached testimony, and debunked the credibility of repressed childhood memories in many criminal trials. She also used her knowledge of brainwashing to expose the Chinese government's attempts to suppress memories of the Tiananmen Square massacre.

Yet Loftus has also conducted studies to engineer memories (such as giving people false memories of being healthy eaters as children), counseled attorneys on jury selection and coaching economists as expert-witnesses to win bigger damage awards. She worked for the FTC to assess the power of advertising to mislead consumers and then for an advertising agency to help them figure out how to make their products more memorable.

She worries about false memories being used to harm people (as in the case of convictions based on testimony about childhood abuse), debunks recovered-memory therapists, but also believes that advertising isn’t terribly harmful - and that memory engineering can be used for good.

"Loftus never believed in the absolute sanctity of truth or memory. She believed that memory, through wishful thinking, constantly modified itself... And this rewriting of history was no perversion. It seemed to Loftus such a common tendency that it must be a product of evolution. In short, it was natural. Its function, she surmised, was to promote happiness or, at least, to avoid depression... Often, happiness was more important than truth."
posted by mondaygreens (67 comments total) 67 users marked this as a favorite

 
Loftus never believed in the absolute sanctity of truth or memory. She believed that memory, through wishful thinking, constantly modified itself...

I can believe this is true with regard to one's own memories, but historical facts are not one's own memories. One's memories of historical facts can become blurred, but are easily sharpened by some reading.

The fake image in Slate was easy to guess even, because it would have made no sense for that person to do that thing.
posted by three blind mice at 12:53 AM on May 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


Yes, I'm not sure this "experiment" exactly passes scientific rigor. But then, if we followed the metafilter link in, we were already on our guard.
posted by mreleganza at 1:00 AM on May 28, 2010


Yeah, it may have been better to put the exact nature of the experiment below the fold, especially since it's an interactive one that's still available on the site.
posted by Rhaomi at 1:03 AM on May 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


Interesting post - thank you. Your link about Loftus' past did not lead where I was expecting it to so I did my own search and found this article from the Lofus family website. - her mother died by drowning when Elizabeth was 14. It would appear that own memories of exactly what happened at that time have been influential in shaping her work.

Her testimony in many high profile trials has also made her some powerful enemies apparently.
posted by rongorongo at 1:07 AM on May 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


I thought he was flying around the country -- fundraising in CA? -- not partying with Roger Clemens.
posted by vhsiv at 1:08 AM on May 28, 2010


Ah, Rhaomi - the memory doctor series is linked on the front page of Slate so I assumed the survey was interactive for illustrative purposes only. Also assumed that most people click "more inside" before the link itself. I should've tried the other way.
posted by mondaygreens at 1:08 AM on May 28, 2010


The fake image in Slate was easy to guess even, because it would have made no sense for that person to do that thing.

Nor would his later career have followed the same path, yeah.

I did this last week and I think my answer for that question/photo was "WTF? This didn't happen." because I didn't get the nature of the experiment, ha.
posted by rokusan at 1:11 AM on May 28, 2010


So Nixon never went bowling with Elvis?
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 1:13 AM on May 28, 2010


I'm sure that the fake "Obama shakes hands with Ahmadinejad" photo will be a staple of right-wing chain letters from now on.
posted by elgilito at 1:13 AM on May 28, 2010 [20 favorites]


Rongorongo - that is mentioned in the series, here is the correct link for her backstory.

Maybe a moderator can fix it?
posted by mondaygreens at 1:18 AM on May 28, 2010


rokusan: Nor would his later career have followed the same path, yeah.

This seems to make no sense with respect to the image to which I referred. We must have been presented with different fake images?

One's memories of historical facts can become blurred, but are easily sharpened by some reading... which is of course why the re-writing of history books, newspapers, etc. and throwing the real history down the memory hole was an essential part of the 1984 scam. (As well as the motivation for the conservative 2010 scam on school books in Texas.)

"I seem to remember McCarthy was a bad person who did some bad things.... but what was it? Memory's a little vague. Hmmm, let me check in this history book I bought in Texas.... Well, what do you know? He wasn't so bad after all! I guess my memory is failing me."
posted by three blind mice at 1:34 AM on May 28, 2010 [3 favorites]


three blind mice: "... historical facts are not one's own memories. One's memories of historical facts can become blurred, but are easily sharpened by some reading. "

My wife, who is an historian, would like to have a word with you about these so-called historical "facts."
posted by brokkr at 2:20 AM on May 28, 2010 [7 favorites]


Re: the faked image of Obama and Ahmadinejad, a lot of comments say they don't remember the photo, but they do remember the controversy. To be fair, there have been a number of "controversies" about Obama shaking hands with or supposedly bowing to foreign leaders, such as Hugo Chavez, King Abdullah, and most recently, Hu Jintao.

"Remember that time Bush played the fiddle while the twin towers burned?"

"Well... I remember there was something—"

"Here's a photo of Bush playing the fiddle."

"Oh yeah. Right. Now I remember. That sucked."
posted by whatnotever at 2:24 AM on May 28, 2010 [3 favorites]


whatnotever - I think that's part of what the study is trying to illuminate; that the connections in our brain are a lot fuzzier and our memories a lot more tangled up than we tend to believe, and we can jump around in there and make false connections. And 'evidence', especially visual (the picture of Bush playing the fiddle or Obama with Ahmadinnerjacket), can sway us a certain way, and while that's not news to many of us, I found the idea of lawyers or advertisers (and the doctor in question) knowing how to manipulate me / my fuzzy brain based on scientific data quite alarming.

For instance the series mentions the study by Loftus which shows that when the idea of repressed memories became popular (in the 90s), therapists actually began asking their patients leading questions about possible childhood incest, which (over time) convinced many people that they had actually been abused, and resulted in incarceration or at least trial for those that they believed had victimized them. (I know this is still a fairly controversial subject and the main reason why Lotfus has been harassed.)

However to me the idea that advertisers are using the findings of her research to create product-based memories for people (see the study at the bottom of this page and its findings on the next) is just as troubling. Because, I mean, how do you regulate this stuff? Whose idea of harmless or beneficial applies? It is already impossible to escape advertising - so is there any way to guard against such falseness or exploitation? Or should we accept what it promises as happiness and place it above truth and the right not to have our minds fucked with?
posted by mondaygreens at 2:59 AM on May 28, 2010 [2 favorites]


You know who else thought you could manipulate memories with big enough lies?
posted by Skeptic at 3:47 AM on May 28, 2010


By the way, there's an interesting quote in the Wikipedia article I just linked to:

His primary rules were: never allow the public to cool off; never admit a fault or wrong; never concede that there may be some good in your enemy; never leave room for alternatives; never accept blame; concentrate on one enemy at a time and blame him for everything that goes wrong; people will believe a big lie sooner than a little one; and if you repeat it frequently enough people will sooner or later believe it.

And no, it doesn't refer to Karl Rove.
posted by Skeptic at 3:50 AM on May 28, 2010 [3 favorites]


Huh, I took the "test" One of the questions was about Powell before the U.N. talking about how Saddam was reconstituting his nuclear program. I thought powell's speech mostly focused on Chemical/Biological weapons. Showing trailers and stuff that were supposed to be mobile weapons labs, holding up a vial of anthrax, etc. I didn't think they really pushed the Nuclear angle.

But that's not the one that they said didn't happen. I was correct in saying I didn't remember it, however, I picked the Powell one as the one that "didn't happen" because the third event I just had no idea

(They were saying that Bush hosted Roger Clemens at his ranch in crawford during Katrina. I remember bush going for a bike ride with Lance Armstrong, though)
posted by delmoi at 3:58 AM on May 28, 2010


(I mean to say I was correct in saying I "didn't remember" the one that didn't happen. But I also thought their description of Powell's U.N. speech was actually wrong, so I labeled that one as false one. Which according to them was a "mistake" at the end. Huh)
posted by delmoi at 4:02 AM on May 28, 2010


"They clung to these altered memories even when the experimenters suggested that they might be mistaken." -- from the article

It's a great story, thanks. One of the HUGE messages from late-20th-Century psychological research was DON'T TRUST MEMORY. It is absolutely true that human memory is GROSSLY unreliable, and yet most people either don't know this truth or know it but (other than intellectually, when nothing is at stake), they ignore it.

Most people who believe it, don't seem to think it's true for them. Or they think that if a memory is extremely strong -- if you're SURE it happened -- then it is exempt from suspicion. "Okay, granted, memories can be false, but come ON -- I KNOW I went grocery shopping yesterday!"

It's an everyday occurrence to hear (or partake in) arguments like this:

A: I know you ate all the cookies, yesterday, because I SAW you do it.
B: Well, you're wrong, because I distinctly remember two cookies left when I was done eating!

You never hear A or B (or both) saying, "You know, I do have this really strong memory, but I also know that incredibly strong memories can be --- and often are --- factually wrong."

Because I'm Mr. Plate-of-Beans, I started doing that a few years ago. It almost never goes well for me, but it's hard for me to stop, because it's no longer a vague intellectual idea for me that memory is untrustworthy. I read a lot of psychology texts, and I've read dozens of articles like this. And I've noticed many times when my STRONG memories have turned out to be false.

I don't mean that I walk around in a fog of confusion. Generally, I don't care. So what if I didn't actually eat a steak yesterday? I remember eating it and I remember liking it, and that's all that matters. It's only a problem in disputes.

Here's what tends to happen to me:

A: I know you ate all the cookies, yesterday, because I SAW you do it.

Grumblebee: Hm. Well, I have this really, really clear memory of leaving some on the plate. But, of course, my mind may be playing tricks on me...

A: Yeah, well my mind isn't. You ate all the fucking cookies.

Grumblebee: I guess that's possible, but....

I often feel like I should just lie and act like I believe my strong memories are necessarily facts. But I so DON'T believe this, that I can't convincingly keep the lie going.
posted by grumblebee at 5:15 AM on May 28, 2010 [9 favorites]


grumblebee, the proper solution is to make more cookies.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 5:30 AM on May 28, 2010 [4 favorites]


Work by Chinese artist Shi Xinning explores unseen memories in a very funny ways.
posted by timshel at 5:53 AM on May 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


So...how do we know that Slate actually performed this experiment? Hmmm?
posted by sidereal at 5:59 AM on May 28, 2010


I always figured this was Fox News' business model.


Seriously, no sarcasm.

I think they work by trying to reframe events to have a sinister slant, and hit the viewer with so many iterations of mis-interpreted events that some eventually stick in the collective consciousness.
By rapidly cycling through variations, they can get feedback as to which variants are sticking, and suddenly those become pieces of controversy that the bobble-heads can bring up as questions. Then someone will have a reaction, and a then a news story can be done about that higher-profile reaction to the created controversy.

And suddenly, the fabricated story takes hold and suddenly everyone remembers when Obama gave Will Wright and Bin Laden a hand job while rubbing $1000 bills on his nipples.
posted by Theta States at 6:32 AM on May 28, 2010 [16 favorites]


Loftus never believed in the absolute sanctity of truth or memory. ...., but historical facts are not one's own memories

Are you implying that historical "facts" have the absolute sanctity of truth?

One's memories of historical facts can become blurred, but are easily sharpened by some reading.

Are you going for a place where historical facts never change because they are facts?

A fine place for historical facts I'm sure

posted by rough ashlar at 7:12 AM on May 28, 2010


Fun stock in trade in intro psych classes. Even better when the item is only suggested and not specifically planted with a photo or a statement.

Now someone handier than me photoshop last Friday's front page with this post so we can call double.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 7:21 AM on May 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


I always figured this was Fox News' business model.

I believe that was figured out by Willi Münzenberg

(the below is from http://www.tbrnews.org/Archives/a2979.htm and you can make your own darn link as I won't link to 'em. Will take, ya. Link? Naw.)
One of the modern masters of such media control was the German Communist from whom Joseph Goebbels learned his trade, Willi Münzenberg. Münzenberg was not only the inventor of spin, he was also the first person who perfected the art of creating a network of opinion-forming journalists who propagated views which were germane to the needs of the Communist Party in Germany and to the Soviet Union. He also made a huge fortune in the process, since he amassed a considerable media empire from which he creamed off the profits.
...
The key relevance of Münzenberg for our own day is this: he understood the key importance of influencing opinion-formers. He targeted especially intellectuals, taking the view that intellectuals were especially easy to influence because they were so vain. His contacts included many of the great literary figures of the 1930s, a large number of whom were encouraged by him to support the Republicans in the Spanish civil war and to make that into a cause-célèbre of Communist anti-fascism. Münzenberg’s tactics are of primary importance to the manipulation of opinion in today’s New World Order. More then ever before, so-called ‘experts’ constantly pop up on our TV screens to explain what is happening, and they are always vehicles for the official party line. They are controlled in various ways, usually by money or by flattery.
...
This was what Willi Münzenberg understood – the basic human urge for people to believe what they want to believe.


And a little something else for you to consider:
In 1952, Bernays published Public Relations following-up to his 1928 book, Propaganda. Essentially, Bernays was able to rebrand and relaunch a military and wartime word associated with oppression into something that was perceived as being transparent and friendly -- and opportunity for organizations, governments, and corporations to be able to better expose themselves to their members, citizens, and customers.
posted by rough ashlar at 7:27 AM on May 28, 2010 [3 favorites]


My old askme thread on childhood memories.

I still remember standing in the toilet bowl.
posted by Avenger at 7:29 AM on May 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


Obama gave Will Wright and Bin Laden a hand job

Sim City is where Rem Koolhaas, Obama's Albert Speer, maps out his sinister schemes for urban concentration camps.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 7:34 AM on May 28, 2010


This is like how I (and many other people) distinctly remember X-Wing fighters slamming into the still-active Deathstar shield, only way less nerdy (or more nerdy, I'm not sure).
posted by dirigibleman at 7:36 AM on May 28, 2010


The people who need to understand this mechanism the most are the people who are least interested in learning about it.
posted by Aquaman at 8:06 AM on May 28, 2010 [10 favorites]


My favorite Elizabeth Loftus story is how she got mawled by the prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald, while serving as an expert witness in Scooter Libby's defense ("Remembering things is hard!"). Washington Post: "If I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby was not afraid of the special counsel before, the former Cheney aide, who will face Fitzgerald in a trial beginning Jan. 11, had ample reason to start quaking after yesterday's Ginsu-like legal performance."
posted by grobstein at 8:08 AM on May 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


Isn't the fact that peoples' memories and perceptions tend to be self-modifying, usually in a way that flatters their beliefs and preconceptions, pretty much Psych 101? We know this already, is what I mean.
posted by Pope Guilty at 8:13 AM on May 28, 2010


Previous MeFi post on photos and memory. IOW, you'll alter your own memories without any help from anyone else.
posted by swimming naked when the tide goes out at 8:18 AM on May 28, 2010


The people who need to understand this mechanism the most are the people who are least interested in learning about it.

Healthy skepticism of our own perceptions is something we could all use an occasional dose of.

For any value of "dose"
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 8:29 AM on May 28, 2010


The people who need to understand this mechanism the most are the people who are least interested in learning about it.

I think the psychologists have a name for that as well!
posted by joe lisboa at 8:30 AM on May 28, 2010


Fascinating—both the Slate experiment and the backstory links for Loftus. Thanks for the post!
posted by languagehat at 8:42 AM on May 28, 2010


The slightly longer version of Hitler and the Big Lie.

and thus in the primitive simplicity of their minds they more readily fall victims to the big lie than the small lie, since they themselves often tell small lies in little matters but would be ashamed to resort to large-scale falsehoods.

I used to contribute to a radio show that began with this statement every week.
posted by philip-random at 8:42 AM on May 28, 2010


A: I know you ate all the cookies, yesterday, because I SAW you do it.

Grumblebee: Hm. Well, I have this really, really clear memory of leaving some on the plate. But, of course, my mind may be playing tricks on me...


Blame my reading way too much Robert Anton Wilson in my twenties, but this has been my strategy in argument for years now. I almost never claim certainty of anything. Which I've found tends to disarm the other arguer for the most part. Once my position on some alleged "fact" softens, so does theirs. Or not. Those with infallible memory, I quickly learn to avoid.
posted by philip-random at 8:49 AM on May 28, 2010


elgilito: I'm sure that the fake "Obama shakes hands with Ahmadinejad" photo will be a staple of right-wing chain letters from now on.

I'm sure it will ... thanks ever so much for that, Slate.
posted by WCityMike at 9:03 AM on May 28, 2010


Wow, philip-random. You're either arguing with different sorts of people than I am, or there's some subtle thing we're doing differently.

This happens with bosses all the time. All deadlines and requirements SHOULD be written down, but inevitably, people get busy and just yell at each other to do this or that.

So, eventually, this happens:

Boss: why isn't the project done? I TOLD you to get it done by today.

Now I have a 100%, iron-clad, crystal-clear memory of him saying that I had until the end of the week. It doesn't feel at all like a memory, it feels like a fact. I KNOW that he said "you have until the end of the week" as clearly as I know my name.

But because I believe that even memories like that can be faulty, I don't say, "No you didn't. You said I had until the end of the week." Instead, I say, "Well, I may be wrong, but I have this clear memory of you saying I had until the end of the week. I was basing my work around that deadline."

At which point he gets even more adamant. "Your memory is wrong. We were standing by my desk and I told you It was due TODAY."

To which I stammer, "Well, you may be right. That's not how I remember it. I have a really clear memory, but, I guess, all I can say is, 'I'm sorry' if that memory is wrong..."

The argument ends with him feel confident and me feeling rattled. Of course, he's the boss so he's going to get what he wants in the end, anyway, but when co-workers have these sorts of fights, at least they emerge with some sort of feeling of definite right on their sides. "That ASSHOLE is telling be that the deadline is today. Fuck him! I know perfectly well that he said by the end of the week."
posted by grumblebee at 9:05 AM on May 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


I thought it had been pretty clearly established that Grigory Zinoviev ate all the cookies.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 9:09 AM on May 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


Loftus never believed in the absolute sanctity of truth or memory. She believed that memory, through wishful thinking, constantly modified itself...

This is my experience as well; as I've gotten older, I've come to discover how remarkably mutable the memory can be. I blame an active imagination combined with the distance of time; I can see myself in a situation in my head, and eventually that stops being me imagining, and starts being me remembering. It's a slippery slope for me.

It's one of the reasons I get so irritated at people's efforts to rewrite events of the past; it's how urban legends start.

Knowing how easily words can change things, I've had to be really careful in the past; I was a witness to a pretty ugly interstate accident a few years ago where a van started weaving from lane to lane, hit a truck, and then crashed into the shoulder barrier.

When we had made sure the driver was safe and the adrenalin started to wear off, the other drivers that had stopped to help and I started trying to figure out what had happened, I noticed that I didn't see the vehicle that the driver had crashed into prior to hitting the barrier; I mentioned this by saying "hey, didn't the van hit another vehicle? Where is it?"

To which someone else responded, "Yeah, it was a truck!" and someone else said "A red one..."

And I relaxed, because that's exactly what I had in my mind before I had commented; that the driver had bounced off the side of a red pickup truck, but I didn't want to use those words in case I was wrong and I accidentally ended up poisoning everyone's memory before we made our statement to the cops.

It was a clear and specific moment where I knew to be concerned, but I sort of wonder in my day-to-day life how often I don't catch that moment, and record something that just didn't actually happen.
posted by quin at 9:11 AM on May 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


I clicked on the experiment link and went through the images and was all, "Obama never shook his hand, did he? That never happened or the Tea Party people would be all over it..." so I'm glad I remembered correctly before reading through the whole post. Normally, my memory sucks. I mean, some things I am absolutely sure of get proved wrong.

And I do recognize the power of nostalgia, and how we view things much more fondly in retrospect. I actually was going to write a rant about this once describing How Scrapbooking Is Destroying Our Country.

It was inspired by a visit to craft store. I went past the scrapbooking section with all its happy stickers and colors and fancy backgrounds and captions and thought how slanted it all was. I mean, I've seen so many Moms who take up scrapbooking, and they create these beautiful pages for family vacations and 'pivotal' life events that, at the time, no one really enjoyed or cared much about. So I can see the grown-up children looking through these scrapbooks, murmuring, "Oh, I remember that vacation! It was all sunshine and butterflies!"

They should have grey, gloomy pages for the times when it rained all week, and a special section for kids who drop out of school, with their GED scores superimposed over a report card full of big red F grades.
posted by misha at 9:23 AM on May 28, 2010 [2 favorites]


Wow, philip-random. You're either arguing with different sorts of people than I am, or there's some subtle thing we're doing differently.

Well, it helps to be self-employed. But that said, I was thinking of generally non-work related arguments when I made my comment.

And for what it's worth, I was fired from the last proper job I had (ie: pay checks signed by a boss I reported to more or less daily) for something that the boss himself had done (it involved ordering a whack of work based on incomplete metrics), but due to faulty memory or just an evil heart he decided to blame me.

So yeah, point taken.
posted by philip-random at 9:27 AM on May 28, 2010


grumblebee, if you're arguing with a bully, then objectivity surely isn't going to help you.
posted by LogicalDash at 9:37 AM on May 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


This is my experience as well; as I've gotten older, I've come to discover how remarkably mutable the memory can be. I blame an active imagination combined with the distance of time; I can see myself in a situation in my head, and eventually that stops being me imagining, and starts being me remembering. It's a slippery slope for me.


I find this as well. That is why I try and make mundane notes about my life as I go. I keep my old digital to-do lists archived, and randomly write about the little events of the day, take photos of unremarkable places I've been, and sometimes just start recording video on my digital camera and rotating in a room, just to capture the ambience.
If I ever need to go back to a period of my life, I grab a few random fragments and use those to anchor my memories.

I don't do this compulsively, and have done it less since abandoning personal blogging, but still try and keep it up marginally.
posted by Theta States at 9:38 AM on May 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


Since I DO have this belief about memory that makes it really hard for me to answer confidently, regardless of how confident I feel, I try to sidestep the whole issue. In the heat of the moment, I sometimes fail and just get defensive, but this is my ideal response:

Boss: why isn't the project done? I TOLD you to get it done by today!

Grumblebee: I'm sorry, I thought it was due at the end of the week. So, since it's not done, what would you like me to do?

This fails in situations like performance reviews:

HR: Your boss complained that you didn't get a major project done on time.

What grumblebee probably should say: He's mis-remembering. He told me I had until the end of the week, and then he forgot he said that.

What grumblebee says: Yeah, I know. I remember it one way. He remembers it another way. I don't know who's right.

My mealy-mouthed statement goes on the record next to my boss's definitive statement.

but due to faulty memory or just an evil heart he decided to blame me.

So you ARE confident enough to assume that it was definitely your BOSS who has the faulty memory! ;-)
posted by grumblebee at 9:41 AM on May 28, 2010


A: Yeah, well my mind isn't.

This is the part where you bring out the cog psych research that shows people who are more absolutely convinced of their memories are more often wrong.

At least, I think I remember that being discussed in my cog psych class....
posted by weston at 9:44 AM on May 28, 2010


grumblebee, if you're arguing with a bully, then objectivity surely isn't going to help you.

You are so right about this. But I think it's hard to lie (or use spin/rhetoric that doesn't gibe with your vision of reality) when you don't have any confidence. Over the years, from reading tons of psychology books and from observations, I have come to feel completely un-confident that a strong memory = a fact.

When I have a super-strong memory, the only thing I'm confident of is that I have a super-strong memory.
posted by grumblebee at 9:44 AM on May 28, 2010


This is the part where you bring out the cog psych research

Yeah. I always want to pull an "Annie Hall."

Boss: I clearly remember telling you it was due today!

Me: Oh, well I happen to have Elizabeth Loftus right here...
posted by grumblebee at 9:46 AM on May 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


Theta States, it is absolutely Fox's model. They have reduced politics from debate to belief, they've made it churchy -- playing on fear of the unknown and denouncing the disbelievers -- which is not only so much harder to counter or engage with (as in grumblebee's conflict scenario^) but also so much sweeter for advertising. Imagine a church with product placement; not only does the very act of your being there fill the organization's coffers, but the alarmist demagoguery that is making us vulnerable at such a subconscious level and blatantly inciting violence is also interspersed with increasingly sophisticated messages to buy, buy, buy. It's not that the organization believes in any particular thing, it's just ruthlessly going where the money still lies. (I've used the church metaphor, but the vampire squid one also applies.)

And here's another interesting bit in the study:
"Ideology influenced recollections, but not consistently. Thirty-four percent of progressives who were shown the Bush-Clemens photo (212 out of 616) remembered that incident, while only 14 percent of conservatives who saw the same photo (7 out of 49) remembered it. We expected that discrepancy to be reversed among subjects who were shown the Obama handshake, but it wasn't. Progressives were slightly more likely than conservatives to remember that the handshake happened: 49 percent (305 out of 618) to 45 percent (30 out of 66). As expected, however, conservatives were more likely than progressives to remember actually seeing the handshake (36 percent to 26 percent) and less likely to remember seeing Bush with Clemens during Katrina (10 percent to 16 percent)."(Link)
When I read that I wondered exactly if that was a result of the kind of tactics that Fox & Friends are employing: that Republicans are getting surer and Democrats are getting weaker. It's a stretch, I know, but recent political events keep demonstrating just that.

/rant
posted by mondaygreens at 9:50 AM on May 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


philip-random, grumblebee: I worked for a boss who thought he had perfect memory. He would tell me so quite often. I soon learned not to talk to him, and if I had to take orders verbally make sure I either wrote down everything, or sent him an e-mail immediately afterward summarizing the conversation. I don't have a perfect memory so the paper trail saved my ass in two ways, both when I had actually misremembered something and when he had changed his mind, convinced himself he had told me, and since he had a perfect memory and I didn't could not be convinced any other way that I hadn't screwed up.

I suppose that's the big takeaway for me. "Wherever possible, replace human memory with automatic recording systems".
posted by Grimgrin at 9:51 AM on May 28, 2010


I have the feeling that an important part of our development is that of learning to fool ourselves and manipulate our own memories. Contrarily to perceived wisdom, it's remarkably difficult to fool a child's senses, as many a magician has found. That's why "children say the darndest things. And, coincidentally, children have remarkably accurate memories. But an accurate memory can be pretty unpractical. For instance, as grumblebee points out, it makes lying much more difficult, and lying convincingly is a damn useful skill, alas. Also, deforming our memories makes it easier for us to live with others, as well as ourselves: "forgive and forget".
posted by Skeptic at 10:32 AM on May 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


I have the feeling that an important part of our development is that of learning to fool ourselves

I agree with this.

I'm always baffled when rationalists (and I AM a rationalist) claim that Knowing The Truth is necessarily a good thing. I think that my view of memory is the truth, but I think I've done damage to myself by dwelling on it.

This thread is not the place for atheism discussions, but I believe that it's true that there is no God, and I also believe it sucks that I believe in that truth.

There are many, many times when fooling yourself is a great life strategy. We say that there are no atheists in foxholes. That's not true. What we should say is that we pity the atheists in the foxholes. They're screwed.
posted by grumblebee at 11:08 AM on May 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


but due to faulty memory or just an evil heart he decided to blame me.

So you ARE confident enough to assume that it was definitely your BOSS who has the faulty memory! ;-)


In that situation, yes. Because it was so absurd. Specifically, it revolved around the art and wording for a trade-AD that the boss shoved down everyone's throats, and it was generally considered awful, but not one of those hills anyone felt worth dying for. And then, in a moment of deluded clarity, the boss saw it for what it was and killed me for it anyway.

Good riddance by the way.
posted by philip-random at 11:28 AM on May 28, 2010


I had one encounter with someone who claimed to have studied with Loftus. It was during jury selection (I was ultimately selected) where she claimed that she could never be on a jury because she knew that all witness testimony was completely unreliable. Nothing the judge could ask her would get her to admit that she could weigh evidence or somehow attempt to gain a kernel of truth from fallible testimony ---it was all CRAP. Since I was already familiar with Loftus' body of work, I could only assume that the student has misremembered the point of the research. Either that or she just wanted to get out of jury duty bad enough to lie to a judge.
posted by Humanzee at 11:55 AM on May 28, 2010


Whoo-hoo! I got the test right.
posted by Mental Wimp at 12:03 PM on May 28, 2010


she claimed that she could never be on a jury because she knew that all witness testimony was completely unreliable.

That's ridiculously extreme, but I do worry about what would happen if I was on a jury and the case hinged on a memory (that was unverifiable by other evidence).

When I was last on Jury duty, people in the deliberation room would say things like, "The woman says she remembers the defendant being at her house that night," and I would say, "What if she's remembering it wrong?"

When I said that, I was usually asked if I thought the witness was "reliable." I wasn't sure what to say, because she seemed, to me, to be about as reliable as most people. I believed she was telling the truth as she remembered it, and I believed she was of sound mind.

The difference between me and my fellow jurists is that they believed that there were certain kinds of people whose memories you could generally trust and I didn't.

They believed that if someone seems honest and sharp, and if they are confident about their memories, then there is good reason to think that those memories are true.

I don't believe that. I don't believe that there's a correlation between sharpness of memory and truth of memory.

Luckily, the case didn't hinge on memory.

But am I nuts to be concerned about this kind of thing?
posted by grumblebee at 12:14 PM on May 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


Each time you recall something, you are recalling your last recollection of it and adding new changes in the process. Memories slowly change over time, like mutations in the genome, until your memory is now a completely different species.
posted by Mental Wimp at 12:14 PM on May 28, 2010


I suppose that's the big takeaway for me. "Wherever possible, replace human memory with automatic recording systems".

Like CCTV?
posted by Mental Wimp at 12:18 PM on May 28, 2010


grumblebee: But am I nuts to be concerned about this kind of thing?

Not at all.
posted by tippiedog at 12:43 PM on May 28, 2010


There are many, many times when fooling yourself is a great life strategy. We say that there are no atheists in foxholes. That's not true. What we should say is that we pity the atheists in the foxholes. They're screwed.

So you would describe yourself as an advocate of the theories and policies of Leo Strauss, then?
posted by Pope Guilty at 12:46 PM on May 28, 2010


So you would describe yourself as an advocate of the theories and policies of Leo Strauss, then?

Do you mean do I believe in "noble lies"?

No, they are impractical. The notion reminds me of the thing cheaters tell themselves: "I'm not going to tell my wife I cheated on her, because if she found out, it would just hurt her."

My take is on that is, "Well, yes, it will hurt her, and so she's GOING to be hurt, because she WILL find out. Better that she finds it out from me/"

I don't mean it's a sure thing that she'll find out. I mean that there's really nothing I can do to safeguard the lie. She knows me too well; I talk in my sleep; there are strange numbers on my phone bill; someone saw me and Michelle Pfeiffer kissing; etc.

If politicians lie to the public "for their own good," eventually someone will expose the lie, and all hell will break loose.

But what if there WAS such a thing as a perfect lie? If you want to force my hand, make up a scenario like this: I find out (by magic) that my best friend, who is 30 years old, is going to die when he's 50. There's no possibility of changing that. But there's also no way he'll know unless I tell him. He's an anxious type, so I know that if I tell him his fate, he'll spend the next 20 years fretting about it. If I don't tell him, he'll have 20 years of happiness (or at least greater happiness than if I do tell him).

Should I tell him?

What would you do. What WOULD you do?

(Let's not complicate this by bringing other people into it. If, when he's 49, he gets engaged, that changes everything, because no someone ELSE will be affected by my decision. But as long as we're being magic, let's say my friend and I live alone on a desert island and we'll never leave it.)

I fall on the side of no. I feel a little queasy about this, because part of me thinks "he has a right to know." But I'm not sure what that right is based on, and, in the end, I would choose to not tell him.

But this situation NEVER occurs in real life. In real life there's ALWAYS a chance that truth will out, and people are notoriously bad at underestimating that chance. If you think a secret is pretty safe, it's probably not.
posted by grumblebee at 1:21 PM on May 28, 2010


I'm pretty sure I've told this story here before, but the unreliability of memory was brought home vividly to me when I met the woman who is now my wife in Grand Central. This was the first time we'd met in person, and we'd both been looking forward to it, so it was definitely a memorable occasion. The very first time we reminisced about it, perhaps the next day but certainly no more then a couple of days later, we realized we remembered different places within the main hall: I visualized us on one side of the famous clock, she on the other. Each of us had the initial reaction "No, you're wrong, I remember it clearly," but then we each realized that the other's memory was as clear and certain as our own... and one of them was wrong. Fortunately, we were both already aware of the mutable nature of memory, but this was such a clear illustration it made us both realize it on a visceral level. While I don't say the things Grumblebee does when interacting with people unless I'm pretty sure they'll know what I'm talking about, I do think them, and like Grimgrin, I try to replace human memory with automatic recording systems when possible.
posted by languagehat at 2:26 PM on May 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


Previously we had Susan Clancy: The Trauma Myth, who relies on Loftus' work.
posted by psyche7 at 5:16 PM on May 28, 2010


But at what stage does remembering something that didn't happen become a symptom of mental instability? Is it only hallucination if you think it's happening now and it is provably not?
posted by jacalata at 6:21 PM on May 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


How Our Brains Make Memories
posted by homunculus at 9:45 PM on May 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


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