Brian Williams was suspended last week for misremembering some important facts about an event from 12 years ago. He is recognized as the US’s most-watched news anchorman, attracting more than 9 million daily viewers. His brand is honesty and yet he states he misremembered an event. He is now facing backlash on the Internet and his employer has hired an investigator.
We humans have a funny relationship with our memory. We recognize that our memory doesn’t work all the time because we all have moments when we can’t remember something. However, we also assume and are confident our memory works with close to 100% accuracy the rest of the time. We have all bought into the belief that our memory is accurate and rely on our own memory to be trustworthy. Should we?
The thing about memory that you should remember is that it isn’t what it seems. New brain science makes it very clear that our reliance on our memory is often a poor choice. Memories are not tangible, unaltered objects we store for access later, like a PDF on our computer. It is a much looser process than most people consider.
The science of memory creation and retention reveals two interesting ideas:
- Memories change over time as new memories influence earlier memories.
- Every time we use a memory (such as to tell the story of an event) we alter the memory slightly and essentially practise a “different” memory. And we are certain this "different" memory is accurate.
We all know the story of the fish that got away. The person that lost the "big one" tells the story over and over. The other person in the boat never tells the story and can’t believe, how over the years, that fish keeps getting bigger and bigger. This is just how memory works: the person who lost the fish is simply evolving a memory. But they also truly believe the fish is "this big."
Whether or not the media in the US is overreacting to William's "misremembering," it does bring up three important issues.
Modern learning science suggests that our memory doesn’t deserve such a vaulted position and we should not be so adamant about its accuracy.
Today’s media personalities often rely on "storytelling" to explain complex topics; perhaps they shouldn’t rely on personal stories that purport to be accurate.
We shouldn’t be so critical of others' misremembering; it is simply a human condition.
How different a world it would be if we never had another argument about the precision of past words spoken. It is important to rely on your memory, but not to the point where you damage relationships attempting to be the one who remembers the best. The notion of 100% trustworthy memories is something we might wish to misremember.