by Mark Gutman, February 10, 2015: Brian Williams, NBC news anchor and “marquee face,” has “temporarily” stepped down from his post in the face of accusations of lying about a helicopter ride in Iraq. Williams’ critics have produced timelines showing how his accounts from Iraq have become more lurid with each passing year.1 How can he explain such falsehoods? We expect more honesty from someone in his position.
Hold it! Not so fast. We vigorously scold others for dishonesty or lying because we are unaware of our own problems with misstating facts. We all suffer from “the illusion of memory.”2
“The illusion of memory leads us to assume— unless we receive direct evidence to the contrary— that our memories, beliefs, and actions are mutually consistent and stable over time.”3 Remember the day the Challenger blew up (January 28, 1986)? How could you forget? Well, the next morning two Emory University professors had a class of their students “write a description of how they heard about the explosion, and then . . . answer a set of detailed questions about the disaster: what time they heard about it, what they were doing, who told them, who else was there, how they felt about it, and so on.” “Two and a half years later, Neisser and Harsch asked the same students to fill out a similar questionnaire about the Challenger explosion. The memories the students reported had changed dramatically over time, incorporating elements that plausibly fit with how they could have learned about the events, but that never actually happened.”4
How did the students respond to the revelation that their memories were haywire? “Many were shocked at the discrepancy between their original reports and their memories of what happened. In fact, when confronted with their original reports, rather than suddenly realizing that they had misremembered, they often persisted in believing their current ‘memory.’”5 In effect, “I don’t care what I wrote the next day; my memory is better now.”
We are so confident we are right until we are forced to admit we are wrong. Especially about our crystal clear memories. There’s just “no way” we can be wrong about some of those memories. And since people usually don’t have a video to show us how often we are wrong, we operate under “the illusion of memory” and heap scorn on those whose misremembering suffers public exposure.
Hillary Clinton took some heat when she related the story of her scary visit to Bosnia, “landing under sniper fire.” Videos and newspaper articles of her visit proved that there was no scare at all, as she finally admitted. George W. Bush remembered seeing the first plane hit the World Trade Tower on television before entering the elementary school class. Except that no video (or television) was available of that first plane’s hitting until long after September 11. Hillary and George simply take their place alongside thousands of others whose memories have been proven wrong by videos or DNA or newspaper. Although we’ve probably all gone back to visit a place and discovered that it wasn’t at all the way we remembered it, we’re still quite positive that all our other memories are very accurate.
We picture our memory as having stored away little videos of each event in our lives. Remember the day you turned thirty? Or the time you ran out of gas on a crowded freeway? You mentally pull up the little video and watch it as you describe an event in your life to others. But your “video” is a put-together from several places in your brain. And you don’t realize that extraneous material was swept into your video and has become vividly clear as indisputable fact. So you end up as a liar. No, you’re not a liar. You’re just a human being with unwarranted extreme confidence that your memory is foolproof because no one has provided a video that demonstrates how distorted your memory is. Unaware that your memory is like Swiss cheese, you’re free to judge such a deficiency in others.6
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “Do not judge others, and you will not be judged. . . . The standard you use in judging is the standard by which you will be judged (Matthew 7:1f, NLT).” Part of the reason for his counsel may have been the fact that we hardly begin to understand how well (other) people do with the limitations imposed by their brains. We understand that people who suffer from schizophrenia or bipolar disorder and haven’t taken their medication can do things that they would not do if their brains were not impaired. But if a person is not diagnosed with a brain tumor or disease, we give her no quarter when it comes to condemning her for her clearly disgusting actions or words.
In Matthew 12:7, Jesus talked about those who “condemn the guiltless.” He quoted Hosea 6:6: I desire mercy [which should be translated “compassion”7], and not sacrifice. With our limited understanding of how people’s brains function, we find it easy to accuse people of things they are not guilty of. Williams’ story is exaggerated, at best, or flat-out wrong. No question. Hilary and George W. told stories that were fiction. But though we know what they did, we don’t know what was going on in their minds. We don’t know that they intended to deceive people. Nor do we know that our story telling is any more accurate.
If your dramatic story about the day you turned thirty was proven to be wrong in some key points, you would probably dismiss your lying, er, your mistake: “I didn’t realize. I really thought that that was exactly what happened. I can’t understand how I got so mixed up.” If you can imagine asking for a break on a mistaken memory, how about being as willing to give someone else (e.g., Williams, Clinton, your opponent) the same break? As human beings, they might have simply gotten mixed up as their minds processed the past.
I may believe you are wrong about your thirtieth birthday or a Bible doctrine or a fact of science. But it is not for me to say that you are intentionally promoting something you know is wrong. Let’s be less accusing. We can declare that someone is wrong about a fact or story, but we can rarely assert that a person is knowingly wrong (meaning, lying). We don’t have to believe the inaccuracy, but neither do we have to equate faulty memory with moral deficiency.8
Same thing for others’ actions. I may believe the president, the pastor, or the banker is acting badly, but I shouldn’t be too quick to assume it’s because he’s morally defective. Human beings make mistakes. In Matthew 18, Jesus told of a man who was forgiven a huge debt but was hard on a person who owed him a relatively small amount of money. When we fail to take into account what’s going on in the brain of someone else whose actions we look down on, we are replaying the role of that unforgiving servant in Matthew 18. Especially when our own brain has similar problems.
Of course, we can and should tackle inaccuracy and unfairness – in Williams or Clinton or anyone else. But let’s be slower to equate defective behavior with defective character. Things are not always what they seem. Shining lights may turn out to be dim bulbs, while “bad” people may be more Christian than we thought. What’s that old saying? Something like, “People with defective memories shouldn’t . . . .”
2https://www.buzzfeed.com/andrewkaczynski/ben-carson-book#.yuyxV2jwA3 The realclearpolitics.com article also discusses this.
3Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons, The Invisible Gorilla: And Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us (New York: Crown, 2010), 66. Kindle edition
6Daniel Gilbert, Stumbling on Happiness (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006), 78-81.
7Marcus Borg, Speaking Christian: Why Christian Words Have Lost Their Meaning and Power – And How They Can Be Restored (New York: HarperCollins, 2011), 125-131.
8See my earlier column in https://www.atodayarchive.org/article/2182/opinion/gutman-mark/2013/wrong-mistaken-wicked-synonyms