Mixing Memory

It would be a horrible cliché to begin a post about the reconstructive nature of autobiographical memory with a Proust quote, so instead I’ll begin with something only slightly less cliché: beginning something about memory by talking about my own experience. You see, I’m southern, as anyone who’s ever heard me pronounce the words “pen” and “pin” exactly the same, or refer to any soft drink as a “coke,” can attest. In the south, it’s not uncommon to find people sitting around a grill, or a kitchen table, or pretty much anything you can sit around, participating in what might be described as story contests. These are basically pissing contests, but with words instead of, well, other stuff. The contest usually begins with someone telling a crazy story (usually from their youth), which is followed by someone else telling an even crazier story, and so on, back and forth, until someone tells a story so crazy that nothing believable could ever top it. Now, it goes without saying that these contests involve a great deal of, shall we say, creative interpretation of the events being described. And of course, everyone involved is well aware of this. In fact, because the same people often participate in these contests with each other over the years, you can actually watch the stories change: what started as a mildly dangerous activity changes to an extremely dangerous one, then a deadly one, and ultimately, in the “same” story, the story-teller barely cheated Death. The fish you caught became bigger, and the struggle with the one that got away longer and more grueling.


“It was 5, no, no… 6, no… 15 feet, yeah, it was 15 feet if it was an inch!”

I’ve participated in many of these contests over the years, and generally do pretty well, because I’ve done a lot of stupid things that really did involve an uncomfortable proximity to death, and as anyone who knows me will readily tell you, I have an uncanny ability to hurt myself in bizarre ways (like the time I got a pencil stuck deep between two toes when I tripped on an Afghan blanket). As I’ve told my stories over the years (I have a long list of them ready to be told at a moment’s notice), and… umm… creatively interpreted them to make them more exciting (than the other person’s), I’ve added a detail here, or increased a measurement (by an order of magnitude) there. That’s just the way the game works.

But here’s the thing: in many cases, I don’t remember which parts really happened and which parts I added for effect in the course of one of those contests. This is a simple case of source monitoring failure. I can’t tell whether I’m remembering the event itself or one of the times I told the story of the event. And what’s worse, the vividness of the memory, or how much I can picture it in my head, doesn’t help, because my brain is just as good at coming up with images of things I made up creatively interpreted as it is at coming up with images of things that actually happened. The reason for this, of course that when my brain is remembering something, it’s just putting it together on the fly from bits and associated pieces. And every time I recall an episode, that recall becomes another associated episode, and the memory for the original episode is therefore altered, making it really easily to mistakenly recall things you thought or said about the episode long after it happened as part of the original episode. In other words, memory is just a form of makin’ shit up.

Why am I telling you all of this? Well, if you’ve been following politics at all, you’ve no doubt heard about Hillary Clinton’s latest gaffe. In a speech last week, she said this about a trip to Bosnia in 1996:

I certainly do remember that trip to Bosnia… we came in in an evasive maneuver… I remember landing under sniper fire… there was no greeting ceremony… we ran with our heads down, we basically were told to run to our cars… there was supposed to be some kind of a greeting ceremony at the airport, we basically were told to run to our cars, that is what happened.

Sounds harrowing, right? Well, it turns out that it didn’t really happen that way, and there’s video to prove it. It seems there weren’t any snipers, or evasive maneuvers, and instead of running to the cars with their heads down, they had a little ceremony on the tarmac. Oops.

Since it became clear that Clinton’s story wasn’t accurate, bloggers and the mainstream media have been taking her to task, and understandably so. If you’re telling a story that’s supposed to demonstrate your experience with dangerous foreign policy situations, and it turns out the story isn’t really true, you’re going to hear about it. But I think it’s unfair to accuse Clinton of lying. Don’t get me wrong, I think all politicians lie, and I’m no fan of Clinton (I voted for her opponent in my state’s primary), but this appears to be a pretty straightforward failure of memory to me, and I’d bet a lot of money that source monitoring has its dirty little hand in it.

To see why I think this is a memory rather than honesty issue, read the following recollection of the trip by Lissa Muscatine, who was on the plane with Clinton (from here):

I was on the plane with then First Lady Hillary Clinton for the trip from Germany into Bosnia in 1996. We were put on a C17– a plane capable of steep ascents and descents — precisely because we were flying into what was considered a combat zone. We were issued flak jackets for the final leg because of possible sniper fire near Tuzla. As an additional precaution, the First Lady and Chelsea were moved to the armored cockpit for the descent into Tuzla. We were told that a welcoming ceremony on the tarmac might be canceled because of sniper fire in the hills surrounding the air strip. From Tuzla, Hillary flew to two outposts in Bosnia with gunships escorting her helicopter.

Add to that the report by a U.S. general who was there on the ground that they were aware of security threats at the time, and the interference of all the other landings that Clinton made in Europe and elsewhere, plus the fact that Senator Clinton has likely told this story many times (it’s in one of her books), and you’ve got a situation that’s ripe for source monitoring errors.

Let’s look at what might have happened. In Germany, Clinton got on a plane that was used specifically because of its ability to maneuver during landings to avoid incoming fire. Undoubtedly, they were told that this was the reason for using the plane. They had flak jackets and Clinton was put into the armored cockpit for the descent, again as a precaution against incoming fire. Add to this the fact that there were credible threats, meaning she was probably rather anxious, and we all know that stress doesn’t make for better overall memory, even if it makes us remember perceptual details better. Hell, maybe even Clinton and her entourage were rushed, after the meeting on the tarmac, to their cars because they were on a tight schedule (not because of the threats), and you get a situation that’s easily distorted by the reconstructive processes of memory into something like the version that Clinton told. In fact, I’d bet that they even told Clinton or someone on her team that in the case of incoming fire, they would have to be rush to their cars with their heads down, instead of having the scheduled ceremony on the tarmac. All this could easily add up to a memory in which the threat, the fear, the flak jackets, etc., add up to a difficulty in remembering what actually happened and what she was afraid might happened. And the fact that Clinton seems to remember it so vividly, contrary to being evidence that she’s lying, is likely just a product of her brain filling in the gaps and building a coherent representation of the episode, just like it’s supposed to do.

None of this makes Clinton’s version of the events in Bosnia in 1996 more accurate, of course, nor does it excuse her and her campaign from not quickly verifying her memory to make sure she wasn’t misremembering. But it doesn’t mean she’s lying, either, and since she’s clearly a rational and intelligent person, it’s unlikely she’d lie about something that easily verified anyway. Instead, my money’s on a mundane, though potentially costly, error resulting from the reconstructive nature of memory. At least, until someone demonstrates otherwise, I’m willing to give her, and her memory, the benefit of the doubt.

As Montaigne put it, “The memory represents to us not what we choose but what it pleases.” Sorry,I had to end with a cliché too!

Comments

  1. #1 Romeo Vitelli
    March 24, 2008

    We know that traumatic experiences can affect memory in strange ways. If Hillary’s years of marriage to Bill doesn’t qualify her for a PTSD diagnosis, what does?

  2. #2 Katherine
    March 24, 2008

    I do wish that people knew this about money. I am also not a Clinton supporter for the nomination (though I will be for the general if she is nominated), but I completely agree with you on this one and she shouldn’t be held accountable for it.

    My parents are from the south and my dad loves to tell ridiculously long stories with likely exaggerated details. For some reason I didn’t realize this was a southern thing, even though I now realize that in visiting family there, we’d hear tons of such stories. Maybe I just didn’t realize the pissing contest part of it. That certainly explains my dad, though. He’s still a little crazy, too, so he is constantly replenishing his library of ridiculous stories through current experiences he has. It’s great. :)

  3. #3 muhr
    March 24, 2008

    I recall reading an article about the stories that politicians tell, I think it was in the “The Atlantic Monthly.” Anyway, the part of the article that I remember most was of President Reagan talking to a Jewish man who survived a Nazi death camp. Reagan told the man how he remembered seeing the horror of the death camps when he and his fellow soldiers liberated one. The thing is, Reagan never went to Europe in WWII.

  4. #4 bsci
    March 25, 2008

    While this could probably be false memory, the main flaw with this argument is that the harrowing tale was not included in her autobiography that was written only a couple of years earlier. Somehow the memory was good 8 years after the event, but became a false memory only a couple of years later.

    The fact that there were so many people (including her daughter) with whom she could have corroborated such a story for accuracy before including it in planned speeches is an example of carelessness at least.

    Finally, this will stick because this one of her main real-world examples of her commander leadership abilities. If her two main real-to-lead-on-day-one examples were landing under sniper fire and helping with peace negotiations in Ireland both turn out to be false memories, it doesn’t make her look good. If they were two false memories surrounded by concrete examples, they would have less effect on her campaign.

  5. #5 Psyche
    March 25, 2008

    Could be the way it happened although I tend to agree with others who point out that this rather dramatic episode wasn’t included in her autobiography. And I suppose campaigns might be thought of as pissing contests — although one would hope they are more substantive. What worries me as a psychologist is that if this kind of distortion of memory occurs under stress, how well is she going to be able to remember important things as Chief Executive. Haven’t we had enough of muddled thinking for the last seven years?

    In addition, Chelsea has been active in the campaign and unless she suffers from similarly impaired memory, could have corrected her mother. Hate to be such a skeptic but suspect there was some campaign brainstorming to come up with evidence of her foreign policy expertise and this was manufactured. Remember, there were similar embellishments to her role in the Irish peace process.

  6. #6 Mike
    March 25, 2008

    I have to say that I spent two tours in Vietnam and I remember the difference between being under fire and a “fine” day and Ms. Clinton, with all due respect – if there is any due, your experience was a fine day. YOU lied. Period. You know if your daughter was in danger! YOU KNOW! You would remember the little girl reciting you a poem. And you would know that gunshots would have ended any such ceremony! Why have we never heard this story before? It isn’t in your book!

    Your personal power agenda is showing! And you faked your crying. All to get votes.

    False memory! Let me tell you! YOU KNOW! When bullets are flying by and when you have to run your a$$ off to avoid dying! The first time, your pants turn brown!

    I know everyone is supposed to be politically correct but reality is that in my book “misspoke” is called lying! What is so wrong with holding people accountable? She IS NOT royalty!

    A naval officer is relieved of duty because he “misspoke”… why is Billary so different? If she so blatantly lies about inconsequential things, what will she lie about at 3AM?

    We do not need another blatant liar in the White House.

  7. #7 David Wilkinson
    March 25, 2008

    I think that there maybe other explanations here, and one in particular that I have researched with leaders, particularly when they are reporting on how they see certain situations like market conditions for example.
    The phenomenon, ‘context recollection’ incorporates the effect of the emotions on story telling and recounts of memory events. If there is a strong emotional current situational context, in which the story is being retold, particularly those contexts that produce euphoria or fear (risk and ambiguity) there is a strong tendency for the story or memory recollection to be molded to the current context to either carry on the euphoric emotions or to mitigate perceived threats. The tellers of these untruths know and can report that the memory is not real, however the context appears to change the meaning of the untruth to ‘not a lie’ for the story teller.
    This has a lot of consequences in situations where leaders are making decisions based their understanding of the current situation and the past. If they make decisions at times of euphoria or fear (even if they are not conscious of the emotion) the decisions are usually awful ones. Their recollection of the decision is likewise altered by the emotions experienced. One of the skill sets we highlight is that of emotional resilience to reduce this effect.
    David Wilkinson
    http://ambiguityadvantage.blogspot.com/

  8. #8 NBudd
    March 26, 2008

    The statement that HRC is a rational and intelligent woman who would not knowingly lie about something that could be easily verified is true. However, there are other instances of televised and easily disproven HRC howlers that have appeared recently (e.g., Chelsea was next door to the WTC when the planes hit)which are similarly inexplicable for your usual r&iw. Is it possible that there is an alternative theory that is equally consistent with the observation that she is rational and intelligent? For example, may it not be that the poor woman suffers from delusions (certainly aspirations) of grandesse and may be a bit of meglomaniacal fantasist? Or maybe has she just been a politician a bit too long and at age 60+ the old brain cells just can’t tell the difference any more (cf., today’s David Brooks column in the NYT). Just thinking out loud here, but these diagnoses aren’t quite so benign for someone who would be president of the country.

  9. #9 john dennis
    March 26, 2008

    BEWARE OF ESOTERIC EXPLANATIONS FOR THEY CONCEAL THE MUNDANE

    Just kidding. I like Chris’s attempt to formulate a plausible reconstructive memory explanation for the Clinton gaffe, but it doesn’t seem to work for me. The problem I have with it is the ease of cross-verification of her “memory.” Her gaffe would be understandable if this was the first time she talked about with anyone – I doubt that. Communicating with other eye-witnesses represents a self-correcting mechanism.

  10. #10 Joachim Bolanger
    March 26, 2008

    A lot of psychobabbel to justify a damned lie. Nothing focuses the mind like being shot at (not an original observation). I think it equally unlikely that one could forget not being shot at.

  11. #11 Jake
    March 26, 2008

    This was not a false memory. As has been noted her memory was fine a few years ago. The stress of the event occurring the way she recalled them would have cemented them in her mind just as she recalled them. But it didn’t happen, so how do you explain the inconsistency between what she recalled and what really happened when the actual occurrence is what would have made the memory.

    I find it to be more likely to be a lie, a known falsehood. Just like how she was the architect of her failed national health care, until it came up during this campaign, then she was just the window dressing and salesperson for Bill’s plan. If it was a failure and was her failure we should expect the truth that it was a learning experience, if whats being told now is the truth then we know she is a liar. In either case she was a liar and lacks credibility.

  12. #12 CA
    March 29, 2008

    After seeing the video of the deplaning and the ceremony on the tarmac, and the causal way the whole party walked across the tarmac, smiling – I’d have to say this is a problem. Is it a memory problem? only she knows for sure. Does anyone know what effects volition have on the memory. If she wantedit to be a heroic, action-packed moment, would that later her memory to turn fiction into perceived fact? Or is it just another fish tale?

  13. #13 Abby
    March 29, 2008

    Thank you. I have been waiting for a rational statement regarding this gaffe. Because Hillary is a smart woman who is schooled in politics, it seemed absurd that she would lie about something so easily checked.

    My mom and I have shared many events in our lives and we often disagree about what happened at the time. We aren’t lying to each other, we just come from different perspectives. Just today we disagreed about an event that happened w/ a neighborhood kid 40 years ago. We both were there, but we totally ‘dis-remembered’ it.

    If Hillary did knowingly lie, it would have been a truly stupid event, and nobody would ever accuse her of stupidity.
    Once again, an honest (yes, I meant HONEST) mistake is distorted because there is really nothing else to smear her.

    Thank you for your article; do you think that you could go on CNN? MSNBC? Keith Olbermann who wants to coronate your candidate?

  14. #14 Amélie Gourdon
    March 30, 2008

    Hey Chris, just doing an essay on DRM paradigm, so I would like to cite your intepretation of HRC gaffe to intro the topic. Is it possible to have your last name (even in PM) to do so?
    Besides, quite agree with Abby: had often experienced disagreement with my ex on what had really happened, what each one had really said. In fact I think that the simply thought on what you would have wanted to say can elicit semantic priming and hence false memories. In this perspective thinking about what could have happened could elicit it too. And I am too cynical to think that politics could say someething without verifying it if they had a doubt…

  15. #15 Steve
    April 27, 2008

    As a psychologist, the technical term for your explanation regarding HRC is termed “crap”. We all know that memory plays games with us and that we construct events. The over whelming evidence regarding Bill & HRC is that they reconstruct events to suit the circumstances and they are both pathlogical liars. It’s the secret to their long and happy marriage.