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.
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!