Misled By Memory

Over the years I’ve often noticed how misleading memory can be. The example of this with the worst possible consequences is the number of people sent to jail solely on eyewitness testimony who years later are exonerated based on new techniques of scientific analysis. I often wonder how many of those who proclaim their innocence right up to execution fit this pattern. Surely one or two at least.

If memory can behave so poorly in such an important situation, how does it behave in less consequential settings?  And what is the effect on leadership and management of poor memory, or worse, memory rearranged by time.

Thus I was interested to discover that William Hirst of the New School and Elizabeth Phelps of New York University have been investigating the decay of memory.  To my dismay, they have discovered that a large percentage of remembered facts and details are self created.

The amazing thing is that they have discovered this is the natural process of the mind and memory, and not some intentional changing of history. It’s just the way your mind works.

It seems that the act of remembering itself leads to the memories changing.  As we remember we continually alter the facts without any conscious knowledge of these changes.  Memory is influenced by all kinds of things that subtly or not so subtly change the structure of events.

We all know that you get different responses depending on how you ask the question.  What we haven’t realized is that these different responses become the new memories, modifying and replacing what existed before.  To make it worse, the more we are asked to recall things the stronger these adjusted memories become and the more confidence we have in them.

The most useful thing to come of this research is that the more rapidly you respond to questions the closer to the actual memory you get.  Taking time to think and recall actually leads to more confabulation…as my father calls it. 

Confabulation: strongly believing that what you are saying is an accurate rendition of the facts of an event however far away from the real facts it might be.

We basically talk ourselves into firmly believing in memory that didn’t exist until we spoke it.  Once spoken, it becomes the real experience from that point forward.  Or at least until we modify it again based on some future misremembering.

The message? Beware of the stories people tell you describing experiences or events where there are serious consequences to the wrong information.  Take the time to research the facts in ways that are fixed rather than taking the rapid way of counting on someone’s memory.  Beware of guiding questions. When you notice that the facts change as the story gets told, don’t think you’re being misled intentionally but realize you merely are observing the vagaries of changing memory first hand.

As a big believer in story and its power to guide and influence I find this all a bit distressing.  On the other hand, I am reminded that I have said “never let the facts get in the way of a good story.”

Just remember, although there is a message hidden in that story somewhere…the story might or might not bear much resemblance to the actual event. Be sure you act accordingly.

  1. Very relevant, especially the caution that the other person isn’t deliberately misleading you.
    While the story isn’t just for leaders, it may be especially important for them. The folks who have the confidence to become leaders often believe innately in their “own truth”. Creating an atmosphere where the entire team is encouraged to speak up and their input is authentically considered may avoid a lot of needless problems which are the province of a leader who doesn’t listen.

    Reply

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