In the wake of news anchor Brian Williams’ apparent embellishment of some of his reporting experiences, there’s been some hand-wringing from pundits about truth and memory. Most of us feel confident that we would not incorrectly remember something so dramatic as being shot down in war, and we certainly would not lie about something so easily verified. But would we? And is it really a lie if you actually believe it?
Research indicates that memory is a lot less reliable than we like to think. It’s all too easy to remember something that didn’t happen, or to forget something that did. In many cases, false memories are so vivid and ingrained that they are indistinguishable from the real thing.
Believe it or not, one of the biggest factors in memory reliability is mood. Writing in Psychological Science, Yves Corson and Nadège Verrier examined the influence of mood and excitement on susceptibility to false memories. They found that significantly fewer false memories could be induced when a subject was experiencing a negative mood. Therefore, one would think that traumatic experiences would be remembered accurately, right? Not so fast.
Even more important than mood, Corson and Verrier found, was excitement. Whether positive or negative, a state of excitement was very conducive to developing false memories. Intense situations, such as reporting on a war, might then be fertile territory to develop incorrect recall.
There are other factors. When a false event is discussed repeatedly, people are more likely to believe it—this is a major focus in studies of false confessions. For most of us, though, our own imaginations are enough to create false memories. And the more vivid the imagination, the more likely false memories become.
In a 2004 paper, author Brian Gonsalves and colleagues asked participants to visually imagine an object or situation while undergoing an MRI. Afterwards, many participants believed that they had actually seen photos of some of these objects when in fact they had only imagined them, and in those cases, sections of the cerebral cortex became more active than when participants remembered the situation accurately.
The more vivid an image that a subject was able to create, the more brain activity there was during a false memory. Clearly, there is a physiological basis behind memory formation, and if this study can be extended beyond objects then people can trick themselves into false memories through very clear visualization of a situation.
It’s clear that memory is much more complicated than simply remembering correctly or indulging in willful falsehood. People can genuinely believe their false impression to be true. The best defense is other people. While our own memories may deceive us, it is unlikely that several people will experience exactly the same false memory. Before you tell that dramatic story, perhaps ask someone else who was there how they remember it. If the stories are not the same, maybe save it for another day.