There But for the Grace of…

Bad information is often worse than no information. And bad information that masquerades as good information is the worst of all. In our legal system, eye-witness testimony is given a special status as being especially reliable. But we now know that human memory is, in fact, surprisingly fallible and malleable.

So when the news of Brian Williams being suspended for embellishing stories of his experiences in Iraq, I immediately thought the problem was faulty memory more than malice. An Article in Slate and a entire You are Not so Smart Podcast jumped into the fray to show how everyone, not just trusted news anchors, is susceptible to being mislead by inaccurate recollections, for example:

Don’t think “but this memory is different.” People may think that particularly important or vivid memories are inherently authentic and immune to distortion, but they are not. In fact, important memories may be recounted more often than mundane ones, and each recounting has the potential to introduce new distortions. Brian Williams’ Iraq memory seems to have transformed progressively, much like the mutating messages in a child’s game of telephone, spiraling away from the truth over the years.

It is known that with little effort, false memories can be implanted, and our version of events is continually being updated by our current feelings and state of mind. Part of the solution is to externalize our memories in records so we are less reliant on our memory alone.