Last month, Brian Williams told a harrowing story of being shot down in a helicopter in 2003 in Iraq. It's a story he's told many times on different occasions — but then veterans pointed out that it didn't quite happen like that. Whoops. Williams has since been suspended for six months from his anchoring duties on NBC's Nightly News, and many have already cast him as a liar. But, psychology suggests his errors weren't necessarily deliberate. Instead, he may have been yet another victim of the fragile nature of memory. To understand how memory gets messed up, we should first go over how it works normally. "The common-sense idea that many people rely on is that memory is like some sort of video recorder," says Daniel Reisberg, PhD, "but it turns out that description is wrong on many levels." To turn something from an experience into a memory takes a few basic steps: First, you're exposed, meaning the thing to be remembered happens and you perceive it. Then, that memory is "consolidated," the process by which it is transferred to and stored in your long-term memory, to be retrieved later. Then, every time you remember it, it has to be reconsolidated. However, when we're remembering something, that memory becomes fragile again, says Julia Shaw, PhD. This leaves it open and vulnerable to being shifted and changed in ways we aren't usually aware of. That doesn't just mean that our existing memories can be manipulated — numerous studies have shown that, with the right kind of questioning and a little nugget of real life, we can be made to recall things in great detail that never actually happened to us. "The key is that memory is much more active and dynamic than any sort of video recorder," says Dr. Reisberg. Like Wikipedia, it's a compilation of information from many different sources, which means we can get a complete sense of a situation. Most of the time, this is a good thing, but it also makes it easy to lose track of our sources — and whether or not they're reliable. When that happens, it's possible to create "false memories." In one of the most influential studies into the concept, Elizabeth Loftus, PhD, and Jaqueline Pickrell, PhD, asked 24 participants to recall four different memories from their childhoods. Three of the memories were provided by a family member, but the fourth one — getting lost in a mall — was made up by the researchers and included plausible (but still fictitious) details from the family member. A quarter of the participants said they fully or partially remembered being lost, even though it never happened. In Dr. Shaw's most recent study, published last month in Psychological Science, she saw similar results: Participants underwent three phases of interviews about events in their childhoods, and when questioned later on using suggestive memory-retrieval techniques, 70% of the participants falsely recalled having committed a crime when they were between the ages of 11 and 14. Remarkably, these memories were described with the same level of detail as their true memories, including information from multiple senses.
Looking back to Brian Williams, Dr. Loftus told The New York Times, “You’ve got all these people saying the guy’s a liar and convicting him of deliberate deception without considering an alternative hypothesis — that he developed a false memory.” The other problem is that simply believing a memory is true doesn't mean that it is. "People are generally overconfident in their memories, but all memory has the potential for distortion," says Dr. Shaw. In fact, she says we're probably creating false memories all the time, but because it's unintentional, we don't notice unless someone else confronts us about it. After all, why would we question a memory if we have no reason to? As any Serial fan can tell you, memory can be a particular challenge in the legal system, especially when cases depend on accurately-remembered events that happened a long time ago. Scientists have long bemoaned the unreliability of witness testimony, and Dr. Reisberg says memory errors are by far the most common source of false convictions. Those errors usually happen totally innocently, too. Maybe a friend told you a story and somehow you remember it happening to you, or you read something and remember hearing it from a friend. "In all these cases, you are correct in that a certain idea was a part of your past," says Dr. Reisberg, "but you lose track of where and when it was part of your past." The end result? "You end up — without ever meaning to and with total sincerity — transforming information that you got in one context into information that you got in another context." Those memories become vulnerable to new influences over and over again. "These errors are not the result of some defect in memory. Instead they are, in a way, the natural byproduct of the way you want your memories to work as information integrators," says Dr. Reisberg. And, Dr. Shaw says, "There's a big difference between active deception and false memories." So, while we don't know Brian Williams' whole story, we do know that he's human — and sometimes, for all the right reasons, human memory really stinks.