I used to think that experience plus memory produced beliefs. Now I think I may have gotten this backwards as well. (For other things I’ve gotten backwards, click here).
Here’s how I used to think memory worked:
We experience the world around us and we remember our previous experiences. By and large, our memories of previous experiences are accurate. Perhaps we lose a little detail around the edges but the main ideas are clear and constant. The combination of (accurate) memories plus current experiences leads us to conclusions about how the world works. These conclusions create mental models and, voilà, we have a belief system. Our memories create our beliefs.
As our experiences change, our belief system does, too. We’re constantly comparing our experiences to our mental models. As our experiences – both remembered and current – change, our mental models should change, too. We can be confident that our memories are accurate and that our mental models are up to date.
It’s all neat and tidy. Everything flows in a nice, straight line. It’s completely logical. Unfortunately, it’s also completely wrong.
According to Chris Chabris and Dan Simons, most people – 63% in their survey – believe that “human memory works like a video camera, accurately recording the events we see and hear so that we can review and inspect them later.” It’s a comforting thought but it’s wrong. We invent new memories with remarkable ease and mix up events and expectations
As Chabris and Simons point out, our memory “…depends both on what actually happened and how we make sense of what happened.” We may have the same experiences as other people but draw different lessons from them. But if my lessons learned are different from yours … well, whose memory is accurate? My lessons learned fit my mental models and yours fit yours. Our beliefs create our memories.
As Jorge Luis Borges pointed out, no one sees a unicorn because no one expects to see a unicorn. The same is true for memory – we remember what we expect to remember. William Brewer and James Treyens conducted a classic experiment on this. They asked subjects to wait briefly in “…what they thought was a graduate student’s office…” Shortly after, the researchers asked the students to recall what they saw in the office. The subjects reported seeing what one would expect to see in a graduate student’s office – books, file cabinets, etc. But none of that was there; the subjects simply made it up.
Our memories change to fit our beliefs, not the other way round. Chabris and Simons recount the story of the basketball coach Bobby Knight who was fired for “choking” a young college player. Knight and the player had radically different memories of the event. In fact, Knight claimed not to remember it at all. I suspect he was telling the truth. Knight had a famously bad temper and choking a student was apparently not such a big deal to him. Nothing special to remember. For the player, it was exactly the opposite. Being choked by a world-famous coach was a very big deal. In fact, the player remembered an “embellished” version of the event — even after seeing video tape of the event.
Who was lying? Probably neither the player nor Knight. Their memories simply conformed to their beliefs.
The list goes on. We don’t notice changes in our surroundings. We see a person in a black leather jacket leave the room. Moments later, we see a person in a black leather jacket make a phone call. We perceive it to be the same person and remember it that way – even if two very different people are wearing similar jackets.
We can also “borrow” memories from others. If my friend, Trevor, tells a colorful story about himself that peripherally involves me, I may change it over time by swapping the actors. Trevor becomes the peripheral character; I become the main event. Further, I’ll be absolutely confident that I’m telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
What’s it all mean? We’re far too confident in our own memories. Our memories change to fit our beliefs. Eyewitnesses have no idea what really happened. Different people with different memories of the same event are all telling the truth as they see it. Nothing is as it seems. And don’t you forget it.