Day 607: Broken Telephone of Memory

Memory works a little bit more like a Wikipedia page: You can go in there and change it, but so can other people. I first started studying this constructive memory process in the 1970s. I did my experiments that involved showing people simulated crimes and accidents and asking them questions about what they remember. In one study, we showed people a simulated accident and we asked people, how fast were the cars going when they hit each other? And we asked other people, how fast were the cars going when they smashed into each other? And if we asked the leading "smashed" question, the witnesses told us the cars were going faster, and moreover, that leading "smashed" question caused people to be more likely to tell us that they saw broken glass in the accident scene when there wasn't any broken glass at all. In another study, we showed a simulated accident where a car went through an intersection with a stop sign, and if we asked a question that insinuated it was a yield sign, many witnesses told us they remember seeing a yield sign at the intersection, not a stop sign.
And you might be thinking, well, you know, these are filmed events, they are not particularly stressful. Would the same kind of mistakes be made with a really stressful event? In a study we published just a few months ago, we have an answer to this question, because what was unusual about this study is we arranged for people to have a very stressful experience. The subjects in this study were members of the U.S. military who were undergoing a harrowing training exercise to teach them what it's going to be like for them if they are ever captured as prisoners of war. And as part of this training exercise, these soldiers are interrogated in an aggressive, hostile, physically abusive fashion for 30 minutes and later on they have to try to identify the person who conducted that interrogation. And when we feed them suggestive information that insinuates it's a different person, many of them misidentify their interrogator, often identifying someone who doesn't even remotely resemble the real interrogator.  - Elizabeth Loftus

Memory is a funny thing. You may spend most of your life trusting in your memories completely, but the reality is that what you remember is seldom accurate and sometimes completely made up. Your memory is influenced by your thoughts, beliefs, images, stories, cultures, customs and other people.

The most interesting thing about this is how oblivious we are to this - we simply do not see that our memories are, more often than not, wrong. It's almost like we attach our self integrity to our memories and will therefore hold onto them with steely conviction, adamant that what we remember is true and accurate.

The TED Talk above is also another example of how suggestible we are - it is incredibly easy to manipulate a person. Unfortunately, most of the people who are aware of this fact will either exploit it for personal gain or simply keep quiet about it and not make an effort to show people how we are all being twisted and bent into seeing, thinking and feeling things by outside manipulative forces. Once again, most people are oblivious to how easy it is to lead them to think, feel, speak and even remember a certain way. Using certain words is enough to lead someone to perceive reality differently, or at least to recall it differently.

Considering all of this, how much more likely does it seem that we are all being manipulated into living a certain way, believing certain things, supporting certain things? This begs the question: how much of what we accept in the world do we accept simply because we have been impulsed into accepting it? This could be applied in politics, government, businesses, healthcare, animal care, the food industry, the economy and even things like constitutions. It also leads one to ask how rational people really are, if it's that easy to make someone believe something with 100% conviction, how many people are actually capable of thinking about things critically?

There are many things that Psychologists are aware of such as the tendency towards false memories and the ease with which a person can be impulsed into believing something. It seems though that they are more interested in studying these things than actually helping people. Why would this be? Could it possibly be that Psychologists themselves have been manipulated into believing that the research is more important than creating awareness?