Was that how it happened? Shaping our memory for personal experiences in conversation with others

Conversations with others can alter our memories for life events. Our purpose in relating a story, and how our audience receives it, are factors that influence our selection of what details to include. The account we produce on one occasion may be maintained in subsequent retellings. Ultimately, we may report--and in some case come to believe--narratives that are not entirely factual. In this article, we will discuss research on the processes through which our conversations with others can affect how we recall experienced events.

On March 26, 2013, anchor and managing editor of NBC Nightly News, Brian Williams made an appearance on the Late Show with David Letterman. In the course of Letterman’s interview with him, Williams recounted a story that left viewers wondering whether he was either an out and out liar, or a fantasist.  The story eventually cost him his job and caused irreparable damage to his reputation.

About a decade earlier, Williams had been flying over Iraq in a helicopter. The helicopter flying ahead of the one he was in came under fire and Williams and his companions were forced to make an emergency landing. At least, that was how Williams had related the story in almost every news report and interview he had given on the matter in the decade preceding his Late Show appearance. However, that night as he sat across from Letterman, Williams produced a different story; one in which he was a more central character in the helicopter drama. Williams claimed to have been in the helicopter that was attacked, and that he and his companions had to make an emergency landing after a near brush with death. After relating this undeniably more exciting version of his narrative, Williams retold it on a few other occasions. His account was eventually challenged by the servicemen aboard the helicopter that had been under fire. After the inaccuracies in Williams’ story were revealed, he was heavily criticized by the media and the public. Despite issuing a televised apology, Williams was suspended from his job and eventually demoted.

Did Williams deserve the backlash he received and the consequences that followed? Public debate has focused on whether he told a deliberate lie, or misremembered the facts of an event that occurred many years ago. Is it possible for someone to alter critical components of a story without realizing they have done so? How does such a change in memory come about? Williams may have been the victim of normal memory processes to which we are all susceptible. To illustrate, we review the literature on conversational remembering which demonstrates that the simple act of retelling can, in some cases, dramatically reshape our memory.


Memories are reproductions that can be shaped by social influence

Contrary to popular belief, our memories are not libraries of film clips awaiting re-play (Ost, Easton, Hope, French & Wright, in press; Patihis, Ho, Tingen, Lilienfeld & Loftus, 2014). Decades of research have shown that memories can sometimes be inaccurate. In the early 1900s, research by Sir Frederic Bartlett culminated in one of the most influential theories of memory to date. In one set of studies, Bartlett’s participants were asked to read and then write down a Native North American folk tale called “War of the Ghosts”. He observed that when these participants re-wrote the story after time delays, their versions included departures from the original tale. Specifically, participants omitted and altered details in a way consistent with their own cultural schemas. Schemas are general organized structures that aid in the creation of memories and guide their later retrieval (Roediger & DeSoto, 2015). For example, a typical schema for ‘school’ might include a building with classrooms, desks, teachers, and students.If you are shown an image of a classroom, and then asked to recall what you have seen, you might include certain schema-consistent items that were not present in the original scene (e.g., a chalkboard, a teacher’s desk). Therefore, your recollection of the classroom is not an accurate reproduction, but rather, a schema-guided reconstruction. In essence Bartlett (1932) proposed that our memories are more often than not reconstructions - rather than faithful reproductions - of past events (Ost & Costall, 2002).

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