Is It Possible To ‘Misremember’ Getting Shot Out Of The Sky? A Scientific Exploration

CREDIT: Screenshot, Youtube/NBC

Brian Williams

If you were on a helicopter that got shot out of the sky, would you remember it? What if you were on a different helicopter; would you forget that you were on the aircraft that did not?

Brian Williams, anchor of NBC Nightly News, confessed Wednesay that a story he has often repeated about being on board an aircraft that came under RPG fire was inaccurate. Williams was not actually on that helicopter; he was on an aircraft trailing about an hour behind that helicopter. Lance Reynolds, the flight engineer on the helicopter that did experience the attack, addressed Williams’ story on Facebook: “Sorry dude, I don’t remember you being on my aircraft. I do remember you walking up about an hour after we had landed to ask me what had happened.”

As Stars and Stripes reported:

The admission came after crew members on the 159th Aviation Regiment’s Chinook that was hit by two rockets and small arms fire told Stars and Stripes that the NBC anchor was nowhere near that aircraft or two other Chinooks flying in the formation that took fire. Williams arrived in the area about an hour later on another helicopter after the other three had made an emergency landing, the crew members said.

Williams apologized on Facebook to Reynolds and other soldiers who chimed in after Reynolds’ comment garnered attention, writing:

You are absolutely right and I was wrong. In fact, I spent much of the weekend thinking I’d gone crazy. I feel terrible about making this mistake, especially since I found my OWN WRITING about the incident from back in ’08, and I was indeed on the Chinook behind the bird that took the RPG in the tail housing just above the ramp. Because I have no desire to fictionalize my experience (we all saw it happened the first time) and no need to dramatize events as they actually happened, I think the constant viewing of the video showing us inspecting the impact area — and the fog of memory over 12 years — made me conflate the two, and I apologize.

The note goes on for a few more paragraphs; you can read it in full here.

On Twitter, people used the opportunity to crack jokes about Williams claiming to be on the scene at all kinds of historic events — Reporting from the moon landing! In the cast of Saved by the Bell! Covering the signing of the Declaration of Independence! — with #BrianWilliamsMisremembers.

So we know what the internet says. But what does science say? What is the psychology of false memory?

William Hirst is a professor of psychology at The New School. He specializes in memory, particularly autobiographical memory, and has done research on how memory changes and becomes distorted. His initial reaction upon hearing Williams’ story was to “view it as one of those mishaps that is often typical to memory,” he said by phone.

“There’s a large amount of evidence [that shows] that we confuse things that we imagine — the thoughts that go through our heads — and in many cases we begin to think that they actually happened.”

On Wednesday night during the Nightly News, Williams apologized again:

Williams is also quoted in the Stars and Stripes story, saying “I would not have chosen to make this mistake. I don’t know what screwed up in my mind that caused me to conflate one aircraft with another.”

The phrasing in all of these apologies is interesting: Williams wasn’t lying to us, he’s saying, so much as his memory was lying to him. He didn’t know his own mind. How could that be? Can you really misremember being on a helicopter that got shot out of the sky? Or is “misremembering” to “lying” what “sex addiction” is to “I’m a famous person who cheated on my spouse”?

That’s certainly a theory making the rounds. The Washington Post put the story on A1, calling the error “a rare black mark for Williams” and speculating that “at least in the short term, the false story may damage the anchor’s most valuable asset — his credibility.” One Baltimore Sun reporter asked if NBC could “now have any credibility with Brian Williams as its face.” The editorial accuses Williams of making the whole thing up:

Nowhere in his “admission” does Williams say what he actually did: lied. Instead he says something “screwed up” in his “mind.” And it “caused” him to “conflate one aircraft with another.”

Hirst, who has done research on how people remember 9/11, said that kind of conflation and error does happen. “We know this can be true even with traumatic events,” he said. “You can be very, very certain of your memories, and they could be wrong. And it’s not just details you forget. It’s a huge difference. You can invent whole new episodes.”

Hirst’s 9/11 study tracked how people recalled where they were when they first learned of the terrorist attack. Even though that’s supposed to be one of those events that “you’ll always remember where you were when…”, it turns out that’s not the case. People began making errors within the first year, “and once they made the error, they stuck with it. Each time we did the survey, they’d make the same mistake over and over again,” Hirst said.

“It’s one of the things people say they’ll always remember, and people don’t think they’re making mistakes,” Hirst said. “They’re exceedingly confident. So if there’s anything striking about Brian Williams, it’s that he retracted it so quickly.”

The typical way we find out our memories are false is when some external truth intervenes. “The outside world will tell you what the facts are, and that’s what happened to Williams,” said Hirst. “But in our personal experiences, there’s not many places we can turn to to find out what happened. So we persist in our imperfect recollection of the past.”

Assuming Williams is telling the truth to the best of his ability, “Once he told the story, and he may have believed the story, the story takes on a life of its own and becomes his story,” said Hirst.

All of this is to say, this inaccurate recollection doesn’t strike Hirst as reason enough to call for the man’s resignation. “I don’t see why he’s lost his credibility. All he has is underscored the fact that memory is a fragile thing.”

Hirst cited the case of John Dean, Nixon’s special advisor during the Watergate trial. Dean was said to have a memory like a tape recorder: “It was precise, it was detailed,” Hirst said. “And a week or so after he testified, people came to know that everything was tape recorded in the Oval Office.” The psychologist Ulric Neisser conducted a study contrasting the so-called tape recorder with the actual tape recorder. How did Neisser’s testimony hold up? “He’s wrong a lot of times,” said Hirst. “He got the basic gist right, but one of the ways he was wrong — and I think all of us do this with our memories — he made himself more of the center of the activity than he actually was.”

For instance, Dean said that whenever he entered the Oval Office, Nixon would ask him about his life and if he wanted coffee or tea. But in reality, “that never happened,” said Hirst. “Nixon treated him like an underling… And yet, [Dean] changed this memory to fit into a certain kind of script that you would expect if you have a much more collegial relationship. It was self-serving. But we often alter our memories, and I think that’s part of what happened with Brian Williams.”

“Memory is not a tape recorder. Memory is reconstructive,” Hirst said. “You build your memories as you go along. We consolidate memories. There’s also evidence that, every time we retrieve a memory, it makes it vulnerable to reconsolidation. So if we retrieve something and tell that story at a dinner party, and slightly exaggerate your role, it reconsolidate to incorporate that exaggeration. And the next time you’re telling it, you’re building on that. You can see how the story can grow. And the stories we end up telling reflect the social framework in which we live.”

“I don’t think it reflects on his credibility,” Hirst said. “It reflects on him being a human being. And we shouldn’t think of reporters as being somehow superhuman.”

Dr. Stephen Lindsay, a cognitive psychologist and professor at the University of Victoria, studies the reconstructive nature of human memory. He reacted to the news about Williams in a slightly more dubious manner. “I was skeptical,” he said by phone. “I do think it’s possible for a person to have a false memory of that kind of event, but I also think it’s relatively unlikely, because of the distinctiveness and memorability that having such an experience would require. For someone to have a false memory of that experience, you’d have to have a lot of false images or false evidence of it.”

That’s not to say it isn’t possible, only that “it’s easier to lead people to think that they’re remembering some relatively unimportant, little detail in something than it is to make people believe they’re remembering some big event.” When it comes to the little things — what did you eat for lunch? Who sat with you? — erroneous memories are far more common. That said, “It’s quite clear that people can come to experience illusory memories of dramatic things.” (Then again, Lindsay elaborated on this concept by referencing people who claim to have “been abducted by space aliens or had past life adventures.”)

Mulder-esque fantasies aside, “It’s certainly possible for people to have false memories of high impact, even traumatic events,” said Lindsay. Two aspects of Williams’ story lend themselves to the likelihood of misremembrance, as opposed to deliberate misdirection. “The fact that he was in another aircraft, so there’s lots of real experiences that are available for him to draw on, to imagine what it would have been like if he had been in the one that received fire, that increases the vulnerability” to recall events inaccurately. “Having the cognitive resources to imagine what it would have been like increases the possibility that, later, you’ll imagine that it happened to you.”

The other issue, which Lindsay sensed was there in Williams’ apology and its salute to the troops, “Sometimes we’re rather sloppy in our source monitoring,” which is our way of sorting out our guesses from our wishes from our inferences from our facts. In a casual situation, like if you’re telling a story at a bar, you’ll probably draw on all of the above: a bit of what really happened, a bit of what you think may have happened, a bit of what you wish had happened. “That’s just normal, that our reconstructions of past events often are products of multiple sources of influence,” said Lindsay. But Williams is not just some random person waxing poetic over a beer. “For his case, especially as a professional, it seems he should have been using a higher standard of source monitoring.” Or, in layman’s terms, he should have fact checked what he said before he said it. “I think it’s not impossible that he wasn’t reflecting enough and being as stringent as he should have been with the source of his own thoughts and images.”

Sometimes, said Lindsay, people who embroider stories aren’t aware of what they’re doing “because they’re not focusing on accuracy; they’re focusing on social impact, or self presentation.” There’s a difference between that kind of conscious dramatization, he said, and calculating misrepresentation. “They’re not deliberately lying, necessarily,” he said. “What’s coming out of their mouths, the ideas, thoughts and images they’re generating, are coming from multiple sources and they’re not so much paying attention to that.”

Before you start to think that everything you believe you know about yourself and your past is a lie, take comfort (or, alternatively, panic) in the knowledge that “some people are more prone to misremember past events than other people are,” said Lindsay. “You wouldn’t want a news authority to be somebody who has a particularly high proclivity to misremember events. And I want to make clear, I’m not saying [Williams] has a false memory. He may have just been consciously misrepresenting all along. It’s hard to know.”

What Lindsay can say for sure is that misremembering “is more common than people expect. I think it’s because opportunities to have our memories checked are relatively rare… Very often, when we remember things, we never even tell anybody about them. Or the people we do tell are not in a position to check our facts. So I believe, quite strongly, that we have an exaggerated impression of the completeness of our memories. Because we remember every important thing that we remember.”

So how does one prevent this kind of misremembering in the future? What advice do you give to Williams, before he sits down at the Nightly News desk again? “We can reduce errors by being more cautious,” Lindsay said. “By scrutinizing the sources of our memories…. And to have a little humility about ourselves and about other people’s accounts.”

Daniel Schacter, a professor of psychology at Harvard and author of The Seven Sins of Memory, has a Brian Williams memory of his own. “I think he interviewed me about my book on The Today Show.” Though he is quick to say “I’m not sure if my own memory is accurate about this.” He is maybe the foremost authority on the fact that we are not especially reliable narrators of our own lives.

In the Williams story, there are two memories at play: how he was really on a helicopter near, but not in, the attack, and how he reported on and learned about a helicopter that did come under fire, just an hour ahead of his own aircraft. “We know about memory conjunction errors,” Schacter said, which have usually been studied “in laboratory paradigms, not highly emotional salient events like in the Williams case.” A memory conjunction error, he explained, would play out like so: “If I did an experiment with you and tried to get to you memorize the words, and one word was ‘spaniel’ and one was ‘varnish,’ a memory conjunction would be when people remember the word ‘Spanish.’ They’re putting together bits and pieces of things they did see and are fusing it into a memory of something that didn’t happen, but contain elements of what did happen.” The same sort of thing has been shown in tests with faces: show someone sketches of different faces, then show a brand new face that contains elements of face sketches they’ve seen before, and that person will think they’ve already seen this new face, because they’re conflating the earlier faces.

“Elements of what happened are combined to something that didn’t happen,” said Schacter. “That’s well–known in memory research.”

Schacter, like Hirst, said that retrieving a memory can change it. What’s unusual about Williams’ story, he said, is how it remained accurate in Williams’ retelling through 2008. “Then he goes on Letterman and gives a very detailed account, and that’s what’s odd about this case. On the one hand, from the perspective of memory retrieval contributing to a false memory, we know that can happen. But it’s odd that he’s been reporting on it accurately, even five years later.”

He also pointed out that “it’s very well-established in psychology literature that there are self-serving or egocentric biases in memory. We tend to remember things in ways that are favorable to ourselves, even when we are remembering inaccurately. You could be honestly remembering but, at the same time, be building yourself up, even though you’re not knowingly telling a lie.”

Besides, the idea that Williams is trying to put one over on America seems odd, said Schacter. “If this is a knowing deception or outright lie, why would somebody do that if they know there’s a record, a public record of them stating the facts accurately?”

“Of course,” he added. “I guess he could have forgotten that, too.”