How Not to Be the Next Brian Williams
Related Link What Historians Can Learn from the Social Sciences and Sciences: Memory
For years, Brian Williams told various versions of a story about his experiences during the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March 2003. Last week, he admitted he had gotten crucial facts wrong, and he apologized. It’s possible that Williams was lying all along for self-aggrandizing reasons, but his serial misstatements could also be the product of ordinary, unintentional memory distortion. We may never know which is true. But the scientific evidence for the fallibility of human memory is now so well established and widespread that claims of false memory should no longer earn anyone a free pass. Any responsible storytellers—any who believe they owe their first allegiance to the truth—should recognize the limits of their own memory and the risk of self-serving memory distortions. We must all change the way we work to ensure that we get the facts right, knowing that our memories might be wrong.
As usual in cases of celebrity fabulism, public reaction to the Brian Williams revelations ranged across the narrow spectrum from incredulity to outrage. The left-leaning website Talking Points Memo linked his false story to a list of “all the pols who’ve either fibbed about military service or told phony baloney stories about their close calls.” At the right-leaning The Federalist, Sean Davis wrote: “Brian Williams was never in danger. And yet, for over 12 years, he blatantly lied about it.”
Even many of Williams’ fellow journalists have been unable to summon an innocent explanation for his falsehoods. The New York Post dubbed him “Lyin’ Brian” and published a cartoon of him in military regalia (including an NBC peacock logo). On Fox News, Howard Kurtz asked, “Why would Brian Williams feel the need to do this?” His guest responded, “The one thing I have avoided steadfastly is to try to psychoanalyze, to try to do what’s going on in Brian Williams’ head.” And according to the New York Times, Aaron Brown (formerly of CNN) said “My inbox is filled today with producers who went to Iraq with me, to Afghanistan with me, to Haiti with me, all kind of wondering how you could mess this up. I have no answer for that. I will tell you that getting shot at is not something you forget.”
Of course, the question is not whether Williams forgot getting shot at. It’s whether he deliberately fabricated a story for personal gain or instead unwittingly created a memory of an event that never happened. Common sense tells us that memory shouldn’t break down to this extent—especially when we recall significant events in our lives. That belief makes us assume the worst of those who misremember. Yet a full century of scientific research tells us that these intuitive, common-sense beliefs about how memory works are often wrong.
No one has, to our knowledge, tried to implant a false memory of being shot down in a helicopter. But researchers have repeatedly created other kinds of entirely false memory in the laboratory. Most famously, Elizabeth Loftus and Jacqueline Pickrell successfully convinced people that, as children, they had once been lost in a shopping mall. In another study, researchers Kimberly Wade, Maryanne Garry, Don Read, and Stephen Lindsay showed people a Photoshopped image of themselves as children, standing in the basket of a hot air balloon. Half of the participants later had either complete or partial false memories, sometimes “remembering” additional details from this event—an event that they never experienced. In a newly published study, Julia Shaw and Stephen Porter used structured interviews to convince 70 percent of their college student participants that they had committed a crime as an adolescent (theft, assault, or assault with a weapon) and that the crime had resulted in police contact. And outside the laboratory, people have fabricated rich and detailed memories of things that we can be almost 100 percent certain did not happen, such as having been abducted and impregnated by aliens.
Even memories for highly emotional events—like the Challenger explosion or the 9/11 attacks—can mutate substantially. As time passes, we can lose the link between things we’ve experienced and the details surrounding them; we remember the gist of a story, but we might not recall whether we experienced the events or just heard about them from someone else. We all experience this failure of “source memory” in small ways: Maybe you tell a friend a great joke that you heard recently, only to learn that he’s the one who told it to you. Or you recall having slammed your hand in a car door as a child, only to get into an argument over whether it happened instead to your sister. People sometimes even tell false stories directly to the people who actually experienced the original events, something that is hard to explain as intentional lying. (Just last month, Brian Williams let his exaggerated war story be told at a public event honoring one of the soldiers who had been there.)...