Study after study shows that eyewitness testimony is basically unreliable. Why? Because a witness to a crime, let’s say, has seen a perpetrator for seconds at the time of the incident. In a highly stressful and scary moment. The witness then picks the person in a line up or photo array who looks as much like the person he or she saw in those few seconds. Then at trial, that person identifies the defendant as the perpetrator.
Does the eyewitness remember the person from the crime or the line up/photo array? Or is it a conflation of the two? And if the witness were to testify, he or she has to convince him or herself that the memory is correct. So, is it conflation coupled with rationalization?
This scenario happens all the time. With eyewitnesses who are conscientious and well-meaning.
My college friends and I joke that whether or not we were at a particular event, it becomes a part of our collective memory and, in short order, we will remember it as if we were there. And it is true. When we were all in Cancun two years ago for a reunion, I remember distinctly that the concierge called us, “my lovely ladies.” Except I wasn’t there; I was home in New York with the flu.
So, memory isn’t a moment in time burned into our brains — it is an evolving yarn that morphs over the years. And it is our narrative of how we want to tell others about our past.
And we all like to remember ourselves as better than we were, or more courageous, or kinder, or more heroic when in great personal peril.
Mostly, it is our best version of the truth.
What happened to Brian Williams happens to all of us (except those exceptional people with the crazily accurate memories). Especially as we get older and further away from the events.
Today, when I called Dad around dinner time, he told me about the wonderfully active day he had.
Except he didn’t. Not today. Three years ago, maybe.
Brian Williams apologized for a very human exaggeration. I know he is a reporter and held to a higher standard of truthiness (to use an apt word coined for the G. W. Bush administration), but he probably really remembered it the way he recounted until someone proved to him otherwise. Even if, originally, his account was accurate. (Just listen to the subtle and not-so-subtle changes in Ronald Reagan’s stories over time.)
Because memory isn’t a moment in time burned into our brains — it is an evolving yarn that morphs over the years.
But don’t quote me on this.