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"Lyin' Brian"? Or a Victim of the False Memory Phenomenon

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Originally posted on February 10, 2015.

After falsely reporting being grounded by rocket fire while on a military helicopter in Iraq, and subsequently having his reported experiences during Hurricane Katrina challenged, NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams has been grounded by pundit fire.

Williams apologized, saying he misremembered the Iraqi incident. Talk shows and social media doubted anyone could misremember so dramatically, labeling him “Lyin’ Brian,” and grafting Pinocchio’s nose onto his face.

It’s possible that Williams is, indeed, a self-aggrandizing liar (meaning he knowingly and intentionally told untruths). But to those who know the dramatic results of research into sincere but false memories by Elizabeth Loftus and others, it’s also believable that, over time, Williams constructed a false memory...and that Hillary Clinton did the same when misreporting landing under sniper fire in Bosnia in 1996.

Most people view memories as video replays. Actually, when we retrieve memories, we reweave them. We often then replace our prior memory with a modified memory—a phenomenon that researchers call “reconsolidation.” In the reconsolidation process, as more than 200 experiments have shown, misinformation can sneak into our recall.

Even imagined events may later be recalled as actual experiences. In one new experiment, people were prompted to imagine and repeatedly visualize two events from their past—one a false event that involved committing a crime in their adolescence. Later, 70 percent reported a detailed false memory of having committed the crime!  False memories, like fake diamonds, seem so real.

Is Brian lyin’? Does he have Pinocchio’s nose for the news? Perhaps—though telling blatant untruths surely is not a recipe for enduring success and prestige in his profession.

Or might he instead be offering us a fresh example of the striking malleability of human memory?

P.S. The morning after I submitted these reflections for posting, the New York Times offered this excellent (and kindred-spirited) application of false memory research to the Williams episode.

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About the Author
David Myers received his psychology Ph.D. from the University of Iowa. He has spent his career at Hope College, Michigan, where he has taught dozens of introductory psychology sections. Hope College students have invited him to be their commencement speaker and voted him "outstanding professor." His research and writings have been recognized by the Gordon Allport Intergroup Relations Prize, by a 2010 Honored Scientist award from the Federation of Associations in Behavioral & Brain Sciences, by a 2010 Award for Service on Behalf of Personality and Social Psychology, by a 2013 Presidential Citation from APA Division 2, and by three dozen honorary doctorates. With support from National Science Foundation grants, Myers' scientific articles have appeared in three dozen scientific periodicals, including Science, American Scientist, Psychological Science, and the American Psychologist. In addition to his scholarly writing and his textbooks for introductory and social psychology, he also digests psychological science for the general public. His writings have appeared in four dozen magazines, from Today's Education to Scientific American. He also has authored five general audience books, including The Pursuit of Happiness and Intuition: Its Powers and Perils. David Myers has chaired his city's Human Relations Commission, helped found a thriving assistance center for families in poverty, and spoken to hundreds of college and community groups. Drawing on his experience, he also has written articles and a book (A Quiet World) about hearing loss, and he is advocating a transformation in American assistive listening technology (see www.hearingloop.org). For his leadership, he received an American Academy of Audiology Presidential Award in 2011, and the Hearing Loss Association of America Walter T. Ridder Award in 2012. He bikes to work year-round and plays daily pick-up basketball. David and Carol Myers have raised two sons and a daughter, and have one granddaughter to whom he dedicates the Third Edition of Psychology in Everyday Life.