NBC News anchor Brian Williams and Fox’s Bill O’Reilly have both recently been caught telling “less-than-accurate” reports from war zones that, co-incidentally, made their own status in the stories seem greater than it was.
Were they simply lying?
Or could this be a very public example of what human beings do more often that they think they do… a gradual building of a memory that is half factual and half unconscious elaboration that the person ACTUALLY BELIEVES to be real.
Now, I’m not saying this IS what is going on with Williams or O’Reilly, nor am I trying to make any excuses for them. What I am saying is that for us to conclude, “he’s lying,” is not so simple as we would like to believe it is. The cognitive process by which human beings (read you and me) remember is ALWAYS a creative process. It is NOT just like hitting the play button on a video camera and watching back what “really happened.”
Memories don’t live as single, complete events in one spot of our brain. Instead, they exist as distinct fragments of memory in different parts of our brain — the pictures in the visual part of the brain, the smells in olfactory, sounds in the auditory, etc. — that are then recombined (or re-membered) into the complete whole. When we’ve re-membered the various parts into a whole gestalt, we then tell ourselves it’s right and true because it FEELS right. However, much like the children’s game of telephone, successive retelling or reconstructing of our memories can produce alterations that still feel right, even as they grow further removed from the original experience.
In Brian Williams’s case, a review of the evolution of his account suggests a clue about how this could have happened. His original reporting from the scene was accurate. He describes how he was in a group of helicopters flying over Iraq and how the copter in front of his got hit by an RPG (rocket propelled grenade) that pierced the fuselage but did not detonate.
By 2013, in his retelling of the story to David Letterman, Williams repeatedly uses the word “we” to describe the group he was in that came under fire. There seemed to be a blurring of the distinction in his mind between “we” (the crew and passengers on the specific helicopter he was on) and “we” (the whole group on that mission, of whom he states “two of our four helicopters were hit… we were only at 100 feet doing 100 forward knots” — which accurately described all of the helicopters, including both the one that was hit and the one he was in).
Then in January Williams said this on the air; “The story actually started with a terrible moment a dozen years back during the invasion of Iraq when the helicopter we were traveling in was forced down after being hit by an RPG,” Williams said, as images of a battered helicopter flashed on the screen. “Our traveling NBC News team was rescued, surrounded and kept alive by an armor mechanized platoon from the US Army 3rd Infantry.”
You probably know the rest of the story about Brian Williams. He’s been suspended form NBC for 6 months and many people think he was deliberately lying. Others think it’s an excellent “teaching moment” for us to learn a little bit more about how memories work and to realize we are — ALL of us — fallible.
As an example, not long ago, a woman I know was in a serious motorcycle accident. The motorcycle she was operating hit a car that turned into her path without signaling. Fortunately, she lived to tell about it. Her bike was totaled and she broke an arm. But what’s interesting is this… in her memory of the event, she distinctly remembers hitting a red pickup truck. The fact is she did not. She hit a grey sedan. There WAS a red pickup truck at the scene but it was not involved in the accident. In her mind she falsely stitched together disparate parts of the event.
Turns out this is not at all uncommon. This is also why, more and more, eyewitness accounts — once the gold standard of evidence at a trial — are being found to be far less credible than previously supposed.