The Misinformation Effect:Why our memories can’t be trusted

Uncle Ron

We all have the uncle (or aunt, or grandparent, or wacky fifth cousin twice removed) who likes to reminisce about how “When I was a kid…” he used to walk uphill both ways to school, or she helped her mama with all the chores before she was asked, or he never disrespected his parents.

We fully recognize that their memory has taken on a tinge of unreality and, in response, we are ready with the prerequisite eye roll or groan, recognizing that “Uncle Rob’s memory is a few bricks shy of a full load.”

We fully accept that their memories are somewhat lacking.

But what if I told you that it isn’t just Uncle Rob and Aunt Cheryl? What if I were to point my finger at you, and tell you that your memory is just as false as crazy cousin Wally’s?

a1We like to think that our memories are ironclad. Often, in disagreements and arguments, we site our recollection of events as solid, irrefutable back up of our version of reality. We don’t pause to consider when our [spouse, parent, friend] refutes our version of the experience with their own version of events that we might be the one who is wrong. We tell ourselves he/she is simply wrong. They are remembering incorrectly. It happened the way we replay it in our heads.

But, if their memory can be incorrect, why do we assume that our own isn’t inaccurate as well? Why do we somehow believe that we simply are better at remembering?

False memories have gotten a lot of attention lately with the documentary series “Making a Murderer.” Anyone who’s on Facebook couldn’t escape the indignation that permeated half the posts several months ago. Many watching the series felt a sense of moral outrage that an innocent man could have had his life taken from him in such a way. How could such a mistake be made! It’s unacceptable! How does this happen?!

The truth is, it happens very easily. Rather than being the anomaly, a little digging shows that it is not an uncommon tale. Psychologist Elizabeth Loftus has been pointing out this flaw in our memories and by extension our legal system for years. Check out her TedTalk on the subject here

Eye witness testimonies are frequently wrong. They are wrong, not because of some vindictive purpose of the witness, but due to the inherent flaws in memory.

Through a series of experiments, Loftus found that simple semantics changed the testimony of a witness.

a2If an individual was asked how fast a car was going when it “smashed” into another vehicle versus how fast a car was going when it “hit” another vehicle, the witness would raise the mph of the car because the word “smash” implies more force. Same accident, different wording equaled different memory of the events.

Loftus decided to take the susceptibility of our memory to alteration one step further. She decided to see if a completely false memory was planted, it could cause a person to believe something that they did not see or experience at all.

Through a series of experiments, she found that, absolutely, we can come to believe that things happened that did not happen. She calls this the misinformation effect.

For instance, if an individual is told that when they were very young he became separated from his parents in a mall and that he wandered terrified and lost, the individual is likely to begin “remembering” details of the event–even though it never actually happened.

a3Our memories are susceptible to suggestion. They can be altered.

As a Psych professor, I decided that my skeptical students could benefit from a little experiment of their own. They recorded a memory of their own in as much detail as they could remember and they were then told to rate the accuracy of the memory on a scale of one to ten. The memory had to be one in which another individual was involved. They were then to interview that individual and record their version of the memory in as much detail as the individual remembered it. They were then told to compare the two sets of memories.

The next part of the assignment was even more interesting. They were told to try to sew misinformation. The goal was to plant false memories and to see if they were believed. To aid the success of the experiment, they were told that they had to come up with plausible additions, things that easily could have happened.

The result of their experiment was that most of the students realized that their memory wasn’t nearly as reliable as they originally believed it to be. When they compared it to the other individual’s memory, they found things they had forgotten and many discrepancies between the two sets of memories.

Secondly, about fifty percent of the students were successfully able to plant false memories. It was far easier than any of us had believed to warp and change an individual’s memory of an event. In fact, it was a little disturbing to see how easy it was to alter a person’s memories and it left most of us with the uncomfortable reality that rather than looking at our memories as a movie played back in our minds, they should be regarded with suspicion and doubt.

So, what does this mean to you? The next time you are entrenched in your belief that your version of events is the accurate one, you might want to take a step back and reconsider–memory is malleable and downright faulty–and it is certainly not a hill for relationships to die on.

 

 

When the Rose-Colored Glasses Come Off

When you are young, as with so much of life, you look to motherhood with a strong shot of romance and a healthy side of idealism.

mom and babyA co-worker brings a new baby into work, and everybody crowds around, oohing and ahhing at that amazing little miracle of life…and all you see is chubby cheeks and warm baby snuggles. (Not the tears–your own not the babies–and the 10th dirty diaper of the day or the growing mound of poo bespeckled laundry–again, not just the babies.)

You see the proud glow of a mother who watches her child achieve the winning goal, the special award, the winning medal…and you think of how brilliant your child will be and how proud he or she will make you. You see the look of pride you will wear and the look of envy the other mothers will shoot in your direction. (You don’t see the stress of playing chauffeur, the many dinners eaten in the car, the tears and arguments when said child doesn’t want to go to practice or is over-tired when practices translate into late, late nights of homework)

crying-babyYou see the mother soothing an adorable toddler’s tears away…(aww…isn’t she cute? —No, not really. After the fifth meltdown of the day, that cute baby voice is starting to sound like nails on the chalkboard and that little, red, howling face is the thing of nightmares)

To the young (and naïve) all of these inspire feelings of longing, a desire to be a participant in that moment, to be the mother, to feel the tenderness and pride. The rest of it is unknown or ignored. The rose colored glasses are on and the pictures of family bliss overshadow the known realities.

Maybe not everyone feels it, but many, even most, do. I sure did.

Outside_Looking_in_by_M_photographyI remember, before I was a parent, the longing I felt for a child. I remember the fear that I would never find a man I wanted to marry, or who would want to marry me, and the fear that I would never experience that–that I would be left on the outside looking through the shop window at what I couldn’t have, watching other women experience those moments. I would be on the sidelines–watching, wishing, but not participating.

For me, I got to experience this not once, but twice. I did meet a man, and we fell in love, and we had a beautiful, gorgeous, perfect little baby, and I felt the joy, the tenderness, the rush of pride, only to bury my beautiful little girl a year later.

Those moments on the outside looking in were all the more painful after that. Those mothers had what I had had, only it had been stolen away from me, and I feared that I would never have it again (the risk involved was just so great). I felt by turns angry and bitter, but most often, I despaired. What if, having known what being a mother was, I never got to be one again?

I remind myself of that frequently these days, so many years of chaos later. I remind myself of how much I wanted this, and how I almost didn’t get it.

When I lost Serena, I thought I knew what being a mother was. In fact, I thought I had a better picture than most, because I had experienced the joy being a mother was, but also the devastation it can bring. But the truth is, I didn’t really understand what being a mother was at that point.

look_at_life_through_red_tinted_glasses_by_andela1998-d68zvuuDespite losing Serena, I still wore rose colored glasses. My eyes and my heart were full of the tender moments, the warmth. My mind was filled with remembered snuggles, and the memory of that unique baby scent, the soft cheeks and that perfect little nuzzle spot just between the edge of the jaw and the neck…

I had not yet experienced the daily grind of parenthood. I hadn’t faced the discipline and arguments, the tears and “I hate yous,” the endless emails to teachers to try to turn zeroes into passing grades, the wrappers on the floor and bookbags in the doorway. These were not something I knew.

I didn’t yet understand that to be a mother was to put one’s self in the back seat, to place another completely and entirely above oneself. I did not know that it meant that my life would be filled with mundane moments of caretaking, or that the peacefulness of silence would be something I only fondly remembered, but never experienced.

I did not know that my wants, my needs, my own desires would be in such subjugation to the needs and wants of others.

I didn’t understand.

I wish I could say that I always handle it with grace, but I don’t.

I wish I could say that losing Serena makes me always remember to appreciate the gift I have in my children, but it doesn’t.

I wish I could say that I never feel angry, or bitter, or resentful of all that I have given up for this dream of motherhood, but that would be a lie.

I do feel resentful sometimes. Sometimes I’m angry. Sometimes I lose patience. Sometimes I wish that I could travel the world like I did before. Or I think fondly of a time when my to-do list wasn’t so long that it went straight out the door and wrapped around the block. There are those moments.

mom-daughter-share-ice-cream-607496-printBut there are also the other moments. The love, the tenderness, the laughter. There is the knowledge that I finally understand what the Bible is talking about, to truly put someone above yourself, to be willing to lay your life, not your death, but to lay your life down for another. That is so much harder.

That is motherhood–day in and day out.

It is grace. It is selflessness. It is sacrifice.

It is not perfection, but being able to admit when we’re wrong, and to keep trying when we want to give up, and sometimes loving the unlovable until they are lovable again.

I am not a perfect mother, but my children are perfectly loved, and everything I gave up cannot come close to everything I have gained from having them in my life.

I am lucky to be their mother. It is a privilege–sometimes I have to remind myself of that, but that doesn’t make it any less true.

What have we done to Christmas?! Sometimes less is not only more, but most!

We had a little snow on the ground when I woke up yesterday. Not much, mind you, but still, actual snow before Thanksgiving, in Texas.

As I sat in my car, shivering, waiting for the heat to kick in, I had a random thought. Hadn’t I seen my Christmas CD just the other day. I rummaged around and, sure enough, there it was, so I popped it in. A little early for Christmas music, but hey, there was snow on the ground and everything . . .

So for the last two days I’ve been listening to Christmas music on my commute to and from work. It’s quite understandable then, why I found myself thinking of the upcoming holiday.

My kids are getting a little older, so I’m not quite sure what we should do for the holidays. With the exception of Lily, they’re probably too old for places like Santa’s Village. Maybe we should do the festival of lights instead. Maybe we should splurge and go to a performance of the “Nutcracker” or “A Christmas Story.” What should we do . . . ?

christmas pastAnd then I was struck by a wave of memories. Gosh, I LOVED Christmas as a kid. The memories started flickering through my head: Memories of us in our new Christmas pajamas, wrapped up in coats, mittens, and scarves, piling into whatever old beater car we had at the time for the drive to Grandma and Grandpa’s house. . . . The anticipation of getting to Grandma’s house, even though only one present awaited us, and there were no cousins our age . . . The warm glow of the memory of making sugar cookies, from scratch, cutting out the shapes and frosting them ourselves with homemade frosting and an assortment of sprinkles . . . Memories of snow hills and sledding and the smell of baking cookies and hot cocoa that greeted us on our return . . . memories of piling into the car to see the Christmas lights that our tiny little town put on it’s street lamps–pretty dinky compared to the displays today, but absolutely magical to us then . . . so many memories . . . and they couldn’t be any better.

Thinking back, I don’t think of the presents, or the perfectly decorated tree; I remember the moments, the time with family, the warm glow of time shared, time spent doing pretty much anything–it really didn’t matter what–with the people that mattered the most.

christmas nowWe didn’t have a lot of money (though somehow my parents always managed to put a big pile of presents under our tree). We didn’t have the big fancy house, with the crackling fireplace with the huge, perfectly decorated tree with the designer dressed little kids sitting in front of it to capture that picture to show the world that we had the “perfect” Christmas. We didn’t have the big shiny new car to drive to see the fancy light display or to go to the over the top Santa experience. We didn’t get everything we wanted.

But it was perfect.

I wouldn’t change a thing, not a moment. I wouldn’t trade the family game nights for a fancy performance of the “Nutcracker,” and I wouldn’t trade the memories of us snuggled together under mounds of blankets watching “A Christmas Story” for a trip to Santa’s Village. We didn’t have much, but we had everything that mattered.

In an age of commercialism, in an age of technological distractions, I find myself asking myself if I am giving my own children the same perfect memories.

We have the great big house, the fireplace, and the fancy tree. My kids dress in their matching designer outfits for that family picture. We are filling our schedule full of holiday “events.”

But are we taking the time to really have the “perfect” Christmas. The time spent together, talking and snuggling–times undistracted by little glowing screens. Are we christmas i wantlosing the small stuff, the substance, in our pursuit of the “perfect” Christmas?

I want my children to think back and feel the warm glow that I feel. I want them to remember the times spent together, not the pile of gifts. I want them to have the same flood of warm memories of their perfect Christmases–just like I have.

Thank you mom and dad. Thank you that, even though we didn’t have a lot of money, you made the holidays everything anyone could ever ask for. You gave us an abundance of all the things that matter most. You gave me memories of love and warmth and family.

They set the bar high–but I’m determined to match it. I try to do the small stuff, but I think I need to focus on the small stuff more, and make sure that the little things don’t get crowded out by a whole lot of “big” things. Sometimes just staying home, hanging out together, means far more than a flurry of activities.

And for goodness sake! Put that stupid phone down, no, better yet, put it out of sight and concentrate on the people around you, instead of losing the moments as you try to capture them to show them to everybody else out there.

Let them concentrate on their families.

And make sure that the time you are spending with your family is quality time, the kind that memories are made of.