Our unreliable memory

When I was 13, I used to hang out a lot at a friend's house. The other day, the same friend and I reminisced about those days. He asked me: "Remember the dog?" I asked him: "what dog?" He replied: "My dog!" I had absolutely no recollection of his dog!

Then, trying to get in the swing of things, I said: "oh hang on, yes, yes, it was a brown dog wasn't it?" He laughed. "No, it was black, it was a big black dog. Don't you remember?" he asked. I did not.

According to "Memory the Self-Justifying Historian", Chapter Three of "Mistakes Were Made", my inability to remember the dog is not surprising. Our minds forget selectively, all the time.


Summary - part 1

Memory is our personal, live-in, self-justifying historian.

History is written by the victors, and when we write our own histories, we do so just as the conquerors of nations do: to justify our actions and make us look and feel good about ourselves and what we did, or what we failed to do. If mistakes were made, memory helps remember that they were made by someone else.
Of course, memories can be remarkably detailed and accurate, too. We remember first kisses and favorite teachers. We remember family stories, movies, dates, baseball stats, childhood humiliations and triumphs. We remember the central events of our life stories. But when we do misremember, our mistakes aren't random. The everyday, dissonance-reducing distortions of memory help us make sense of the world and our place in it, protecting our decisions and beliefs. The distortion is even more powerful when it is motivated by the need to keep our self-concept consistent; by the wish to be right; by the need to preserve self-esteem; by the need to excuse failures or bad decisions; or by the need to find an explanation, preferably one safely in the past, of current problems. Confabulation, distortion and plain forgetting are the foot soldiers of memory, and they are summoned to the front lines when the totalitarian ego wants to protect us from the pain and embarrassment of actions we took that are dissonant with our core self-images: "I did that?"
One of the authors of the book gives an example of a vivid memory she had, rich in detail and emotion, that turned out to be indisputably wrong.

Being absolutely, positively sure a memory is accurate does not mean that it is; our errors in memory support our current feelings and beliefs.
We do not remember everything that happens to us; we select only highlights. Moreover, recovering a memory is like watching a few unconnected frames of a film and then figuring out what the rest of the scene must have been like. Because memory is reconstructive, it is subject to confabulation - "source confusion"".

The author of Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, Mary McCarthy, at the end of each chapter, subjected her memories to the evidence for or against them. The evidence killed some good stories! It is likely she had fused memories in order to have story-lines consonant with her feelings, in order to justify her present-day feelings.

You have memories about your father that are salient to you and that represent the man he was and the relationship you had with him. What have you forgotten? You remember that time when you were disobedient and he swatted you. But could you have been the kind of kid a father couldn't explain things to, because you were impatient and impulsive and didn't listen?
Every parent has been an unwilling player in the you-can't-win game.

Betsy Petersen produced a full-bodied whine in her memoir Dancing With Daddy, blaming her parents for only giving her swimming lessons, trampoline lessons, horseback-riding lessons, and tennis lessons, but not ballet lessons. "The only thing I wanted, they would not give me," she wrote. Parent blaming is a popular and convenient form of self-justification because it allows people to live less uncomfortably with their regrets and imperfections. Mistakes were made, by them. Never mind that I raised hell about those lessons or stubbornly refused to take advantage of them. Memory thus minimizes our responsibility and exaggerates theirs.

Mistakes Were Made (but not by me) - chapter two

"Mistakes Were Made (but not by me)" by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson.

For summaries of Intro and Chapter One, see earlier posts.



This chapter sheds light on the manifestations of 'blind spots' in
our minds. The chapter tells numerous stories around the theme of
"blind spots".

Our brains can sometimes fail to spot or connect things that other
people, not in our situation, easily can. People unintentionally
fail to notice vital events and information that might make them
question their behaviour or their convictions.

For example, a business expert may confidently predict an economic
downturn. He fails to mention that he has a personal commercial
interest in seeing an economic downturn. If an outside observer knew
about the expert's commercial interest, they would be skeptical
about his opinion.

When the economy remains strong, the expert may blame a natural
disaster for causing unprecedented circumstances that cancelled out
his predictions. He would not think that his interests may have
unduly influenced him. The thought may not cross his mind, or if it
did, he would dismiss it. There's a dead zone in his mental
processing: a blind spot.

Brain 'blind spots' are self-serving habits that allow us to justify
our own perceptions and beliefs as being accurate and realistic and
unbiased. What is the other option? That our perceptions and beliefs
are wrong and unreliable? Our brain has to protect us.

In another manifestation of "blind spot", humans always have an
"us", against "them". This is hardwired. As groups, we trust "our"
worldview more than "their" worldview.

In one experiment, [social psychologist] Ross took peace proposals
created by Israeli negotiators, labelled them as Palestinian
proposals, and asked Israeli citizens to judge them. "The Israelis
liked the Palestinian proposal attributed to Israel more than they
liked the Israeli proposal attributed to the Palestinians," he says.


The theme of the book is self-justification and chapter two is a
variation on the theme. The chapter does not propose clear-cut
theories or arguments. In fact, for this post, I abandoned my
bullet-points format. The chapter is a series of stories and
narratives that do not have a clear thrust or proposition; the
organisation of the chapter is misleading.

Reading chapters like these is immensely frustrating. There is a lot
of enjoyable detail; but you do question the clarity of thought of
the authors.

That said, the quote below, from the end of the chapter, is a good,
pragmatic one.
Given that everyone has some blind spots, our greatest hope of
self-correction lies in making sure we are not operating in a hall
of mirrors , in which all we see are distorted reflections of our
own desires and convictions. We need a few trusted naysayers in our
lives, critics who are willing to puncture our protective bubble of
self-justification and yank us back to reality if we veer too far
off. This is especially important for people in positions of power.

"Mistakes Were Made (but not by me)" - Chapter 1


1. "Cognitive dissonance is a state of tension that occurs whenever a
person holds two cognitions (ideas, attitudes, beliefs, opinions)
that are psychologically inconsistent." It is often referred back to
Leon Festinger, who coined the term fifty years ago.

Example: "smoking will kill me" and "i smoke two packs a day". Or: "i
am an honest, good man" and "i lied on the application form".

2. The authors contend that the primary cause of self-justification
is cognitive dissonance. We create questionable defences to bridge
the gap between the two contradictory notions we found ourselves
holding. Referring to the two examples above: "smoking helps me not
put on weight", and "i had a hard life, i deserve to get this job"
are possible self-justifications.

3. Self-justifications proceed slowly but can build up to an extent
that people who were formerly very close on a particular topic become
far apart.
"Often, standing at the top of the pyramid, we are faced not with a black-and-white, go/no-go decision, but with a gray choice whose consequences are shrouded. The first steps along the path are morally ambiguous, and the right decision is not always clear. We make an early, apparently inconsequential decision, and then we justify it to reduce the ambiguity of the choice. This starts a process of entrapment - action, justification, further action - that increases our intensity and commitment, and may end up taking us from our original intentions or principles."

4. The theory of cognitive dissonance has inspired about 3000
experiments that have transformed psychologists' understanding of how
the human mind works.
"Dissonance is disquieting because to hold two ideas that contradict each other is to flirt with absurdity and, as Albert Camus observed, we humans are creatures who spend our lives trying to convince ourselves that our existence is not absurd."

4.1 Pain over pleasure

A number of experiments have shown that severe initiations increase a member's liking for the group. Why?

Because most people think highly of themselves, the notion that they underwent a severe initiation to join a detestable group causes them to see themselves as stupid, so they abandon one of the notions: "I am a smart person, I went through a lot to join this group, and this
group is great."

4.2 Confirmation bias

"I will look at any additional evidence to confirm the opinion to which I have already come." Lord Molson, British politician (1903-91)

"So powerful is the need for consonance that when people are forced to look at disconfirming evidence, they will find a way to criticise, distort, or dismiss it so that they can maintain or even strengthen their existing belief." Hence, confirmation bias.

4.3 Post-big-decision comforting

Once we have made a big decision, the idea that we may have screwed up causes cognitive dissonance with the idea that we are good people who deserve good things. Therefore, to
reduce this dissonance, we embark on reassuring, post-decision affirmations.

"People become certain about something, if they can't undo it." Therefore, ignore testimonials, get data from people who have not made the decision and are still open-minded.

4.4 Vicious cycles

One aggressive move can trigger a flurry of justifications such as: "he asked for it" and "he would have done the same to me if he had the chance". This can causes another round of aggression, since the victim was "clearly" to blame. Venting against someone can trigger greater animosity towards that person - we would have expected that having expressed our frustrations, we would calm down. But experiments show the opposite: we go further if we can.

Again, dissonance between "I am a good person who would not get angry over nothing" and "my aggressive venting was very rude" causes us to bolster the former notion and negate the latter. Experiments showed people's blood pressure rising after they have vented, given the chance to report their victim to the authorities, they do so.

Dissonance theory can support virtuous cycles as well as vicious ones. Doing a good deed to someone on a whim or by chance causes us to adopt a warm view of the person we did the good deed to, we see him as deserving.

Here the dissonance arises because of the notions: "I just did a good thing" and "that person may be undeserving". We choose to bolster the former notion and negate the latter notion by finding reasons to justify the goodness of the other man.

4.5 Low self-esteem

Interestingly, dissonance theory explains the actions of people with low self-esteem. For example: "I usually screw up things" and "my plan worked perfectly" causes the person to negate the latter notion and find reasons to bolster the first one.

Whereas the authors are good writers, I struggled sometimes to make the logical link they might claim between one thought and another. Just that extra bit of elucidation would have been perfect.