Our memories are riddled with inaccuracies

Last month, my HR department asked me to write an incident report about an event that happened at work. In the report I wrote, “I was standing in the break room when Ken and Nancy walked in.” In Ken’s report, he wrote, “Nancy and I were in the break room when Don walked in.”

So, who was right? Upon deeper reflection, I was wrong. My memory—even of a recent event—was inaccurate.

But I’m not the only one who succumbs to this human fallacy—we all do. Our memories are riddled with inaccuracies. 

Ulric Neisser was a German-American psychologist and member of the US National Academy of Sciences. He has been referred to as the “father of cognitive psychology”. His primary area of research was about perception and memory. In 1986, the day after the Challenger space shuttle exploded, he asked his students to write a paper about when and how they learned about the disaster. Three years later, he interviewed these students and asked them to recall what they had written. Less than seven percent of their comments correlated with their initial submissions. Fifty percent of their recollections were incorrect in two-thirds of the points and twenty-five percent failed to match even a single detail. One student had first written that she was in her apartment when she heard the news; three years later she said she was at work. One student had written that he was with friends; later he was sure that he was by himself.

When President Lincoln died, his Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, allegedly said, “Now he belongs to the ages.” But James Tanner, a young soldier who was asked to take notes of the last hours of Lincoln’s life and who was in the room at the time of this death, wrote that Stanton said, “Now he belongs to the angels.” Was it ages or angels? It’s hard to know. Read here for an in-depth discussion of this interesting conflict of recorded history.

Perplexing, isn’t it? How should we respond to mankind’s unstable and fallible memory? 

For starters, don’t be so cocksure about what you remember. You’re probably often wrong. Secondly, be skeptical about other people’s recollections. When someone recounts an experience, hold it loosely.

4 Replies to “Our memories are riddled with inaccuracies”

  1. I loved this. How many times during “discussion/ arguments” in marriage or friendships has a faulty remembrance of deeds done brought on blame and frustrations.?? God help me to remain humble, knowing I just might be wrong. Thanks Don, for this; I had been, by God’s spirit, already enlightened. It is a humbling thing to realize and to accept our frailty.

  2. Interesting. In younger years I had a mind like a steel trap. Lol. In the past 10 years there have been so many events in my life I was diagnosed with PTSD. For a while I was foggy and couldn’t remember things. Then I went through a phase of feeling very confident of my recollection of past memories. Lol I was totally wrong. The major thing I have realized is what you said about holding others memories loosely. I am naturally skeptical now as opposed to being very taking it as the gospel!

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