You Were Right All Along

The Art of Thinking Clearly - Rolf Dobelli 2014

You Were Right All Along

Falsification of History

Winston Smith, a frail, brooding, thirty-nine-year-old office employee, works in the Ministry of Truth. His job is to update old newspaper articles and documents so that they agree with new developments. His work is important. Revising the past creates the illusion of infallibility and helps the government secure absolute power.

Such historical misrepresentation, as witnessed in George Orwell’s classic 1984, is alive and well today. It may shock you but a little Winston is scribbling away in your brain, too. Worse still: Whereas in Orwell’s novel, he toiled unwillingly and eventually rebelled against the system, in your brain he is working with the utmost efficiency and according to your wishes and goals. He will never rise up against you. He revises your memories so effortlessly—elegantly, even—that you never notice his work. Discreet and reliable, Winston disposes of your old, mistaken views. As they vanish one by one, you start to believe you were right all along.

In 1973, U.S. political scientist Gregory Markus asked three thousand people to share their opinions on controversial political issues, such as the legalization of drugs. Their responses ranged from “fully agree” to “completely disagree.” Ten years later, he interviewed them again on the same topics, and also asked what they had replied ten years previously. The result: What they recalled disclosing in 1973 was almost identical to their present-day views—and a far cry from their original responses.

By subconsciously adjusting past views to fit present ones, we avoid any embarrassing proof of our fallibility. It’s a clever coping strategy because no matter how tough we are, admitting mistakes is an emotionally difficult task. But this is preposterous. Shouldn’t we let out a whoop of joy every time we realize we are wrong? After all, such admissions would ensure we will never make the same mistake twice and have essentially taken a step forward. But we do not see it that way.

So does this mean our brains contain no accurately etched memories? Surely not! After all, you can recall the exact moment when you met your partner as if it were captured in a photo. And you can remember exactly where you were on September 11, 2001, when you learned of the terrorist attack in New York, right? You recall to whom you were speaking and how you felt. Your memories of 9/11 are extraordinarily vivid and detailed. Psychologists call these “flashbulb memories”: They feel as incontestable as photographs.

They are not. Flashbulb memories are as flawed as regular recollections. They are the product of reconstruction. Ulric Neisser, one of the pioneers in the field of cognitive science, investigated them: In 1986, the day after the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle, he asked students to write essays detailing their reactions. Three years later, he interviewed them again. Less than 7 percent of the new data correlated with the initial submissions. In fact, 50 percent of the recollections were incorrect in two-thirds of the points, and 25 percent failed to match even a single detail. Neisser took one of these conflicting papers and presented it to its owner. Her answer: “I know it’s my handwriting, but I couldn’t have written this.” The question remains: Why do flashbulb memories feel so real? We don’t know yet.

It is safe to assume that half of what you remember is wrong. Our memories are riddled with inaccuracies, including the seemingly flawless flashbulb memories. Our faith in them can be harmless—or lethal. Consider the widespread use of eyewitness testimony and police lineups to identify criminals. To trust such accounts without additional investigation is reckless, even if the witnesses are adamant that they would easily recognize the perpetrator again.