To say that it’s tempting to use memory as the basis for our arguments feels like taking understatement to the level of high art. How else are we supposed to draw conclusions? Are we just supposed to overlook the information we have right there in our heads?!
Actually, there’s an argument for suggesting just that. Of course, I’m not suggesting that we stop trusting the contents of our minds, that way madness lies, but there’s no doubt that we depend too heavily on a faculty that we know is heavily vulnerable to manipulation, bias, and just plain error.
In this article for Knowable Magazine, Chris Woolston explores the research of psychologist Elizabeth Loftus. Loftus has spent over 40 years pioneering research into the fallibility of memory. Her research has even changed the way that judges, lawyers and juries interpret the recollections of witnesses:
One 1975 Loftus paper that Roediger discusses with his students shows that memories of fast-moving events can be easily manipulated. Subjects in the studies watched film clips of car accidents and then answered questions about what they saw, and Loftus showed that when misleading details were slipped into the questions, the subjects often later remembered things that weren’t there. For example, when asked, “Did you see the children getting on the school bus?” 26 percent of respondents said they had, in fact, seen a school bus in the film, even though there wasn’t one. Of those given no misleading prompt, only 6 percent remembered a bus.
In another classic experiment, students watching film clips of car accidents were asked to estimate the speed of the cars involved. Loftus showed that the wording of follow-up questions had a big effect on the answers. When asked how fast cars were going when they “smashed” each other, the average answer was more than 40 miles per hour. When asked about the cars’ speed when they “contacted” each other, the average answer was just over 30 mph
Memory is one of the tools we have at our disposal, but shouldn’t be treated as the only tool, or the seat of a personal truth which nobody has the right to dispute. History has shown us that reason, logic and consensus aren’t guaranteed to protect us from making mistakes either, but if we take them as seriously as we take our memories, we give ourselves a chance of getting things right more often.