We all have memories of events that have seared our consciousness, so much so that we truly believe what we saw or experienced is exactly the way it was. Or maybe not. Just listen to the retelling of a family story each holiday gathering and you understand that by the time you’ve heard that story many times, it changes, it’s embellished and by its retelling it has become the “truth”. Thus family myths come to life. If you’ve ever watched History Detectives on PBS, the detectives trace the real story of an historical item based on the story passed down to the current owner; what’s significant is that what is thought to be real is often not even close to the story about the item or how it was acquired or its place in history. And there’s a famous experiment where 30 students in a class are interrupted by a loud, boisterous person who comes into the classroom and then just as quickly exits. When the professor asks for each student to share what they remember of the stranger, there are 30 different descriptions, many not even close to capturing what the intruder looked like or did. While there are many things to factor into this experiment such as where people were sitting, how alert they were, etc. the concept of selective distortion is at play in this experiment, and indeed in just about all interactions we have with the world. Selective distortion is a term that refers to the tendency of people to interpret information in a way that will support what they already believe.
This is why we are sharing this article, Reconstructing the Past: How Recalling Memories Alters Them on one of our favorite blogs, Psyblog, written by Psychologist Jeremy Dean. Detailing some interesting facts and studies, Jeremy states, “Many memories which have the scent of authenticity may turn out to be misremembered, if not totally fictitious events, if only we could check. Without some other source with which to corroborate, it is hard to verify the facts, especially for events that took place long ago.” That’s also why eye witness accounts have often been repudiated in court cases.
Jeremy’s conclusion is certainly food for thought about the selectivity with which we all live our lives: “Choosing to recall certain events rather than others is a way of choosing how we live now and what decisions we make in the future. What’s done maybe done, but it’s still open to reinterpretation.”