Creating memories: Jonah Lehrer and faux Monty Python

Jonah Lehrer, whose The Decisive Moment – How The Brain Makes Up Its Mind I’m reading at the moment, has written a really interesting piece in Wired magazine about how we don’t just make things up, we can actually change our memories: Jonah Lehrer – How Social Conformity Affects Memory. There is, in particular, unacknowledged pressure to make our recollections of events conform to how we think other people have recollected it.

Lehrer’s article is well worth a read on how stories change over time, even to the point where contemporaneous memories are replaced by later fabrications which seem more plausible to us. The longitudinal study by William Hirst and Elizabeth Phelps on people who witnessed the 9/11 atrocities ( 9/11 witness memory study) is especially interesting on how personal, immediate memories of even these kinds of vivid personal experiences don’t so much decay with time as change without us realising it.

Looking pretty Victorian there, Jonah: are you a steampunk?

What Lehrer doesn’t talk about so much here is why this happens. A big part of this has to be that so many people have quite bad memories but are embarrassed to admit it. It makes them seem incompetent and unreliable. So we think we remember something; but then another version of it comes into our head and we aren’t sure which is ‘true’. When someone else who seems to remember better gives their version, we gratefully fall into line.

Then there are the personality-driven aspects to mis-remembering too. Some people are much more prone than others, not just because of their memory but their psychological profile. Carl Jung was onto this when he talked about how ‘thinking’, ‘feeling’, ‘sensation’ and ‘intuitive’ types describe the same event quite differently. In his version, the ‘sensation’ type was the most observant and accurate it recording physical events; the ‘intuitive’ type probably least so. You can see how the latter would be happy to defer to the former’s visual description of what actually happened; while not necessarily deferring on what it means.

Last night’s BBC4 comedy docu-drama Holy Flying Circus was an interesting – and pretty funny – musing on how you might reconstruct real life events based on partial memory, rumour, media stereotyping and the need to tell a compelling story. Here’s the BBC iPlayer link: Holy Flying Circus. In this, the Pythons in 1979 are depicted as characters made up of what we now know about them. Bits of their subsequent lives are cut and pasted into a hyper-real historical narrative; false memory syndrome is given full freedom to roam. Cleese attacks someone with a branch, supports the as-yet-non-existent Lib Dems and is played as a blend between a magazine-interview-Cleese and one of the stiff Establishment characters he parodied on-screen. Eric Idle is already pilloried as a sell-out and we see the kernel of Spamalot. Knowing nothing of Michael Palin‘s domestic life, we implant ‘Terry Jones‘ in drag as Palin’s wife to fill the gap.

It reminded me of the brilliant 80s Comic Strip Presents film about a film about the Miners’ Strike, called Strike! Peter Richardson played Al Pacino playing Arthur Scargill … inspired.

It’s pitched as a bit of fantasy – and it is – but it’s actually pretty close to how we really do cobble together many of our narratives in real life, joining together half-remembered islands of dubious “certainty” into a coherent story. My wife is an academic historian and actually trawls through such things as archives before starting to think about putting a story together. But in everyday life – and particularly in business – people don’t have time for that.  They take what comes readily to mind and make a story. It’s pitched as “good enough” – but is it? The more we squeeze analysis time on projects, the more we role we give to the half-remembered.

Deceptive memory is a pitfall in research for researchers themselves and participants. Luckily we qual researchers have the Olympus (they’ve really cornered the market) digi-recorder and usually dvds of groups. Listening or watching back is a huge part of our job of “sense-making”.

As for research participants, Lehrer’s article is a reminder, if it were needed, of why discussion groups are not the tool for behavioural research. Reported behaviour in discussion groups is to be taken with a very big pinch of salt – not because participants are being dishonest, but because people are terrible at remembering the detail of what they do, worse even than they think they are. Groups are fantastic for getting to people’s values, what makes them tick, getting input into a creative development process, but not for people telling you about what they actually do.

Behavioural economics approaches are now throwing more light on these areas; semiotic analysis is also important, as a way of analysing important contexts that people can’t tell you about.

If only more mis-rememberings were as entertaining as the Holy Flying Circus. The real life interview wasn’t half bad either, even if it was conducted by Tim Rice.


Published by Simon Riley

Qualitative researcher in the UK. I listen to people from all walks of life and think about what it all means. I work for leading brands, media companies and government.

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