If we all lived under the intense scrutiny to which we are currently subjecting national news anchor Brian Williams, each of us would be discredited, say neuroscientists who study how memories behave in the mind.
While personalities like Rosie O’Donnell compare Williams to Lance Armstrong and quip that, “I think you would know if you were in a helicopter that was actually hit by a missile,” understanding how memories work offers a different context.
To be sure, public personae are and should be held to a higher standard because, especially in the field of journalism, truth-telling is paramount. As former ABC News head David Westin explains, nobody, absolutely nobody, is above the truth:
Lawrence Patihis, a psychologist researching memory at the University of California, Irvine, said that in a study, one in five people who were given misleading information quickly recalled seeing footage of Flight 93 crashing in Pennsylvania on September 11 (no such footage exists).
“In the case of Brian Williams, that misleading information may have been in the form of seeing the footage of him and his film crew examining the damage of the helicopter that was actually hit, and seeing it over and over again.”
That Williams revisited his memory of the incident on late night talk shows and in newspaper columns, in which he recalled being shot down in a helicopter over Iraq, suggests that erroneous details may have woven their way bit by bit into Williams’ narrative of the event.
“We should take care before assuming deliberate deception here,” said Patihis. “As a memory researcher, I find it credible that Brian Williams had a genuine memory error. We all gradually change narratives about the past in a way that is not deliberate, but because we are under less scrutiny than national journalists, we never realize all the memory errors we make.”
Williams is currently on leave from his position at NBC News. Whether the organization allows him to resume his position will depend, in part, on their faith in the anchor. But if the American public feels they cannot trust Williams, he likely won’t stay. Let’s hope that the ultimate decision of Williams’ fate is informed by science’s current understanding of how memories actually work in the mind.
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Read more at New Republic.