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Politics ruins everything, including your memory

A new study shows that political partisans are more likely to remember things that didn't happen — as long as it fits their narrative.
politics memory
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Key Takeaways
  • Human memory is a tricky thing. It is easily fooled or manipulated.
  • A new study shows that political partisans are likelier to remember events that never happened, but only ones that make the other side look bad.
  • False memories are linked to cognitive ability — or, rather, the lack thereof. They are also linked to narcissism and acceptance of "pseudo-profound bullshit."

Memory is a tricky thing. We like to believe our memory is accurate, but a lot of people (maybe you!) remember meeting Bugs Bunny at Disneyland. Only one problem: Bugs Bunny isn’t a Disney character.

Darker versions of this phenomenon exist. The infamous case of “Sybil” — a woman diagnosed with multiple personality disorder — is considered by some to have been an instance of a shrink fostering false memories in a patient in the hope of getting good material for a book. George Orwell commented on the possible political use of false memory in his novel 1984, in which the population of Oceania incorrectly remembered that they were always at war with Eurasia, rather than Eastasia.

Now, a study published in Political Psychology looks into this phenomenon further and examines how partisanship influences false memories.

Politics ruins your memory

The researchers carried out two surveys on two different groups of test subjects. Each survey began with a section on the subjects’ demographic, political, and psychological traits alongside a short cognitive ability test. The surveys then moved on to a series of vignettes describing events or policies that were either real, misattributed, or outright fabricated.

For example, a “misattributed” story described how Eric Holder (an official in the Obama administration) spoke with MSNBC about negative news coverage of the administration. This event didn’t happen, but a similar one did: Bill Barr (a Trump administration official) met with Fox News president Rupert Murdoch. A “fabricated” story described how the Trump administration allowed waste to be dumped into the Great Lakes. Each survey included 18 stories like these.

The authors’ most striking finding was that, while most respondents (correctly) did not recall events that did not occur, 30% of them did — and what they misremembered was suspiciously aligned with their political affiliation. For instance, Democratic test subjects were more likely to recall (incorrectly) that the Trump administration intentionally polluted the Great Lakes, while Republicans were more likely to recall (incorrectly) that Trump signed a particular G.I. bill (which was actually signed by Obama).

Why do we have false memories?

What causes false memories? By sifting through the data they collected, the authors found that false memories were linked to cognitive ability — or, rather, the lack thereof. Similarly, being prone to perceive “pseudo-profound bullshit” as deeply meaningful also predicted acceptance of false stories. Narcissism also plays a role; confidence and nonsense often go hand-in-hand.

Furthermore, the researchers found that partisanship influenced the recollection of false memories. Members of one political party were more likely to “remember” events that never happened, provided that the event made their party look good and the other party look bad.


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