Friday, March 29, 2019

Freeing Memory from Bias by Bringing it Captive

More About How Cognitive Bias Can Influence Memory

The process of memory awareness and noticing discrepancies and errors was named metamemory some forty years ago. We may recall something and have our memory of a place or an event in time, only to discover years later that we've misremembered elements of the narrative. Metamemory helps us understand the way that our self-justifying cognitive biases code and influence what we store as memory (which always differs somewhat from objective reality).

I don't know if that is because we now tend to watch them again and again since the advent of the VCR and the proliferation of cable networks, but I notice my own errors recalling when I first saw films. A recent memory error that I had to own up to was that of my recollection of where I was when I first saw the British television series, House of Cards. on PBS. I was certain that I'd watched it while alone at my parents' home when I was much younger, but it didn't air until 1990. The novels didn't even exist when I believed that I'd seen the TV drama. I think that the strong feelings that it evoked for me reminded me of a time that was earlier in my social development. I suppose that I adapted that memory to fit how I felt about the film. 

I suppose that it seems insignificant, but it was disturbing enough to me because it set me wondering about what other errors I made in remembering – particularly about things that I felt strongly about as I did about House of Cards. I'd just managed to catch notice of one myself because I found cause to take a second look at the discrepancy in the details I'd remembered. Though I was used to that kind of dissonance growing up, I found it disturbing. What else did I believe inaccurately? Though I'm not any different than anyone else, research about memory suggests that it's quite a lot.  It's just how our minds work, coding and sorting details and batches of data while also integrating it so that we can recall it quickly when we require it. 

Physiology explains some of the processes of memory adaptation. Our neurons do all kinds of interesting things once we move into an ability to understand abstractions in late childhood. Early in life, we grow neurons and connections between at a furious pace, partially because a child doesn't know what exactly deserves attention. But after that function develops, the brain starts a process of binding single nerve cells together in larger bundles, and our single memories often merge as the individual fibers integrate. With the binding comes a great deal of 'pruning.' Then, in the late teen years until about age twenty-five, the brain amps up the process of reorganizing and further pruning memory as if it is upgrading to a whole new classification system. Just as I experienced, emotion plays a central role in what is kept and which pesky details fall away in the pruning process.

Mary Karr: Metamemory and Honest Adaptation

The authors of Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts devote a good chunk of effort into describing those in helping professions who continue to stick by their mistakes, especially when their errors influenced the care that they provided. The reader is then introduced to the more hopeful interlude about Mary Karr– a writer who spent most of her adult life believing that her father abandoned her just after puberty. When she starts her memoir about her identity as a survivor of her father's attention and emotional neglect, she finds evidence of a very different history.

She discovers all kinds of evidence attesting to her father's visits, always on time to take her to breakfast, inviting to go fishing and on other outings that provided them with opportunities to be together. She comes face to face with evidence that she was the one who skipped out on her father – leaving town and abandoning the relationship just before heading off to college. She states that the reality was far more tragic than the identity of an undervalued teenager that she crafted for herself. Had she resisted these facts in order to cling to her own memory illusion, she would not have gained the truth. The quote from her writing concludes with her statement that this is what she means when she says "God is in the truth." 

Memory researchers love to cite this quote.
Sadly, Mary is the refreshing exception to a general rule for most of us. We are far more willing to continue to follow the path of self-justification instead of making the painful journey into our own myths. It is far easier to maintain the wrong direction into which our errors sent us because we can avoid the painful truth of the consequences suffered. It's much easier to follow the path of the myth because the myth has no evidence to hold us accountable. If we don't, we have to face the facts and live with the harm we caused, despite our best of intentions. 

I love how Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson introduce Mary to us with the following passage in their book, though I find it to be a very fitting summary today:
Yet every once in a while, someone steps forward to speak up for the truth, even when the truth gets in the way of a good, self-justifying story. It's not easy, because it means taking a fresh skeptical look at the comforting memory one has lived by, scrutinizing it from every angle for its plausibility, and no matter how great the ensuing dissonance, letting go of it.
When I read this passage almost a year or more ago, I didn't give any thought to the Botkin daughters, but I took the message to heart. Today, they are foremost in my mind as I think again about the book in light of the letter that they sent to me. I believe that they stand at a point of decision – about what they will do with what they think to be true about their parents' pasts and the evidence that they discount as lies because of the myths that have been crafted for them.

If God is the author of truth and that God is 'in the truth,' we all will have our moments when we will have to take responsibility for our knowledge of the truth, the evidence for or against it, and what we will do with that knowledge. The Eighteenth Chapter of John says that when Pilate asks Jesus if He is a king, Jesus says that He was born to bear witness to the truth, and that "everyone who is of the truth"  hears His voice. If God is the King of the Universe, and all truth belongs to Him, doesn't it transcend our doubts, too? 

Facts bear witness to the truth will remain transcendent – as incontrovertible scandalons that become stones of stumbling for our myths and memories gone awry in our scramble to justify who we believe we are. May we find the love and the courage to discover who we indeed are as we experience our own metamemory, the evidence of history, and God's voice of truth. 

Further Reading: