Skeptical Tuesdays: Brian Williams and the Problems of Memory | Vol. 2 / No. 17.1

Your brain is good at many things. Remembering isn't really one of them. Photo: Flickr user Allan Ajifo, CC BY 2.0
Your brain is good at many things. Remembering isn’t really one of them. Photo: Flickr user Allan Ajifo, CC BY 2.0

In this week’s Skeptical Tuesday post, I’m explaining why I think we should all go a little easier on Brian Williams.


By now I’m sure you’re all aware of Brian Williams’s “#chopperwhopper” in which he claimed a few times on television that he was in a helicopter that was hit by an RPG when in reality he was in a chopper that came by afterward. If you haven’t heard yet, the details of the NBC news anchor’s words and subsequent unpaid leave from the network are all very easily searchable and a matter of public record. What I’m here to say is this:

I don’t think Brian Williams was lying. I think he was wrong.

A lot of people are asking how that could happen. He wasn’t even near the chopper that got hit. His helicopter came by about an hour later and he reported on it. How could he just get confused and remember himself in the one that got hit when he wasn’t really there?

Williams’s written apology states that, after being confronted,

“I spent much of the weekend thinking I’d gone crazy… especially since I found my OWN WRITING about the incident from back in ’08, and I was indeed on the Chinook behind the bird that took the RPG… Because I have no desire to fictionalize my experience (we all saw it happened the first time) and no need to dramatize events as they actually happened, I think the constant viewing of the video showing us inspecting the impact area — and the fog of memory over 12 years — made me conflate the two”.

The reason I believe Brian Williams is the reason I don’t believe in eyewitness testimony as evidence in a court of law. Human memory, to be blunt, is crap.

Over the past few decades, it’s become increasingly clear that human memory is pretty easily rewritable.  Take this 2002 study in the journal Psychology & Marketing, entitled “Make my memory: How advertising can change our memories of the past.” First, the researchers showed an advertisement to the participants that suggested they’d personally shaken hands with Mickey Mouse as a child on a visit to a Disney resort. Relative to controls, after viewing the ad the participants were more likely to be sure they had experienced that as a child. But the researchers weren’t sure whether or not they had made up the memories, or just rediscovered ones they’d forgotten — maybe they really had shaken hands with Mickey Mouse as a kid. So the next time they showed them something to make them think something impossible: that they’d shaken hand with a non-Disney character at a Disney resort. Even though the premise was actually impossible, participants were more likely to report being sure they had experienced it themselves after viewing the [fake] advertisement.

How can that be true? Well it’s looking a lot like it has to do with the way we remember things. Once we’ve stored away a memory, it doesn’t just stay there. Every time we remember it, we pull it out of its more permanent cold storage, as it were, and re-process it. In doing so, we actually run the risk of changing it. A big fish story gets bigger with each retelling because we’re overwriting the last exaggeration with the next, over and over.

If that’s true, and studies seem to suggest it is, then the people most at risk of misremembering are people in Brian Williams’s position: re-remembering the story over and over again, while being exposed to visual imagery of the event he wouldn’t have seen.

It’s like how George W. Bush remembered seeing the first plane hit on September 11, 2001 (when the footage wasn’t available until the next day), or when Hilary Clinton remembered running from sniper fire while getting out of her helicopter in Bosnia (when in reality and as footage showed, she calmly walked).

Now, none of this is to say that Williams couldn’t have deliberately lied. But the reasons for him to do so are few and far between, and the explanations, to my mind at least, hold water.

So until I hear otherwise, I’m going to give Mr. Williams the benefit of the doubt. Maybe you should too.