For years, national network news anchorman Brian Williams told various versions of a story about his experiences during the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. His recent admission that he had gotten crucial facts wrong and his subsequent suspension don’t just comprise another case of the sudden fall of a mighty man (if one can define might as having earned widespread respect – and $10 million a year). The scandal may actually hold a niced-sized nugget of instructional hashkafah-gold.
It’s certainly possible, of course, that the broadcaster had been intentionally lying when he claimed to have been on a helicopter that came under fire (a rather foolish choice, since those present with him at the time could, as several eventually did, contradict his account). But it is also conceivable that Mr. Williams may have unconsciously conflated something he knew had happened to someone else with what actually happened to him, or confused a vivid fantasy with reality.
As Hillary Clinton may have when, in 2008, she claimed to have landed in Bosnia in 1996 amid sniper fire. She recanted her assertion when a video of the moment showed otherwise.
Many of us, understandably, might more readily attribute a talking head’s or politician’s false claims to venality or vanity. But the fact remains that memory distortion is not at all rare. Perhaps you have experienced it yourself. I have, although not about any grandiose claim of bravado or danger, but about more mundane things like who was at a chasunah or how a book ended. I’ve been certain that my recall was accurate – until a photograph or document clearly showed me I was not.
Memory, to put it simply, is unreliable. In the 1990s, cognitive psychologist Elizabeth Loftus successfully convinced people that, as children, they had once been lost in a shopping mall. In another study, researchers showed people a doctored image of themselves as children, standing in the basket of a hot air balloon. Half of the participants later had either complete or partial false memories, sometimes “remembering” additional details from this event – an event that never happened.
Psychologists, moreover, have discovered that when people recall things, they often unwittingly “edit” their memories; and then, the next time the memories are recalled, they will include the “edited material,” as part of the original memory. Disconcerting, but true.
Trial lawyers and judges have long known that people will swear to have seen things that they didn’t in fact see, and that they are most sincere in believing their memories are accurate.
The Rambam (Hilchos Yesodei HaTorah, 8:2) acknowledges the same. Explaining that the requirement that a navi perform a miracle is a Torah-requirement but does not imply that a miracle, per se, can prove that its performer has been sent by Hashem, he then adds: “…just as He has commanded us to decide [legal] matters through [the testimony of] two witnesses, even though we cannot know if they are testifying truth or falsehood.”
Two people, in other words, can lie, or be misled by their memories, almost as easily as one. The Torah’s directive to accept two witnesses’ word isn’t a logical construct but a Divine law. We can’t know with surety if what was testified is the truth, only that Hashem wants us to accept it as legally determinative. As to the facts of the matter being testified about, they may have been accurately recounted, intentionally distorted or innocently misremembered.
It would be a mistake to imagine that the unreliability of memory lacks application to our personal lives. So many of our bein adam lachaveiro dealings, our interpersonal relationships – whether with friends, acquaintances, spouses, employers or employees – are colored by the memories we have of previous interactions, sometimes recalled with a negative tint.
When we come across someone who evinces a dark feeling, and then trace it to what we remember the person once said or did, it might be wise to stop and consider for a moment that our memory may not be entirely accurate. To consider the possibility that what we recall may be an “enhanced” memory – one that was unintentionally “edited” at some point, or perhaps was inaccurate from the start.
Imagine how different our lives would be if, when dealing with others, we relegated negative memory-baggage to the realm of the doubtful.
Doubting oneself has a bad name in the contemporary world. But its wisdom seems to be borne out by science. And, more important, by the imperative of judging others l’chaf zechus.
© 2015 Hamodia