Here’s a reasonable fear: 20 years from now, very few people are going to agree on the details of our shared history.
Recently, I spoke Henry “Roddy” Roediger, a psychologist at Washington University in St. Louis, one of the world’s leading experts on memory and learning. In recent years, he has focused his research on a what’s known as “collective memory,” or the tendency for like-minded groups of people to form unique — and biased — narratives about events.
His research and others’ paint a grim picture for the future. Political polarization, misinformation, the internet, and the human mind are working in lockstep to fracture reality into countless pieces.
Why? It’s extremely easy to sequester ourselves in bubbles that protect our worldview. And never before has there been so much misinformation that seeks to prey on our preconceived notions.
And the most important reason: The human mind is incredibly susceptible to forming false memories. This tendency is kicked into overdrive on the internet, where false ideas are amplified and spread like a virus among like-minded people.
My conversation with Roediger is below, edited for length and clarity.
Creating false memories is a cinch
How easily do false memories form?
Normally we think of false memories as taking time to develop, involving these elaborate procedures where you get misinformation. You're probably familiar with this. Elizabeth Loftus pioneered this in the 1970s. You witness an event — say a car accident. You then read a statement supposedly describing the event, and a few bits of false information are put in, ones that were not in the original scene.
The paradigm I developed just uses word lists. We picked lists that give you words like: “bed, rest, awake, tired, dream, slumber,” so forth and so on. So we give people 15 words. And we tell them to be absolutely certain that everything you [recall on a test] was on the list.
Nonetheless, over half the time they write the word "sleep" — even though the word "sleep" was not presented in the list. If you ask them to rate their confidence, they're really sure "sleep" was in the list.
The first time we did it, it was very surprising to us — how easy this was. I kind of doubted we could do it.
The natural language [i.e., everyday] counterpart is somebody tells you a story that strongly implies something. It's like what lawyers try to do in court for their prosecutors or defendants. You tell a very powerful story that leads to a certain conclusion, although you never state [that conclusion].
For example, [in the lab] we show people sentences like, “The karate champion hit the cinder block," or, "The baby stayed awake all night."
You test people the next day, and you say: "The karate champion broke the cinder block," or "The baby cried all night."
They'll accept those sentences as being yes, that's what I heard you say yesterday.
Trump may be (unwittingly) using a rhetorical tactic to create false memories in followers
It’s interesting you bring up the power of inferences to plant false memories. It reminds me of a rhetorical tic Trump uses a lot.
I’m thinking of the time when he brought up the conspiracy theory that Ted Cruz’s father was involved in the JFK assassination. Trump never actually said something like, “Ted Cruz’s father was involved.” But he says things like, “Reputable people tell me…”
Here’s the direct quote: “His father was with Lee Harvey Oswald prior to Oswald's being — you know, shot. … I mean, what was he doing — what was he doing with Lee Harvey Oswald shortly before the death? Before the shooting?”
And Trump uses the tactic of saying, "Many people have told me that," and then he says whatever the untruth is. It's not really him. "I'm just passing along what other people who I believe have said."
Is that particularly strong tactic because it implies a broader network of people agree?
Yeah, it implies, "Okay, this is a consensus. I'm not the only one."
How influential are social networks in creating false memories?
We would have two people come into the lab, and they would see a list of things to remember. They'd see the same scenes, and, say, one scene was of a kitchen. So they both see the scene, and then they take turns recalling items from the scene, except one of the alleged participants is actually a confederate, somebody who is working for me. The confederate recalls some things — [like oven mitts or a toaster] — that weren't actually there.
We tested the real subjects later and we even told them, "Look, the person you were working with made a bunch of mistakes, so really just rely your own personal memory for the scene.”
They still recalled the toaster, and they still recalled … the oven mitt.
So that’s powerful: hearing a falsehood from another person. Is that effect more powerful if the person belongs to your social group or if you have a shared identity?
That has been shown, too. If a younger adult's being tested with an older adult, and the older adult suggests the wrong stuff, the younger adult's less likely to pick it up. They think: "It's not my group. This is an old person. Their memories might be bad."
On the other hand, if an old person hears it from the young person, well, they think, "My memory's lousy. The young person is good," and they pick it right up. So the old people will be [convinced].
Also, when you see a news report that repeats the misinformation and then tries to correct it — you might have people remembering the misinformation because it's really surprising and interesting, and not remembering the correction.
Why are we so powerless when it comes to forming false memories?
Usually [inferences] help us: If I remember an event poorly and you seem to remember it really well, well, I'll update my memory using what you're saying, and that's very adaptive.
But if you happen to get it all wrong, I'll update my memory with the wrong stuff, too. I think a lot of these processes that lead us awry … are ones that normally work in our benefit probably 90 percent of the time. We need to make inferences.
The internet is making it easier to form “collective false memories”
Putting it all together: It would seem like it’s easier than ever before to create false memories shared by entire groups of people. Misinformation is everywhere — outright fake stories get shared by thousands — and online social networks help spread and reinforce it.
It was always there a little bit. I'm sure you go back to the 1950s, and the Republicans and Democrats and other socialists and communists and small parties, they all saw events in different ways.
But now I think what's happened is, with hundreds of channels on cable TV and with all the internet news sources of some varying accuracy, from my point of view, it's just magnified what was always there.
Now, whatever our prior beliefs are, we can live in that world and hardly ever get exposed to others. It's like we have a number of different collectives, and we're seeing the world in very different ways.
I worry that this divergence is just going to get worse. And in 50 years nobody is going to agree on the facts of history.
I worry about it. I think you're exactly right.
Agreeing you believe in a conspiracy theory like “Ted Cruz’s father was involved in the JFK assassination” is one thing. It’s a fact you believe in falsely.
What I’m wondering is: Can that false fact morph into something bigger? An entire set of false memories?
What’s fascinating is that the redditors don’t just vaguely remember the title of the movie. They say they have memories of actually watching it. They discuss plot points online.
They’re having a rich personal experience with the false memory. Could a small false fact like “Ted Cruz’s father was involved in the JFK assassination” grow to that level?
Or, for example, in 20 years could people have vivid memories of [credible] reports linking Hillary Clinton to a child pornography ring run out of a pizza joint?
Basically: Could people in the future have richly vivid memories of “fake news”?
Several people have shown — including Kathleen McDermott in my department — the more you repeatedly recall something, it might as well have happened.
Let's say I ask you to remember your 10th birthday party, and let's say it was very memorable for some reason, so you thought about it often over the years. We have the illusion what we're doing is thinking back to when [we were] 10 years old. Really, you're probably thinking back to the last time you retrieved that memory, and so any influence that's gone along the way [can alter the memory]. And people will often discover their memories can be erroneous, as the rest of the family remembers it a different way.
Let me give you another example of this. I used to teach at Rice University in Houston. A guy approached me when I first started doing false memory research.
He worked with a group — I think he was actually part of the group, but he wouldn't admit that — that met in Houston, and they all had the same belief that they had been abducted by aliens and experimented on. But where do they get these ideas?
Well, when you go look … there's a group of books that all these people read. There are several. The aliens always look the same. When the movie ET came out, then all of a sudden [the aliens] looked like ET, so they're picking up all these social influences and using them.
So everybody says, well, maybe it's true because they all give similar stories and they draw similar aliens. Well, if they're all reading the same stuff, it's all, in my view, all socially mediated, and they probably had weird experiences awakening. There's something called sleep paralysis. You can wake up and be paralyzed briefly but still be dreaming, so one idea is that's where these things come from.
In the future, it’s going to get harder to agree on historical truth
I guess what's different now is that people like the man you met in Houston can find each other on places like Reddit or Facebook groups, and then they can all start reinforcing each other's false memories, building them into richer and richer narratives. Can social media websites like Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit do anything about this? Can they stop the splintering of our realities?
Well, I don't see how they could. They've got to allow people to express their opinions, or else what's the point of having those things? Maybe they can tamp down on just complete fake news sites…
In the old days, there were corrective forces because really there were just a few information channels, and they were mostly trying to present valid news. Now there are channels that are not even pretending to do that. They're trying to make money by getting people to click on them.
Yeah, and that's also maybe a point, too. Even if Facebook was to get rid of fake news, it can't get rid of suggestion and innuendo and opinion.
I can find my like-minded group, and we can exchange stories about Sinbad all we want. There's no corrective to that.
Maybe the big point to make is because of the internet, because of polarization, because of misinformation, it's easier to create collective memories that are not real. And our world is fracturing into separate realities.
Yes, I think it has. It was possible in the '60s to believe the moon landing was faked.
But now it's gotten so much easier. It's just you don't have to leave your house to find people.