Was that how it happened? Shaping our memory for personal experiences in conversation with others

Real-life examples of egocentrism in memory reports have been documented in the literature. In the wake of the Watergate scandal in the United States, psychologist Ulric Neisser conducted an in-depth assessment of the testimony of John Dean, a former counsel to President Nixon (Neisser, 1981). Dean gave the Watergate Investigating Committee detailed information about classified conversations that later turned out to have been tape-recorded. Thus, the case offered a perfect opportunity for comparing Dean’s retellings with what had actually been said. Neisser found that Dean accurately reported the overall gist of the conversations, but his detailed recollection of specific episodes was poor. Neisser also noted that Dean tended to exaggerate his role, making himself more central to the plot, and dramatized events—much like Williams did.


In conclusion: Williams’ public apology for his very human error

In an interview with Matt Lauer on NBC’s The Today Show several months after his controversial blunder, Williams apologized for his behavior, and offered some explanation for what had happened. He noted the “double standard” with which he had chosen his words in a work setting and outside of work. Williams admitted that it was “ego” that caused him to want to put himself closer to the action. He also mentioned that he had told the story correctly for years before telling it incorrectly, saying that eventually “It got mixed up, it got turned around in my mind.” Williams insisted that he was not intentionally trying to mislead people. Indeed, given his explanation for what happened, it seems plausible that his memory for the event was influenced by a combination of factors discussed throughout this paper. Having told his story to entertain on some occasions, retrieval induced forgetting may have reinforced his memory for embellishments at the expense of more accurate details.

The process of conversational remembering exerts a powerful influence on our memory for experienced events. Remembering with others is a means through which we communicate information about ourselves, learn about others, and create and maintain social bonds (Hyman, 1994; Marsh, 2007). When individuals discuss an experienced event with others, their aim is more often to entertain and engage socially than to inform. Such retellings are told in the language of story-telling, and often contain exaggerations and distortions of the original event (Dudukovich et al., 2004). Our memory for specific episodes from the past is also selective; we remember events that promote a positive self-image (Harris, Sutton, & Barnier, 2010). Brian Williams is likely guilty of doing something most people are prone to do: in an attempt to be entertaining and engaging, he embellished story details and brought himself closer to the action. His distorted recall of an event that occurred long ago was likely due to retelling it multiple times and for various purposes and audiences over the years. If everyone’s stories were placed under the microscope in the way Williams’ has been, few would qualify for positions in news media or high office. The public should therefore be more understanding of all too human errors like Williams’, and at least consider whether such claims may reflect an honest mistake.


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