Sure, I remember that
A Photoshopped picture of Freakonomics host Stephen J. Dubner, Marketplace host Kai Ryssdal, President Barack Obama, and House Speaker John Boehner.
How accurate are our memories? Not as accurate as we’d like to think, especially when it comes to political events.
This week, we look at the work of University of California, Irvine, researcher Elizabeth Loftus, a memory expert, whose research shows just how easily we can be led to “remember” events that never happened. All you have to do is show someone a doctored photograph. These false memories become all the more intense when political beliefs are factored in -- Democrats are more likely to falsely remember events that show Republicans in a bad light, and vice-versa.
This leads Stephen Dubner to wonder: can Washington, D.C.’s partisan gridlock be solved by a few carefully doctored photographs?
Kai Ryssdal: Time now for a little Freakonomics Radio. It's that moment every couple of weeks we talk to Stephen Dubner, the co-author of the books and blog of the same name. It is “the hidden side of everything.” Dubner, how are you, man?
Stephen J. Dubner: I'm great, thanks, Kai. I've been thinking about you actually, lately.
Dubner: Yeah, I've been reminiscing. I was thinking about the very first radio piece that you and I did together, back at Yankee Stadium. Let me take you back...
Ryssdal: So here we are and this is great. I’m having a good time. But the game doesn’t start for like an hour and a half. Why are we at batting practice?
Dubner: You remember that, Kai, yes?
Ryssdal: (Laughs) I do. Yes.
Dubner: You remember, we were watching batting practice, and we saw A-Rod, Alex Rodriguez, hitting all those massive home runs into the bleachers?
Ryssdal: Yeah. Shocking now, huh?
Dubner: Well, Kai, it's funny you remember that -- because, in fact, it did not happen.
Ryssdal: Whoa, no! I was there. I was there.
Dubner: We were there. We didn’t see A-Rod hit any home runs. But you did just beautifully illustrate the topic of our conversation today, which is false memory. Thank you very much for playing along.
Ryssdal: Anytime. I'm glad to help. Please continue.
Dubner: I got to thinking about this topic during all the round-up interviews that Hillary Clinton has been doing recently, reminiscing about her very eventful term as Secretary of State. And I was reminded of another Clinton reminiscence that turned out to be a bit off. Kai, I'm interested to know if you remember this piece of tape.
Hillary Clinton: I remember landing under sniper fire. There was supposed to be some kind of a greeting ceremony at the airport, but instead we just ran with our heads down to get into the vehicles to get to our base.
Ryssdal: Yeah, the thing was, there was no sniper fire. Right?
Dubner: That's exactly right. Hillary Clinton later said that she “misspoke” or maybe misremembered. So, to speak about misremembering, here is Elizabeth Loftus:
Elizabeth Loftus: What I love about this example is that it shows you that all that education, all that experience, all those IQ points -- that Yale Law School degree, it doesn’t protect you from having a false memory.
Dubner: So, Kai, Loftus is a psych professor at U.C. Irvine. She's a leading scholar in memory generally and false memory in particular. Recently, she and a couple of colleagues, along with the online magazine Slate, completed a study. And this study was huge -- 5,000 participants -- and they looked into how well we, people generally, remember political events. So, what they would do is the researchers would show people photographs of various political events. But the gimmick was that each participant would see four photographs -- three of them real, and then one that was doctored. So, for instance, George Bush hanging out at his ranch with his buddy Roger Clemens during Hurricane Katrina -- which did not happen. Or they'd see a picture Barack Obama in a nice friendly handshake with President Ahmadinejad of Iran, which also never happened. But Kai, here's the amazing thing: about half the participants in the study said they did remember the thing that never happened. Here’s Elizabeth Loftus again:
Loftus: Many individuals wrote in details that expanded upon just the claim: 'I remember seeing this photograph, I remember seeing this photograph of President Obama shaking the hand of the president of Iran.' And they may even tell you something about the feelings they remember having at the time they saw that photograph for the first time. But of course they couldn’t have ever seen it before because it was completely made up with Photoshop.
Ryssdal: That’s crazy, man.
Dubner: It is crazy. Honestly, it gets crazier. The crazier part speaks to how partisan we are, our country. I'm not just talking about the politicians but the rest of us, too. What Loftus and her colleagues did -- they did a follow-up study and they found that Democrats and Republicans “remembered” different fake events very differently. Which is to say a Democratic voter was much more likely to think the picture of Bush and Roger Clemens was real, and a Republican was more likely to believe that Obama had really shaken hands with Ahmadinejad.
Ryssdal: And one wonders why Washington is in the state it is in!
Dubner: It's depressing. You could say that we do a lot of it on purpose -- maybe a lot of it is just the way we're hardwired to root for our teams. I will tell you this: the research also suggests that there may be a way to improve, however, this gridlock in Washington, as long as you’re willing to engage in a little bit of trickery.
Ryssdal: In Washington? Never.
Dubner: What I'm thinking, Kai, is this: a nice doctored photograph -- you and I could put this together -- of President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner, maybe shooting skeet together?
Ryssdal: We totally could!
Dubner: Or how about the two of them at a ballgame in Yankee Stadium. Just like you and I! Although, the more I think about it, the less sure I am that you and I were actually ever actually at Yankee Stadium at all...
Ryssdal: I was there, dude. I was there. Stephen Dubner. Freakonomics.com is the website. That was pretty cool!
Dubner: Thanks, Kai. Thanks for having me.