Where were you on 9/11? What were you doing when you heard the news? What did you do immediately after? Are you sure?
If you’re like many in the U.S., you have a detailed memory of those moments, referred to as “flashbulb memories” because the memory is as vivid as a photograph. I certainly do. And it feels very accurate.
I was sitting in my office doing paperwork and a colleague came to the door. “I just heard that a plane hit the World Trade Center,” he said. “Oh no!” I said, “I remember seeing pictures of the B-25 bomber that hit the Empire State Building in the 40s.” I turned to the laptop on my desk and tried to load CNN. “Uh oh,” I said to Wayne, “everyone’s trying to get onto CNN right now. It must be bad.” We sat and waited, musing about what might have happened to the pilot and the people on the floor he hit.
Finally, a photo loaded: The two towers, one burning, with a large passenger in the air nearby. “Gee,” I commented, “that must be an optical illusion because that passenger jet can’t possibly be as close to the World Trade Center as it looks. I don’t remember the flight corridor being there like that.” My brain had not remotely considered that anything but an errant single-engine plane could have hit the tower.
Cognitive psychologist Dan Simons also had a vivid memory of those minutes. But when he emailed those who had been with him in his office the moment he heard the news, their memories of who’d brought the news and what they each did differed in some very important ways from Simons’ recollections.
In The Invisible Gorilla: How Our Intuitions Deceive Us authors Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons explain the discrepancy:
The vividness of our recollections is tied to how they affect us emotionally…And these emotions affect how we think we remember, even if they do not affect how much we actually remember…Emotional memories, like the one we have for 9/11, are more likely to induce strong, vivid recall—regardless of whether they are accurate. Beware of memories accompanied by strong emotions and vivid details—they are just as likely to be wrong as mundane memories, but you’re far less likely to realize it.
Indeed, the longer the period of time between an event and its recollection, the greater the inaccuracy, whether the event is a monumental one like 9/11 or a mundane one like who said what during a few minutes of bickering.
“The illusion of memory,” as the authors call it, causes us to make two common mistakes when relying on recall of past events, particularly emotional ones:
- We assume memory is less fallible than it really is. “What is stored in memory is not an exact replica of reality, but a re-creation of it. We cannot play back our memories like a DVD,” caution Chabris and Simons, “—each time we recall a memory, we integrate whatever details we do remember with our expectations for what we should remember.”
- We mistakenly believe our memories are accurate because they feel accurate. “Unfortunately, people regularly use vividness and emotionality as an indicator of accuracy; they use these cues to assess how confident they are in a memory,” say Chabris and Simons, noting that there’s a tandem illusion at work here: the illusion of confidence.
If you’re still finding yourself in arguments about whose memory of an event or agreement or conversation is the right one, you’re wasting valuable time and energy.