Don’t Trust Your Memory!

While this Slate article uses the recent news about Brian Williams as a hook, I think the advice it gives is very useful for anthropologists doing fieldwork. Whatever you think about Brian Williams, there is more and more evidence that human memories can’t be trusted. This is important for anthropologists who often rely upon their memories as a research tool. The article gives some good advice for avoiding that problem, much of which most anthropologists are probably already doing (keeping notes!) but it helps make clear just how important these practices are.

After decades of well-documented, prominent cases of memory distortion, people whose professions put a premium on facts and truth—journalists, politicians, business leaders, judges, lawyers, and public figures—should be aware of these limits. In fact, they have a responsibility to understand the fallibility of their memories and to take steps to minimize memory mistakes. If you are relying exclusively on your own memory when saying anything of consequence, especially when someone’s reputation is at stake, you must think twice.

I especially like the point that our most vivid and frequently recalled memories may be the most subject to distortion because “each recounting has the potential to introduce new distortions.” Worth keeping in mind!

3 thoughts on “Don’t Trust Your Memory!

  1. As Kerim brings forward, the role of memory as a research tool if fraught with pitfalls. If I may indulge, I wish to go a bit off topic. What about our electronic memory: video, recordings, twitter messages and so on? Looking back on old photographs, I find a unique bifurcation of my recall in that such photos elicit emotional responses, while struggle at times with placing when or where the photo was taken. Memory is unique in always being meaningful ( a very Borgesian view).
    Memory loss, therefore, is also an aspect of the pitfalls of memory. Recently Google has raised the issue of what should be done with an individual’s Facebook page should that individual die. The “nuclear” option was to erase the entire page. This not only sounds extreme, but it does sound an option to the question of ,”If I die, who curates my page, and, hence, my electronic memory?” If artifacts from museums should be returned, should not electronic memories/artifacts?
    One of the conditions of memory (false or accurate) is that it distances the “remembered” from the “agent of memory”. From a positivist point of view, memory recall becomes a question of truth statements. Facticity becomes the issue (an issue for cognitive anthropologists). However, ethnographies as narrative discourses complicate the matter of memory. Simplistically, we might ask to whom do we ascribe the memory; complexly, how is memory ascribed (to informant, narrator, author, editor). How might ascription of memory in the process of ethnographic writing rarefy memories until they become specimens of ideas or constructed artifacts applied in classroom settings (I recall the !Kung film of hunting the giraffe).

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