Last week I wrote about the fallibility of human memory as a follow up to a discussion of the topic on the SGU. In the week since, this very question has been in the forefront of US political news and has sparked a lively discussion on the SGU boards. The news and discussion is tainted by partisan politics – this question coming in the middle of the most heated primary election in a generation.
The controversy surrounds statements made by Senator Hillary Clinton (whom I will henceforth refer to as “Hillary” not out of any disrespect but for convenience), candidate for the Democratic nomination and former First Lady with husband Bill. She has told many times on the campaign trail the following story:
I certainly do remember that trip to Bosnia, and as Togo said, there was a saying around the White House that if a place was too small, too poor, or too dangerous, the president couldn’t go, so send the First Lady. That’s where we went. 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.
Recently, video emerged of that very landing in Bosnia. Hillary is shown walking casually with her daughter, Chelsea, without any apparent rush or fear. She even stops on the tarmac to greet a young girl. Hillary’s account and the video record are in stark contrast. So what’s up? The entire range of possibilities have been discussed, from this was a 100% conscious fabrication by a seasoned politician with a callous disregard for the truth – to the possibility that this was an honest error in memory. There is no way to objectively resolve what Hillary really remembers, and so partisan feelings tend to dominate when formulating opinions on the matter. I will not take an opinion, but wish to simply discuss the various ways in which her memory could have been faulty.
One possibility that has been offered is that Hillary is fusing a memory of being under sniper fire, with this memory of landing in Bosnia. This would be a simple and very plausible explanation. Fusing elements of different memories is extremely common. So far, however, it does not seem like this is the answer. Hillary is not claiming this is the case, and I suspect if there were another time when she was genuinely “under sniper fire” she would have jumped on that as the explanation. Perhaps, however, her campaign is just being extremely cautious, and are looking for hard documentation before making such a claim.
There is another very plausible scenario in which Hillary could have a false memory of being under sniper fire in Bosnia. It’s possible that her memory of the event slowly migrated over time, with each retelling of this tale. For example, when initially telling the story she may have stated that they were “warned their might be sniper fire,” which then morphed into “there were reports of sniper fire,” and then into “there was sniper fire in the area,” and finally “we were under sniper fire.” Once the memory had evolved into active sniper fire, other details would morph to make the story make sense. If they were under sniper fire, then they must have run to the vehicles with their heads down – so that detail is added in order to conform to the narrative of the memory.
In this scenario, Hillary’s memory would actually change over time, and the altered memory would be indistinguishable from any other memory – confidence in a memory’s accuracy is not a predictor of its actual accuracy. Under this scenario Hillary would be able to actually envision herself running under sniper fire, head down. Each time she tries to recall the memory, or is asked questions about it, the details of the memory would creep towards the emotional and thematic narrative.
To lend credibility to this scenario (again, I am not arguing that this is actually the case, just exploring plausibility) let me relate a story told by Gerald Posner during a lecture he gave to the NESS about the Kennedy assassination. He related the story of Jean Hill, a witness who has made a minor career out of telling her tale. She even carries business cards proclaiming herself to be the “closest witness” to the fatal head shot (I guess not including those in the motorcade). Skeptics have pointed out the many inaccuracies in the story that Hill tells, but Posner put her tall tale into perspective. He viewed all of her recorded interviews over the years and actually saw the evolution of her story over time.
When Hill was interviewed 45 minutes after the shooting she was asked “Did you see the person who fired…” and she answered: “No . . . I didn’t see any person fire the weapon . . . I only heard it.” She gives no other details. She was simply standing on the side of the road near where Kennedy was shot. She did not see or report any new or interesting details. But over the years her story slowly morphed (and now I am paraphrasing from Posner’s lecture). First she added that she called to the president and he turned to her. Later she added that she saw a suspicious man…which became a man in a hat…then she ran after the man…then she followed him all the way to the grassy knoll…adding that she was almost hit by a motorcycle in the president’s motorcade…and still later adding that the man looked like Jack Ruby (the man who shot Lee Oswald on live TV).
Documented over many TV and radio interviews was the actual process of Hill’s memory slowly morphing from not seeing anything to chasing a man that looked like Jack Ruby across the street and into the grassy knoll, almost getting hit by a motorcycle in the process. This was likely not an entirely passive process – meaning that she had a huge emotional stake in the drama of her story. Also, she was likely encouraged to remember more details by friends and interviewers in each retelling. The process of adding small details for embellishment actually changed her memory – so her baseline memory changed and was ready for the next tiny detail to be added. The degree to which she is aware of her embellishment is impossible to say, but no insight is required.
This same process might have been at work in Hillary’s retelling of her Bosnia visit. Certainly, as many have pointed out, the story as she was telling it fits with her campaign narrative, so she was invested in the new version of the story. Perhaps the process of embellishing the story so as to enhance its political usefulness drove the process of morphing the memory into its latest incarnation. Even still, it is plausible that what Hillary was recounting was her actual memory of the event. That would explain why she would tell a tale that could be dramatically falsified by the video record.
We will likely never know where along the spectrum from campaign lie to innocent error this incident lies. (Unless more video emerges of Hillary telling an earlier version of the story that is closer to the truth – then we can reconstruct the evolution of her memory as can be done with Jean Hill.) But the question of whether or not it is possible or plausible that her memory was simply in error is clear. That is just the nature of human memory.
The lesson for skeptics is clear – the morphing of memory to fit a dramatic narrative is relevant to UFO sightings, alien abductions, bigfoot encounters, and hauntings. Witnesses to the Roswell Incident, for example, added details to their memories of events that include aliens only after the possibility of alien bodies was brought up in the 1970s, two decades after the event. Believers are often naive to the nature of human memory. I have been challenged numerous times if I am accusing witnesses to paranormal events of lying, and I have heard believers support a particular tale with the logic of “why would they lie.” The sincerity of witnesses is also often present as compelling evidence for the truth of their stories. In my experience believers are laboring under this false dichotomy – witnesses are either telling the truth, and therefore accurately relating a real event, or they are lying. Absent any evidence of lying, or with the appearance of sincerity, it is prudent to believe the story as true.
What skeptics do and should know is that the most likely explanation lies not in the sincerity of their belief, but the accuracy of their memory. In the absence of external objective validation, the default position of skepticism is justified.