Nov 01 2012

Temporal Binding

Skeptics should add another term to their lexicon of self-deception and cognitive biases – temporal binding.

Over the last half-century or so psychologists have been quietly documenting many various ways in which people deceive themselves and distort their thinking. This knowledge, however, has insufficiently penetrated the public consciousness. When it does it is mostly framed as, “isn’t that an interesting quirk of the human mind,” but the deeper lesson, that we cannot trust our own perception and memory, is rarely brought home.

Skeptics have taken modern neuroscience to heart. Our philosophy incorporates what I call “neuropsychological humility” – the basic recognition that our brains are subject to a host of flaws and biases, and therefore we cannot simply rely upon what we remember about what we thought we experienced. Rather, we need to rely upon a rational process and objective evidence as much as possible (part of this is relying on rigorous science to form our empirical conclusions). These flaws and biases are not confined to parlor tricks, contrived psychological experiments, and sitting in the audience of a magic show, but apply in everyday life.

Temporal binding is one tiny slice of the cognitive biases that form our everyday thinking. The overarching concept is that our memories are not passive recorders, nor are they primarily focused on the accurate recall of details. We do have a memory for details, but we also have a thematic memory, which seems to predominate. The thematic memory remembers the meaning of events, and then details are altered to fit this meaning. We construct a narrative and then over time our memory increasingly fits that narrative. This is not a conscious or deliberate process – our memories just morph over time. We are not aware of this process, nor can we distinguish an accurate memory from one that has morphed completely out of alignment with reality. They are both just memories.

Temporal binding is one manifestation of this general phenomenon, and is related to the logical fallacy, post hoc ergo propter hoc – after this therefore because of this. We tend to assume that if A precedes B then it is likely that A caused B. The logical fallacy is in assuming that A did in fact cause B without adequate independent evidence, merely because of the temporal association.

It seems that we evolved to make this assumption. Often A precedes B because it did cause it, and apparently there is a survival advantage to assuming that A probably did cause B, rather than being skeptical of this fact This is a manifestation of another general rule of cognition, that of heuristics. We tend to make quick down and dirty assumptions (cognitive rules of thumb) that are true most of the time, but not all the time and are not strictly logical. Another way to look at this is that the survival disadvantage of a false positive is significantly less than that of a false negative – it’s better to assume the rustling in the bushes is a tiger and run away, than to be skeptical and check it out.

Temporal binding is a phenomenon that reinforces that assumption of cause and effect once we have linked two events causally in our minds. The effect biases our memory so that we remember the apparent cause and effect occurring closer together in time. In experiments we tend to remember the cause as happening later and the effect happening earlier.

I encounter this frequently in my medical practice. Patients giving the history of their illness will often recall that a certain symptom began immediately after some event that they believe is causal. What appears to happen frequently is that people search for a possible cause of their new symptoms, they find some event that is most temporally related, and then over time their memory morphs so that the alleged cause and their symptoms become closer and closer in time. Sometimes patients even flip the order and place the apparent cause before their symptoms.

I know this happens because I have a written medical record against which to compare the patient’s recall. The vast majority of the time the patient’s recall does not match the objective record. For example, I may have a record of them reporting their symptom to another physician prior to the event that they now believe caused their symptom.

A recent pair of psychological studies shows that the phenomenon of temporal binding is likely more generalizable that previously thought. Some researchers believed that this cognitive bias applied only to effects that we intentionally caused. Researcher Marc Buehner, however, believed that it applies more generally. He conducted two experiments in which participants were able to press a button which was followed by a target light. In one case they pressed the button, and in another a machine pressed the button. In both cases the phenomenon of temporal binding – remembering the two events as being closer together than they were – was seen. Buehner concludes that intentionality is not required for temporal binding to reinforce our perception of cause and effect.


Skeptics like to combine two aphorisms as part of their core philosophy – knowledge is power and know thyself. Knowledge of how our brains function, including all the flaws and biases, is essential for clear thinking. Our brains are our universal tools of understanding the world and there is nothing, in my opinion, more empowering than understanding how that tool works.

Temporal binding is just one small example of how our brains distort our perception and memory of events to fit a story, a causal narrative, that we constructed in our minds. The trick is to apply this knowledge to yourself in your everyday life. Our cognitive processes are biased (that includes you), and we make these errors every day. So don’t rely on your feelings or memories. Think critically and rely on the most objective information possible.

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