“Lyin’ Brian”? Or a Victim of the False Memory Phenomenon?

After falsely reporting being grounded by rocket fire while on a military helicopter in Iraq, and subsequently having his reported experiences during Hurricane Katrina challenged, NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams has been grounded by pundit fire.

Williams apologized, saying he misremembered the Iraqi incident. Talk shows and social media doubted anyone could misremember so dramatically, labeling him “Lyin’ Brian,” and grafting Pinocchio’s nose onto his face.

It’s possible that Williams is, indeed, a self-aggrandizing liar (meaning he knowingly and intentionally told untruths). But to those who know the dramatic results of research into sincere but false memories by Elizabeth Loftus and others, it’s also believable that, over time, Williams constructed a false memory . . . and that Hillary Clinton did the same when misreporting landing under sniper fire in Bosnia in 1996.

Most people view memories as video replays. Actually, when we retrieve memories, we reweave them. We often then replace our prior memory with a modified memory—a phenomenon that researchers call “reconsolidation.” In the reconsolidation process, as more than 200 experiments have shown, misinformation can sneak into our recall.

Even imagined events may later be recalled as actual experiences. In one new experiment, people were prompted to imagine and repeatedly visualize two events from their past—one a false event that involved committing a crime in their adolescence. Later, 70 percent reported a detailed false memory of having committed the crime!  False memories, like fake diamonds, seem so real.

Is Brian lyin’? Does he have Pinocchio’s nose for the news? Perhaps—though telling blatant untruths surely is not a recipe for enduring success and prestige in his profession.

Or might he instead be offering us a fresh example of the striking malleability of human memory?

P.S. The morning after I submitted these reflections for posting, the New York Times offered this excellent (and kindred-spirited) application of false memory research to the Williams episode.