2015 got off to a bad start for national news anchor Brian Williams. He was suspended for 6 months without pay for inaccurately remembering the details of time spent covering the war in Iraq. Once the story hit, Williams’ credibility on other stories was called into question. People began questioning his reports of time spent covering the fall of the Berlin Wall and Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.
It all started with Williams’ story about his time in Iraq during the war. He was caught in a scandal for saying that a helicopter he rode in was hit by enemy fire. Subsequent reports from the actual soldiers flying that day proved that Williams was nowhere near the enemy fire and arrived on the ground after another helicopter took the brunt of the fire.
Did he believe that his helicopter was actually hit by enemy fire? Probably. Was he intentionally lying? Probably not. Did he embellish his role? Absolutely. But why?
As a national reporter with a lot at stake, it certainly doesn’t make sense that he cooked up the story for better ratings. Brian Williams is obviously intelligent. A little fact-checking and anyone could have seen that he wasn’t really in that helicopter. So why did he do it?
The Phenomenon of False Memories
Time and time again, research has shown that our memories are not as reliable as all of us would like to think. Over time, we fill in the details of our memories based on external factors such as pictures. Even retelling a story can change the memory itself. Then throw in the psychological need to put ourselves in the middle of a story. We tend to exaggerate our own importance. That’s precisely what happened to Brian Williams. He exaggerated his own importance and then retold the story over and over, each time slightly altering the version of events. Eventually, he came to believe that the inaccurate version was true. He created a false memory.
If Brian Williams is Subject to the Phenomenon of False Memories, So is EVERYONE Else!
Brian Williams is one of the most widely known reporters in this country. As a journalist, he obviously had a duty to keep his facts straight. But, even he fell victim to a relatively unknown and oftentimes true phenomenon: our memories are not always accurate. They are subject to failure, exaggeration and persuasion.
In criminal cases, people who are arrested for crimes face having their lives destroyed. Memories are critical. The testimony of a single witness can result in a life-long prison sentence or worse, the death penalty.
What most people don’t realize is that average people who witness crimes or are victims of crime often form memories based on what they might be told by other witnesses, police officers and even prosecutors themselves.
Let’s take a look at how this happens using a hypothetical case. There has been a string of robberies in one neighborhood in Philadelphia. Detectives believe they have the perpetrator narrowed down, but don’t have any physical evidence like fingerprints. The perpetrator is male, African American, 25 years old and has a short stature (these are actually very common characteristics of many male residents of Philadelphia). The alleged victims are interviewed by police officers who reveal that the person they think is the perpetrator has a small scar on his left cheek. They ask each victim, “Did you see a small scar on his left cheek?” This little detail is then adopted into the memories of 3 of the 4 victims.
A year later, at trial, the 3 victims testify that they saw a small scar on the perp’s left cheek during their encounters. The prosecutor asks each victim, “Did you see anything unusual about the person who robbed you?” Each victim falsely remembers that they saw the small scar. This little detail results in a conviction, and the man is sent to prison.
This scenario might sound far-fetched, but this kind of thing happens. Witnesses often fill in the details of their memories based on external factors. When someone’s life is on the line in a criminal case, criminal defense lawyers have their work cut out for them in trying to expose false memories. Hopefully, the Brian Williams story makes it easier for us to expose them.
Related Criminal Article: Criminal Case Result & Analysis: Acquittal in an Attempted Murder Case in Philadelphia