X-Message-Number: 23817
From: "Basie" <>
Subject: More memory
Date: Mon, 5 Apr 2004 17:31:50 -0400

The Fog of War

Published: April 5, 2004

                 ARTICLE TOOLS

                 E-Mail This Article
                 Printer-Friendly Format
                 Most E-Mailed Articles

                        READERS' OPINIONS

                       Forum: Join a Discussion on Op-Ed Contributors

                 TIMES NEWS TRACKER



                 Science and Technology

                 Rice, Condoleezza

                 Clarke, Richard A

AMBRIDGE, Mass. - With Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser, set
to testify before the 9/11 commission on Thursday, much attention is being
focused on the expected discrepancies between her recollections of the Bush
administration's response to terrorism issues and those of Richard Clarke.
One of the two, popular thinking goes, will ultimately be caught in a lie.
Already, differences have come to light between how Mr. Clarke, the former
counterterrorism director for President Bush, and another White House
colleague remember the specific events of 9/11.

In Mr. Clarke's book, "Against All Enemies," he recounts the responses of
senior administration officials on that day. Many of Mr. Clarke's
recollections conflict with those of Franklin C. Miller, a national security
official who worked closely with him. For example, Mr. Clarke writes that
Mr. Miller advised the secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld, to leave the
Pentagon by helicopter; Mr. Miller said in an interview last week that he
never spoke to Mr. Rumsfeld that day. The two men also have contrasting
recollections of the details of important decisions, like providing fighter
escorts for Air Force One when it took off from Florida. According to Mr.
Miller, Mr. Clarke's memories contain dramatic embellishments that would
"make a great movie" but do not reflect the reality of what happened.

These accounts may seem perplexing given the momentous nature of the
unfolding events. One might even wonder whether one of the parties has
engaged in willful distortion. But these conflicts need not involve bad
faith on the part of either person.

Indeed, conflicting recollections are neither unfamiliar (recall the
testimonies of Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill in 1991) nor surprising. The
way the brain stores and retrieves information, research shows, can
sometimes lead people to hold different memories of the same event.

Memory errors can be classified into seven categories (sometimes called
sins). Three are especially relevant to conflicting recollections:
transience, misattribution and bias. Transience is the term for the
well-known fact that memories tend to fade over time (unless we rehash and
discuss them frequently). Experiments show that specific details of an
experience are lost more quickly than general information about it.

In one such study, 12 people were asked to summarize their activities during
a "typical day" at work; they also were asked to recount exactly what they
did the day before and a week before. The study confirmed what some
researchers suspected: the day-old memory was a nearly verbatim record of
what actually happened, but a week later memory was closer to a generic
description of what usually happens. With the passage of time, memory shifts
from a reproduction of the past to a reconstruction that is heavily
influenced by general knowledge and beliefs.

Similar considerations almost certainly apply to what Mr. Clarke and Mr.
Miller remember. Of course, 9/11 was not an ordinary day at the office.
Shocking experiences like the terrorist attacks or the explosion of the
space shuttle tend to be better remembered than mundane occurrences. But
studies show that with the passage of time, people can forget and distort
details of even these experiences.

Such errors are sometimes associated with the memory sin of misattribution,
where we remember aspects of an experience correctly but attribute them to
the wrong source. For instance, a college student recalled that she first
learned of the Challenger explosion in 1986 from television, when the actual
source was a group of friends. Misattribution errors can occur for traumatic
experiences, as in the case of a rape victim who accused a psychologist of
assault based on her vivid memory of his face. In reality, she had seen the
psychologist on television just before she was raped.

Because parts of misattributed memories are accurate, people can maintain
high confidence in such mistaken recollections. Both Mr. Clarke's and Mr.
Miller's accounts are probably correct in some respects, but either one may
have fallen victim to misattribution, leading to different claims about who
said what to whom.

Bias, a third memory sin, occurs when current knowledge, beliefs or feelings
distort the past. For example, studies have shown that we often inaccurately
recall political attitudes we held in the past. Our recollection ends up
reflecting our current attitudes instead. Research also reveals an
egocentric bias, meaning we remember the past in ways that reflect
positively our current self - a bias from which government officials are not
likely to be immune.

Transience, misattribution and bias occur even when we do our best to
recollect the past accurately. Without external corroboration, we cannot
know for certain which aspects of Mr. Clarke's or Mr. Miller's account are
off the mark - but we do know enough about memory's sins to implicate the
likely culprits. It's something the commission, and the country, should keep
in mind when Ms. Rice testifies as well.

Daniel L. Schacter, a professor of psychology at Harvard, is the author of
"The Seven Sins of Memory: How the Mind Forgets and Remembers."


 Content-Transfer-Encoding: base64


Rate This Message: http://www.cryonet.org/cgi-bin/rate.cgi?msg=23817