Over the past few days, presidential hopefuls Donald Trump and Ben Carson have both claimed that they witnessed American Muslims cheering in New Jersey during the September 11 terrorist attacks.
When fact-checkers looked into the claim, they found video of people cheering around that time (not a surprising reaction in some anti-American countries), but not in New Jersey or anywhere else in America. Carson later admitted that he had not, in fact, seen "newsreels" of the event as he'd claimed, and that he "doesn't stand behind" his earlier claims.
ABC News reported that according to Carson's spokesman "He was thinking of the protests going on in the Middle East and some of the demonstrations that were going on in celebration of the towers going down. It was a mistake on his part and he clearly wasn't really thinking about New Jersey, he was thinking about the Middle East."
Truth or Lie: How to Tell
Trump, as might be expected from a celebrity known for his bluster, still stands by his false information. Politicians stretching the truth is nothing new, of course, but this may be a case of mistaken memories instead of outright lying.
Studies have shown that people often make cognitive errors when recalling high-profile disasters and tragedies, especially when recalled as an observer instead of a participant. Many people can correctly remember where they were when they first learned about a particular tragedy or event of global importance, but much beyond that the details get much more fluid. Over time our memories change; some details are brought to the fore while others diminish or are forgotten.
Incidents such as the September 11 terror attacks and the 1987 Space Shuttle Challenger explosion can generate what are called "flashbulb memories," which though vivid and descriptive, lose accuracy over time.
Video: How to Tell a Perfect Lie
A 1992 study asked 106 people the day after the Challenger explosion about the circumstances of when they learned about the accident (where they were, who they were with, what they saw, etc.). When participants were asked three years later about those details, on average they accurately remembered less than half of what they had previously reported, and one-quarter of the respondents were wrong in every detail; essentially they had completely new memories of something they personally experienced.
We can also be influenced by what other people tell us about their experiences of the same event; it's possible to subconsciously incorporate details from other people's experiences of a shared event into our own "first-person" eyewitness accounts.
Evolutionary Perspective If false memories seem more common in modern times, there may be an evolutionary reason for it. For most of human history, there was no way to accurately and realistically record an event; once something happened, it was gone, other than perhaps written descriptions or drawings (which were of course limited by human recollection and artistic skill).
Brian Williams and the Psychology of False Memories
With the invention of photography in the 1800s it became possible to capture most of the details of a scene about as accurately, realistically, and completely as our eyes can. A photo was a tangible, independent reference against which our fallible memories could be reliably compared for accuracy.
Fast-forward to the last few decades, when images and videos from around the world can be broadcast over and over on 24-hour news channels. Television news has the capability to easily bring live video from around the world into your home, images of disparate people, places, and events one right after another. In this context it's more likely than ever that some people might sincerely and genuinely confuse and conflate images from different contexts.
After all, unless you were physically at the Twin Towers on September 11 your experience of the attacks was not firsthand but instead via a television, the very same television that showed images of cheering people that Trump and Carson described.
Brain Wave Could Prove What People Have Seen
The confusion about where those crowds were-the Middle East instead of New Jersey-may seem to them to be far less important to the narrative they are promoting: Some people were cheering the attacks, wherever they were.
In 2009 researchers at the University of Warwick conducted experiments to see if they could create false eyewitness testimony using faked videotapes. In a study published in the journal "Applied Cognitive Psychology," subjects viewed a digitally faked videotape of something they had personally experienced, and were asked to confirm whether or not the tape was accurate.
Those who visually experienced the actions on the tape were three times more likely to affirm the accuracy of the faked tape than controls who were merely told what the tape showed. This demonstrates that some subjects incorporated what they saw on a television screen into their real, personal memories, and when given a choice between relying on what they actually remembered and what they saw represented as reality on television, they chose the latter.
How to Use Your Brain in a Crisis
This effect is especially powerful when the person has a specific motivation for remembering events a certain way -- for example if it helps illustrate a point they're making in a political statement.
There will likely be little lasting damage from Trump's and Carson's errors (or lies, depending on how charitable you wish to be) about the New Jersey post-9/11 celebrations. Even more bizarre and less credible statements seem to come from their political campaigns (among others) every few weeks.
Outside of politics, however, mistaken memories can have real consequences. In 2007, psychiatrist Dr. Park Dietz, an expert witness in the trial of Andrea Yates, a woman convicted of murdering her children, had testified as a prosecution witness about an episode of "Law & Order" that was very similar in plot to Yates' case and, it was suggested, may have inspired her to drown her children.
Near-Death Experiences Change the Brain
The problem was that no such episode existed, a fact cited in a Court of Appeals decision to overturn Yates's conviction; she was later found not guilty by reason of insanity.
As CNN noted, Dietz soon recognized his error and submitted a letter to the court explaining that "he erroneously meshed two different ‘Law & Order' episodes, leading to his inaccurate answer on the stand during cross-examination."
In other words, Deitz didn't intentionally make the story up out of whole cloth; there were two separate, real episodes with somewhat similar storylines that he confused into one non-existent show or event. That is essentially Ben Carson's explanation for his error.
NBC News anchor Brian Williams was pilloried earlier this year for a dramatic first-person story he'd told and retold since 2003 of being in a helicopter hit by a rocket-propelled grenade in Iraq. Fact-checkers later discovered that Williams had been in a nearby helicopter that was part of a group that had taken fire, but his specific aircraft had not. Williams lost his position as news anchor over the comments.
Williams recently returned to television after his gaffe; whether Trump or Carson will head to the White House after theirs remains to be seen.