“Do you think it’s really the truth that you see?
I’ve got my doubts, it’s happened to me.”
(The Byrds, “Artificial Energy,” 1967)
The morning after the Challenger explosion, the 106 students in Psychology 101 (“Personality Development”) at Emory University filled out questionnaires on how they had first heard of the disaster. That established a baseline for their memories within twenty-four hours of the event itself in January of 1986. Then, in October of 1988, the forty-four of 106 students still at Emory were requestioned (only 25 percent remembered the original questionnaire!) and their two answers compared. Finally, in March of 1989, follow-up interviews were given to the forty students willing to participate in the final phase of the experiment. Here is one example of two questionnaire answers from the same subject:
Report of Memory
after 24 hours (Jan. 1986)
I was in my religion class and some people walked in and started talking about [it]. I didn’t know any details except that it had exploded and the schoolteacher’s students had all been watching which I thought was so sad. Then after class I went to my room and watched the TV program talking about it and I got all the details from that.
Report of Memory
after 2 1/2 years (Oct. 1988)
When I first heard about the explosion I was sitting in my freshman dorm room with roommate and we were watching TV. It came on a news flash and we were both totally shocked. I was really upset and I went upstairs to talk to a friend of mine and then I called my parents.
That case, as the researchers explain, was not unusual: “None of the enduring memories was entirely correct, and…many were at least as wide of the mark… [T]hose questionnaires revealed a high incidence of substantial errors” (Nesser and Harsch). One other student, for example, who later recalled hearing the news from a girl who ran screaming down her dorm corridor, had actually heard it in the cafeteria and been too sick to finish her lunch. Another student later thought she had been at home with her parents when it happened, although she had actually been on campus.
When those second versions were compared with first ones for accuracy and graded on a 0-7 scale for major (location, activity, informant) and minor (time, others) attributes of the event, “the mean was 2.95, out of a possible 7. Eleven subjects (25%) were wrong about everything and scored 0. Twenty-two of them (50%) scored 2 or less; this means that if they were right on one major attribute, they were wrong on both of the others. Only three subjects (7%) achieved the maximum possible score of 7; even in these cases there were minor discrepancies (e.g., about the time of the event) between the recall and the original report. What makes these low scores interesting is the high degree of confidence that accompanied my of them.”
Confidence in the inaccuracy is surely much more disquieting than the inaccuracy itself; and the visual vividness with which the inaccuracy was recalled was even more disquieting. The mean for accuracy was 2.95 out of 7, as I noted; the mean for confidence was 4.17 out of 5, and the mean for “visual vividness” was 5.35 out of 7! In the instance given above, for example, the subject rated the confidence of her 1988 memory at a 5 (“absolutely certain”) for location, activity, informant, others and at a 4 for time (2:00 or 3:00 P.M., rather than 11:39 A.M. EST). Its actual rating was 0.
In the follow-up interviews after the twin questionnaires had been compared, the researchers made another significant discovery. The subjects’ memories for their second-version accounts remained “remarkably consistent” between October of 1988 and March of 1989, and when the researchers tried to help the subjects recover their first-version accounts, they found that “none of [their] procedures had any effect at all” (Nesser and Harsch). Even when subjects were shown their own original reports, they never “even pretended that they now recalled what was stated on the original record. On the contrary, they kept saying, ‘I mean, like I told you, I have no recollection of it all’ or ‘I still think of it as the other way around.’ As far as we can tell, the original memories are just gone.”
(John Dominic Crossan, The Birth of Christianity. 1998)
“And you know what they said? Well, some of it was true!”
(The Clash, “London Calling,” 1979)
“Scientists spend their lives discovering what the poets already know.”
(Me, a few years back, dispensing folk wisdom to my brother, one of the very few scientists I knew would get a laugh out of it.)
R.I.P. to the Challenger explorers on the thirtieth anniversary of their deaths. I still wonder if it would have happened if my buddies’ dads hadn’t all been transferred to Grapevine and my old U.S. 1 neighborhood hadn’t been turned into a ghost town.