Archive for March 13th, 2014

Memory works a little bit…like a Wikipedia page: You can go in there and change it, but so can other people.  –  Elizabeth Loftus

One of the forms of magic characters might encounter in a Dungeons and Dragons game is illusion.  Some kinds of wizards or magic-using beings can create realistic illusions that fool the victims into believing something awful is happening, and unless they realize these phenomena are unreal and actively refuse to believe in them, they will suffer harm just as though they were real.  My friend Walter (whom I’ve mentioned before) had a running joke; whenever his character was in some sort of a dire predicament that he couldn’t think of a way out of, he would announce “I disbelieve it!” in the forlorn hope that whatever-it-was would vanish away like an illusion dispelled.

The ArrivalOf course, since the situations in which Walter announced this were never illusionary ones, his goal was just to make everyone laugh and/or break the tension of a harrowing episode.  But many people in real life think that disbelieving things, no matter what the proof of their existence, should have the legal or actual power to make them vanish; those same people also imagine the reverse, that strongly declared belief in something will make it so no matter what the evidence to the contrary.  Fortunately for those of us who prefer to live in the real world, neither of these is true:  bad things, or those which are inconvenient to one’s political agenda, cannot be dispersed by denying their existence; neither can nonexistent things, or those convenient to one’s agenda, be materialized by repeating a Shahada often enough.  But unfortunately, those who imagine otherwise are in the majority, and the law is often on their side.  The declared “beliefs” of cops (whether sincere or otherwise), and the first-person testimony of victims (or those who believe themselves to be victims, or who have been convinced by others that they’re victims) regularly trumps physical evidence in court, even when that evidence is solid and the human statements are incredible, absurd or even impossible.  And legislatures are even more disconnected from reality than courtrooms:  in statehouses, senates and parliaments the world over, sound evidence and credible, well-supported testimony is routinely disbelieved in favor of political or religious dogma, and the laws enacted from such beliefs are then enforced by vast armies of thugs prepared to inflict violence upon anyone who refuses to let the faith of irrational busybodies define his reality.

If human memory were like a videotape, and people were basically honest, the credibility gap between physical or documentary evidence and human testimony would at least be narrower than it is, and that might justify some degree of prejudice in the minds of the irrational and overly-emotional.  But it isn’t, and they aren’t; memory is both fallible and flexible, and people will lie to advance their own interests even when they know it will harm others (and even more so when they can convince themselves that the falsehood advances some “greater good”).  These two uncomfortable truths converge in special interest groups; as I explain in my forthcoming research paper “Mind-witness Testimony”,

…after-the-fact input from other people, either peers or authority figures, can distort memories so powerfully that after many repetitions the false memory will actually be much more powerful than real ones from the same time frame.  When confronted with proof of the falsity of their memories, some people have even insisted that such proof is either mistaken or manufactured…But even if there has been no external interference at all, the mere repetition of a distorted memory has the effect of strengthening it…The retelling of stories within a group biased toward a particular view produces an even more pronounced distortion, thanks to a psychological mechanism called group polarization…Obviously this dynamic tends to intensify moral panics, but because it alters the mental schemata of those involved it also affects the process of stereotypic conformation…[which means that] memories which fit the individual’s preconceptions are reinforced and those memories which do not are discarded, regardless of whether those memories are true or false

believe in fairiesIn other words, even if nobody is actively trying to manufacture false memories, then tend to occur anyway due to the powerful psychological need for group cohesion; when the leaders are actively working to create such confabulations via “reframing experiences”, they can will new memories into existence as easily as audience members heal Tinker Bell by demonstrating their belief in her.  And given the willingness of juries and lawmakers to believe in these fictions, the motive to create them is very strong indeed.  It is long past time we as a culture grew beyond believing in fairies and imagining that if we shut our eyes and cover our ears, unpleasant things will go away and trouble us no more.  Judicial proceedings and public policy must be based on evidence, not on belief, and such evidence cannot be disbelieved away even when we don’t like what it says.

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