I have listened to the past 48 hours of constant criticism and speculation about the implications of what is generally described as a "lie". News anchor Brian Williams made a statement about remembering that he was shot at in a helicopter in Iraq and forced down after it was hit by a rocket powered grenade. That statement occurred on an interview with David Letterman and several other venues over the past 12 years. The actual section of the video is from the 2:50-7:20 of the 18:14 clip. In the interview he was entertaining, self effacing and talks about himself as being an "accidental tourist". He rejects Dave's suggestion that he be looked at in a different light because of this incident and praises the volunteer troops and emphasizes that he hopes the troops get what they need when they return home. The statement and previous clips (3) have been scrutinized by various sources. Today there are also a number of places looking closely at other statements for similar errors or possible "lies". Conspiracy theorists always want to prove that there is a pattern. The formal press and the blogosphere generally wants to see successful people fail in some way. There are many stories suggesting that this has implications for Williams credibility as a journalist.
Notice how I slipped the word "error" in there. One of the preconditions for classifying a statement as a "lie" is that it is a conscious effort to mislead. Mistakes are not technically lies although I have been in settings in medical training where trainees were punished for mistakes and treated as if those mistakes were lies or at least the product of a significant character flaw. A little context is always relevant. Williams typically reads the news every night for the past 11 years. He has read more information during those broadcasts than most people will every speak to their colleagues and coworkers in a lifetime. All of that information is probably vetted by another editor and the person entering the text. He has presented that information in a way that has led him to have the reputation as being a very reliable source of news. Secondly, he is under a great amount of scrutiny, much more scrutiny than an average person would expect because he is constantly recorded and easily recognized as a celebrity. Finally, what can he be expected to gain from intentionally telling a misleading story. What is his possible motivation? He clearly dismissed Letterman's attempt to make it a big deal and immediately made it a story about the volunteer forces and returning veterans. All of these factors seem to be ignored in the typical analysis of the statement and his apology.
Mistakes like this are commonplace. In the past month, I have had two very bright young colleagues recall my unusual eating habits from dinners that recently occurred. One of them recalled me eating a large piece of prime rib, the other frog legs. I have not eaten beef in 30 years and have never eaten an amphibian. In those events my colleagues did not recall a feature of the event and there was a misattribution based on that lack of recall. In many situations, my usually excellent memory does not match up with the recall of others from the same situation. In 1975 (or so) I was in the Hotel Jacaranda in Nairobi, Kenya with a few of my Peace Corps friends. We were all seated around a large rectangular table getting ready to order dinner. I was particularly jumpy that night and when a waiter bumped into my elbow, I reflexively dumped a cup of cocoa on a friend sitting immediately to my right. When I say dumped, I mean about 16 ounces of warm liquid poured right on top of his head and over his glasses. I was very embarrassed at the time, but the incident was apparently forgotten by the other 5 friends sitting at that table. I tried to revisit that event with my friend a few years ago and according to him - it never happened. Whose recollection of the incident is likely correct, a person who has an associated memory of being embarrassed about it or the person who would just as soon forget about it?
None of my anecdotes matches one that is probably self aggrandizing to some extent but their are similiar examples in the literature. Eye witness testimony comes to mind. You are a star witness in the case and the fate of the defendant hinges on your testimony. Psychologist Daniel Schacter points out in his book (1) that more than 75,000 criminal trials are decided each year on the basis of eyewitness testimony. A recent analysis comparing eyewitness testimony to DNA evidence suggested that eyewitness testimony was mistaken in 90% of cases. A more recent review (2) suggests that the number may be closer to one in three. I have testified myself in courtroom situations where I was told by attorneys that I would not have to speculate on a specific question. I was asked that question anyway, but with enough experience I knew the correct response was to say that I could not answer the question. I have always wondered about what happens when people are witnesses in important cases and they have the expectation that they need to come up with an answer to every question whether they have an answer or not. I am sure that I have seen this happen in real courtroom testimony. That stress in combination with imperfect human memory has the potential to create a new story or at the minimum information that creates more noise than signal.
The second aspect of the Williams scenario involves the binding of certain events in the correct order across a number of situations. Watching the NYTimes montage in reference 3 illustrates what I am talking about. Earlier footage clearly illustrates that he was on the ground with helicopters that had taken small arms fire when he landed in a helicopter that was probably doing what he described in the Letterman clip. Is it possible that this was binding failure? Schacter's definition of which would be "the gluing of the various components of an experience into a whole. When individual parts of an experience are retained but memory binding fails, the stage is set for all kinds of source misattributions....". It is easier to recall actions and scenes presented together but significantly more difficult to recall which action occurs in which scene (4). That experimental finding is interpreted to mean that information about scenes and information about actions are stored in different parts of the visual memory system (4). Further binding is adversely affected by age (5) and other sources of interference (6) with both the features of a scene and the bindings. Psychiatrists who keep detailed notes on their patient encounters will easily observe these binding failures and different histories being given at different points in time. It is also likely that the longer you live, the more you will encounter this phenomenon in your own life.
People lie and people forget - so what? In the final analysis, very few observers have access to all of the information necessary to determine what is a lie and what is not a lie. By definition the only discriminating factor is a conscious awareness on the part of the liar. I have no access to information more than anyone else and no conflict of interest when it comes to Mr. Williams or NBC. The current situation requires some reflection on why it has the appearance of being so important. Is it possible that this is a case of faulty recall and misattribution? I think it is and most of the analyses to the contrary are not based on how human memory works. There are a number of questions that can be asked about these analyses. Why is there an opinion based on very scant information? Is it possible that emotional bias is involved in the complex decision-making of the author? Is the author denying the fact that these kinds of experiences have happened to them? Or is jumping to conclusions an aspect of the author's character that they would just as soon not look at? Is it really that surprising that thousands of journalists and bloggers want to add their own sensational spin to this story?
Those may be much more relevant questions than the one being asked today.
George Dawson, MD, DFAPA
1: Daniel L. Schacter. The Seven Sins of Memory. Houghton Mifflin Company; Boston, 2001, 272 pp.
2: Wise RA, Sartori G, Magnussen S, Safer MA. An examination of the causes and solutions to eyewitness error. Front Psychiatry. 2014 Aug 13;5:102. doi: 10.3389/fpsyt.2014.00102. eCollection 2014. Review. PubMed PMID: 25165459
3: Jonathan Mahler, Ravi Somayia, Emily Steele. With an Apology, Brian Williams Digs Himself Deeper in Copter Tale. New York Times February 5, 2015.
6: Ueno T, Allen RJ, Baddeley AD, Hitch GJ, Saito S. Disruption of visual feature binding in working memory. Mem Cognit 2011 Jan;39(1):12-23. doi: 10.3758/s13421-010-0013-8. PubMed PMID: 21264628.
It turns out that I was able to think of a better anecdote after I penned the above post. On Tuesday September 11, 2001 I was doing what I did every morning as an inpatient psychiatrist for 23 years. I was sitting in a team meeting with all of the representative disciplines including social work, occupational therapy and nursing. At about 8:15 a nurse came in to give us a report and she happened to mention: "We just heard that a plane hit one of the Twin Towers in New York City. It's on the news right now." When she said that my recollection was that I said: "If I was there right now I would be trying to get as far away as possible. That was a terrorist attack and there may have been something else on that plane." The rest is history, but for the purpose of this post did I really make that statement? I had just tried to run an early Internet campaign for US Senate and one of my overriding concerns was terrorism. My campaign could be best described as an abysmal failure. I seemed to be one of the few people in the state interested in terrorism. Almost everyone else had been concerned with spending the imaginary federal surplus, something I considered to be the product of capital gains taxes on the Internet stock bubble. For that matter, do I really remember all of the people in the room at the time? I am pretty sure I do, but it would not surprise me at all if I struck up a conversation with somebody who I thought was there only to learn that they were not. Nobody who I thought was in the room ever approached me after the incident and asked me about my statement. I took that as pretty good evidence that I should keep my mouth shut. I also remembered something I read about Harry Stack Sullivan. He was a psychiatrist who specialized in the interpersonal psychotherapy of people with schizophrenia. He had a number of therapy experiences that he wrote about that were very striking and unique. In his writing at one point he said that he realized that he just needed to stop writing and talking about those experiences because he could not say for sure what had actually happened versus what was embellished. I always remembered that cautionary note as well as the slang term "power story" from my youth in the North. A power story was assumed to be an embellished story to make one look good. A typical response might be (in a mildly sarcastic tone): "OK Paul Bunyan - where is Babe the Blue Ox?" It is probably not a good thing to be remembered as the psychiatrist who tells power stories unless you are retired and sitting in a bar in northern Wisconsin.