More threads by David Baxter PhD

David Baxter PhD

Late Founder
Kerry Debate May Show Fickleness Of Memory
August 30, 2004

(The Associated Press) -- Past presidential candidates and their critics have been known to shade the truth for political purposes. But to memory researchers, it doesn't take intentional falsifying to understand the discrepancies in the retelling of Sen. John Kerry's war experiences.

You'd think the details would be scorched into a veteran's memory like a cattle brand: ducking gunfire, seeing someone die in battle, bracing against a blast's concussion. Who could forget?

Yet such memories not only blurred over time in one classic psychological study of soldiers, but mutated too. Old recollections faded; new mental pictures took over. Whole new chunks of personal history materialized from the muck of memory.

"People went from, 'Yes, I saw one friend killed,' to 'I saw no friends killed,' to 'I saw two friends killed,' to 'I saw three friends killed,'" said Dr. Andy Morgan, a Yale University psychiatrist who helped run the six-year study.

Could such memory research help explain some of the dueling accounts of U.S. Sen. John Kerry's ?

Was he really under gunfire when he yanked a crewman from the water as commander of a Navy patrol boat during the Vietnam War?

Some eyewitness accounts differ starkly. "I thought we were under fire, I believed we were under fire," says retired Chief Petty Officer Robert E. Lambert, who like Kerry earned a Bronze Star that day. He adds that "what happened, happened."

But Van Odell, a gunner who was also there, retorts: "When they're firing, you can hear the rounds hit the boat or buzz by your head. There was none of that."

There are other discrepancies. Who was the enemy Kerry shot?

One veteran says "a lone, fleeing, teenage Viet Cong in a loincloth."

Another: "He was a grown man, dressed in the kind of garb the VC usually wore."

Some veterans -- and military records from the time -- back much of what Kerry says, but some others who also served say otherwise. Does this mean someone is lying?

"I would give these people involved in the debate the benefit of the doubt that it's not political lying," says psychologist Elizabeth Loftus, of the University of California, Irvine, an expert on the reliability of eyewitness testimony. "It's sort of wanting to remember things in a certain way. That's probably why all these people seem so sincere. They may actually believe what they're saying."

Far from being an indelible recording, human memory is fragile, incomplete, malleable and highly subject to suggestion, researchers have shown in dozens of studies.

Time isn't the only factor that obscures memory. Great stress or danger during an event -- as in combat -- appears to gum up the mechanisms of remembrance, perhaps through a hormone rush that temporarily dulls memory-forming areas of the brain.

Later, our own, sometimes incorrect inferences about what happened gain equal footing with what we really saw or heard. The recollections of others, like old war buddies at a reunion, can overwrite our own.

"Memory doesn't work like a videotape," says Dawn McQuiston-Surrett, a psychologist at Arizona State University West.

In the experiment with soldiers, Yale researchers interviewed about 150 at intervals over six years, starting soon after their return from the first war with Iraq in 1991.

They asked the soldiers questions about their experiences, including whether they took incoming gunfire, faced Scud missile attacks and witnessed a friend's death. About 15 percent changed their recall of something significant, like seeing a friend die, the researchers reported.

Some veterans were upset when their own discrepancies were pointed out. Some even asked for help. "They would say, 'Which one is it?' to me," Morgan said. "I'd say, 'I don't know. I wasn't there.'"

Veterans with psychological or emotional problems tended to change their memories more often, the researchers found. But nearly everyone changed recollections over the six years.

Memory experts say a mild state of vigilance during an event boosts its commitment to memory. But being scared for your life, as during a crime or combat, impedes memory.

Other researchers say memories are especially fickle when the events unfolded on a broad stage or in multiple parts. Such recollections are inevitably partial, and a soldier will tend to fill in blanks unconsciously with personal inferences and the memories of others.

In unconsciously remolding memories, people often substitute details that make more sense or enhance their personal self-image, like turning a routine act of soldiering into heroism. People reshape their memories under pressure or encouragement from others.

"Even if it was my own memory, I'd be skeptical about the details," says Christine Ruva, a psychologist at the University of South Florida. "Memories aren't stored in a data file of fact. Instead, we take all the information we know about the world, we know about ourselves, and we construct something."

Where does this leave Americans trying to evaluate Kerry's war record? Researchers say some memories obviously are true. But they tend to favor the ones expressed soonest afterward, especially when backed by documentation from the time.
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