Everyone has feelings about those who have been close to them: parents, siblings, spouses, and colleagues. Those feelings are usually formed from memories of past interactions with those people. When those memories are negative, they can poison relationships and lead to terrible results: family feuds, alienated siblings, estrangement between children and parents, divorce, law suits, and assorted vendettas. The saddest part of all is that research is showing that many of these negative memories can be wrong.
Memories are seldom fully literal. Memories are constructed, not recorded like an audio tape. The brain decides how an experience is to be packaged as a narrative to remember. We even generate fictions for experiences that do not involve our own inter-personal relationships. Witness the conflicting stories about how many planes struck the World Trade Center or about the Ferguson “hands up, don’t shoot” imagined incident. The criminal justice system now downplays eye-witness testimony because so much of it in the past has proven unreliable. Often this happens when experiences are intense and complex, causing the over-taxed brain to jam them unthinkingly into its already formed store of memories.
Construction of false memory is especially likely during childhood, for several inevitable reasons:· Children do not process reality as readily or correctly as adults.· The brain circuitry of children changes dramatically as brains grow and re-wire, which causes many memories to be lost or corrupted.· Constant replay of the memory over the years leads to further alteration of the memory and the repetition confirms the memory, even when it is wrong.
A recent article in the Wall Street Journal says that we categorize memories to help define ourselves. The author says this is a good thing because it is a method for bolstering one’s ego. We may, for example, construct memories to help us think of ourselves as superior, righteous, or likable. But others will construct memories that confirm a pre-existing low self-esteem, thinking of oneself as a victim, incorrigible, unlikable, or whatever. This is a well-studied phenomenon that psychologists call confirmation bias. For better or worse, we transform real experiences into memories that are a “creative blend” that mixes fact and fiction.
When we construct memories that put a negative spin on past interactions with others, we build a negative attitude toward them. Negative attitudes about others are hard to hide. Then as subsequent relationship experiences occur, they too get the negative spin, adding to the storehouse of false memories that can grow into hostility. Rubbing salt into mental wounds by rehearsing grievances year after year intensifies the memory and reinforces belief in it. Apologies and forgiveness become harder and harder to generate.
Why does the brain work this way? A Harvard study revealed that the same areas of the brain are used for remembering past events and imaginary events. A University of Dayton study showed another reason: people have an unconscious incentive to create false memories to protect themselves from threats to their beliefs about themselves. As a relatively benign example, college students who opposed increased tuition, after writing an essay that required them to defend a tuition increase, mis-remembered their initial opposition.
More serious consequences result when, as a Northwestern U. psychology professor explains, people exaggerate the negativity or misery of past experiences to impress themselves and others by their endurance of suffering or “escape” from it. Such exaggeration also occurs as responses to real-time events, as for example when people put the worst possible spin on a current experience. It makes them seem to be a bigger victim and coping with it seems like a bigger achievement.
A University of Utah psychologist says false memories take on more meaning and apparent justification when recounted to others. So as if the false memory were not bad enough, we use it to poison the reputation of others. A child who thinks parents or siblings were unfair, gains validation by telling friends about the presumed mistreatment. A worker may put a negative spin on an annual review and may feel better if he uses that memory to discredit the boss in the eyes of others. The damage in such cases is three-fold: 1) lying to oneself prevents dealing with real solutions, 2) damaging the reputation of others is mean-spirited and unjust, and 3) spreading this kind of falsehood ultimately destroys the reputation of the perpetrator.
“Bury the hatchet” is sound advice. The more promising way to have good relationships is to base them on the present and to nurture them in positive ways for the future.
Dr. Klemm is author of the recent book,Mental Biology (New York: Prometheus).
Krokos, Dan. (2012). False Memory. New York: Hyperion.
Shellenbarger, Sue (2016). How inaccurate memories can be good for you. Wall Street Journal. July 27. Remember, to get a full understanding of this post, you need the book, Thank You Brain for All You Remember.