How Not to Be the Next Brian Williams

Ten ways to avoid false memories.

NBC News' Brian Williams
If Brian Williams didn’t intentionally deceive, are his false memories any more excusable?

Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Lloyd Bishop/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images.

For years, Brian Williams told various versions of a story about his experiences during the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March 2003. Last week, he admitted he had gotten crucial facts wrong, and he apologized. It’s possible that Williams was lying all along for self-aggrandizing reasons, but his serial misstatements could also be the product of ordinary, unintentional memory distortion. We may never know which is true. But the scientific evidence for the fallibility of human memory is now so well established and widespread that claims of false memory should no longer earn anyone a free pass. Any responsible storytellers—any who believe they owe their first allegiance to the truth—should recognize the limits of their own memory and the risk of self-serving memory distortions. We must all change the way we work to ensure that we get the facts right, knowing that our memories might be wrong.

As usual in cases of celebrity fabulism, public reaction to the Brian Williams revelations ranged across the narrow spectrum from incredulity to outrage. The left-leaning website Talking Points Memo linked his false story to a list of “all the pols who’ve either fibbed about military service or told phony baloney stories about their close calls.” At the right-leaning The Federalist, Sean Davis wrote: “Brian Williams was never in danger. And yet, for over 12 years, he blatantly lied about it.”

Even many of Williams’ fellow journalists have been unable to summon an innocent explanation for his falsehoods.  The New York Post dubbed him “Lyin’ Brian” and published a cartoon of him in military regalia (including an NBC peacock logo). On Fox News, Howard Kurtz asked, “Why would Brian Williams feel the need to do this?” His guest responded, “The one thing I have avoided steadfastly is to try to psychoanalyze, to try to do what’s going on in Brian Williams’ head.” And according to the New York Times, Aaron Brown (formerly of CNN) said “My inbox is filled today with producers who went to Iraq with me, to Afghanistan with me, to Haiti with me, all kind of wondering how you could mess this up. I have no answer for that. I will tell you that getting shot at is not something you forget.”

Of course, the question is not whether Williams forgot getting shot at. It’s whether he deliberately fabricated a story for personal gain or instead unwittingly created a memory of an event that never happened. Common sense tells us that memory shouldn’t break down to this extent—especially when we recall significant events in our lives. That belief makes us assume the worst of those who misremember. Yet a full century of scientific research tells us that these intuitive, common-sense beliefs about how memory works are often wrong.

No one has, to our knowledge, tried to implant a false memory of being shot down in a helicopter. But researchers have repeatedly created other kinds of entirely false memory in the laboratory. Most famously, Elizabeth Loftus and Jacqueline Pickrell successfully convinced people that, as children, they had once been lost in a shopping mall. In another study, researchers Kimberly Wade, Maryanne Garry, Don Read, and Stephen Lindsay showed people a Photoshopped image of themselves as children, standing in the basket of a hot air balloon. Half of the participants later had either complete or partial false memories, sometimes “remembering” additional details from this event—an event that they never experienced. In a newly published study, Julia Shaw and Stephen Porter used structured interviews to convince 70 percent of their college student participants that they had committed a crime as an adolescent (theft, assault, or assault with a weapon) and that the crime had resulted in police contact. And outside the laboratory, people have fabricated rich and detailed memories of things that we can be almost 100 percent certain did not happen, such as having been abducted and impregnated by aliens.

Even memories for highly emotional events—like the Challenger explosion or the 9/11 attacks—can mutate substantially. As time passes, we can lose the link between things we’ve experienced and the details surrounding them; we remember the gist of a story, but we might not recall whether we experienced the events or just heard about them from someone else. We all experience this failure of “source memory” in small ways: Maybe you tell a friend a great joke that you heard recently, only to learn that he’s the one who told it to you. Or you recall having slammed your hand in a car door as a child, only to get into an argument over whether it happened instead to your sister. People sometimes even tell false stories directly to the people who actually experienced the original events, something that is hard to explain as intentional lying. (Just last month, Brian Williams let his exaggerated war story be told at a public event honoring one of the soldiers who had been there.)

We know of no scientific evidence for a bright-line distinction between events that can and cannot be distorted in memory. Just as is the case for ordinary memories, information that is encoded in stressful situations can be altered by misleading questioning after the fact, according to a recent study of soldiers undergoing survival training. It may be hard to believe, but the common belief that no one could ever falsely remember being shot down is conjecture, not fact. More than a century of rigorous experiments, by distinguished researchers including Hermann Ebbinghaus, Frederick Bartlett, James Deese, Elizabeth Loftus, Ulric Neisser, Endel Tulving, Daniel Schacter, Henry Roediger, Elizabeth Phelps, and many others, reveal instead that memory is far more fallible and malleable than we intuitively realize. If there were a Nobel Prize for psychology, some of these people would have won it by now.

Although neuroscientists are still working to understand all the brain mechanisms behind memory formation and distortion, the idea that memories are partly reconstructions rather than perfect reproductions is a scientific truth on par with the basics of biology, chemistry, and physics. We don’t let our lack of intuition for how electricity flows through wires stop us from using lamps or watching TV. It’s time for science to supplant common sense when we think about memory in everyday life.

So does the fact that memories can morph over time excuse the falsehoods told by Brian Williams, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Hillary Clinton, George W. Bush, Republican Sen. Mark Kirk, Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal, and all the others who have been caught?

Not at all. After decades of well-documented, prominent cases of memory distortion, people whose professions put a premium on facts and truth—journalists, politicians, business leaders, judges, lawyers, and public figures—should be aware of these limits. In fact, they have a responsibility to understand the fallibility of their memories and to take steps to minimize memory mistakes. If you are relying exclusively on your own memory when saying anything of consequence, especially when someone’s reputation is at stake, you must think twice.

You should think twice for the sake of both your audience and yourself: After all, if you are caught out, people will leap to the conclusion that you are a liar. We have found, in a nationally representative telephone survey, that 47 to 63 percent of people believe that memory works much like a video camera and that memories do not change once they are initially formed. (We obtained similar results when we replicated this study online.) By contrast, 0 percent of the memory scientists we surveyed agreed with either of these two statements. Given that there is no definitive way to tell whether a single false statement about one’s past is a deliberate lie or an accidental distortion, you should know that your opponents will question your motives.

The Brian Williams story isn’t over yet, and further investigation may show that he knew he was not telling the truth about Iraq or other incidents in his past. But we know enough about how easily and often memory is distorted to give some tips for minimizing the chances that false recollections will put you at odds with your audience, your bosses, or the truth. No checklist will eliminate all errors, but these steps can help:

1. Don’t confuse memories with facts. If you understand the rudiments of how memory works, you aren’t being honest if you express 100 percent confidence in a memory. Even your recollection of events that feel “seared into memory” can be wrong. If you have no source other than your memory, qualify your claims: “This is how I remember it,” or “I wasn’t able to corroborate this, but I think …”

2. Don’t think “but this memory is different.” People may think that particularly important or vivid memories are inherently authentic and immune to distortion, but they are not. In fact, important memories may be recounted more often than mundane ones, and each recounting has the potential to introduce new distortions. Brian Williams’ Iraq memory seems to have transformed progressively, much like the mutating messages in a child’s game of telephone, spiraling away from the truth over the years.

3. Remember that you are not so important. You are the protagonist of your own memory, and the most compelling stories often make the lead characters seem more important, clever, witty, and heroic than they actually were in reality. Be particularly careful of the possibility of memory distortion when you remember being the central player. Any distortion that makes you look better than you were will be easy for critics to dismiss as a self-serving lie. 

4. Trust, but verify. Before disseminating a memory whose truth matters, fact-check what you recall. For public figures, a simple Web search will often suffice. Have you heard about Google? Your critics, who are lying in wait, certainly have. Before he mistakenly accused George W. Bush of fomenting religious conflict after 9/11, Neil deGrasse Tyson could easily have read the transcripts of the president’s speeches and caught his own error. Brian Williams has news archives, producers, and the celebrity reporter’s ability to get almost anyone to talk to him.

5. Revisit original sources. On CNN’s Reliable Sources, former CNN reporter Kimberly Dozier said that when she began to write a book about her brush with death in a car bombing in Iraq, she interviewed all of the soldiers and other people who were there. She found that several people could not agree on basic facts, such as which soldier threw the smoke grenade to signal that they had been attacked. Dozier attributed these discrepancies to the stress everyone was under at the time, but memory distortion can happen in the absence of stress. Indeed, discrepant stories are the expected result when different people, with different viewpoints and brains, form their own impressions of a situation.

6. Use your personal archives. Go back to data stored in your own smartphone, computer, and cloud accounts to find corroboration for your memories. The web of technology that envelops us provides valuable, time-stamped documentation of our thoughts and actions. When we were writing our book The Invisible Gorilla in 2009, Chris checked his own 9/11 memories by looking back at the emails he sent and received that day. Sent mail, saved messages, calendar apps, Facebook and Twitter timelines—all of these can be used to check the facts of our own lives. 

7. Document your fact checking. As part of your preparation, systematically document the sources for your claims, even if you are confident you are right. By habitually documenting your sources, even if your documentation resides only in your personal notes, you ensure that you will always have facts to back your memories. Proper sourcing also allows a principled response to critics who might challenge the veracity of your claims. Even better, when the format permits, list or link to your sources so those would-be critics can see for themselves that you got it right.

8. Create more objective records as things happen. Take notes during meetings or immediately after, and ask the other participants to confirm their accuracy. Write down your personal observations or ideas. Memories fade faster than we realize, and you may think you will remember the key details, but too often you won’t. Notes can be written in little pocket journals, myriad smartphone apps like Evernote, or even waterproof shower notebooks (but type those scrawls in later!). Some people like to record thoughts by audio. No matter what their form, keep your notes safe and backed up.

9. Collaborate. Co-authors or assistants can provide basic fact checking (and bullshit detection) for your claims, and can force or encourage you to verify and cite your sources. Beware the trap of “social loafing,” though—don’t punt responsibility for catching your mistakes to your co-author, or even more may slip through.

10. Slow down. All of these steps require effort and take time. So spend more time on each report, article, or speech you produce. Doing too much too quickly leads to cutting corners, and relying exclusively on memory should now be classified as cutting corners.

The relevant science of false memory is covered in every introductory psychology textbook, but researchers can do more to improve public awareness of the consequences of memory distortion. At long last, evidence for the fallibility of eyewitness testimony is entering the courtroom, most recently in the form of an expert report commissioned by the National Academy of Sciences outlining research-based best practices for avoiding eyewitness misidentifications and false convictions. (One of the authors of this article, Daniel Simons, was a member of the panel that produced the report.)

It’s unfortunate that so many people seem to have concluded that Brian Williams deliberately lied based solely on the fact that he recalled things that didn’t happen. Memory science shows that it’s nearly impossible to distinguish an honest mistake from a deliberate deception. A pattern of repeated exaggerations about different events, or documentary evidence from independent sources that Williams knew that what he was saying was untrue, would be more compelling evidence against the false memory explanation. However, even if his errors are just casualties of a faulty memory, they still demonstrate an embarrassing lack of diligence. Until we learn to question our memories, the next Brian Williams scandal is inevitable.

Journalists know that when they hear something from one source, they should corroborate it with independent sources before reporting it. The science of memory has taught us that our own memories are also unreliable sources, just as needy of corroboration.