Slate conducted a mass experiment in altering political memories. Were you fooled?

The future of false memories.
May 24 2010 6:59 AM

The Ministry of Truth

A mass experiment in altering political memories.

(Continued from Page 1)

Ideology influenced recollections, but not consistently. Thirty-four percent of progressives who were shown the Bush-Clemens photo (212 out of 616) remembered that incident, while only 14 percent of conservatives who saw the same photo (7 out of 49) remembered it. We expected that discrepancy to be reversed among subjects who were shown the Obama handshake, but it wasn't. Progressives were slightly more likely than conservatives to remember that the handshake happened: 49 percent (305 out of 618) to 45 percent (30 out of 66). As expected, however, conservatives were more likely than progressives to remember actually seeing the handshake (36 percent to 26 percent) and less likely to remember seeing Bush with Clemens during Katrina (10 percent to 16 percent).

At the end of the experiment, we gave our subjects a second chance to distinguish the true events from the false ones. We told them that one of the four incidents was fake and asked them to guess which one. (This time, we didn't show the photos.) Among subjects who had previously remembered seeing the fake incident, 58 percent selected one of the true incidents as the false one. When we pooled subjects who thought they had seen the fake incident with those who merely remembered it, we still found that among this broader group—50 percent of our sample—most, when prompted to guess which incident was fake, picked the wrong one. And when we looked at the whole sample, including people who initially hadn't remembered the fabricated event, 37 percent still guessed wrong. They couldn't tell the fake event from the real ones.

Four of the fake incidents were tainted by essential truths. Lieberman did rebuke President Clinton during the Lewinsky scandal. Cheney did rebuke Sen. John Kerry for mentioning Cheney's lesbian daughter, though not until well after the vice presidential debate. Bush was in Crawford during Hurricane Katrina. And Republicans did distribute a Jeremiah Wright ad. These truths may have confused some of our subjects. But what about the Obama-Ahmadinejad handshake? There's no question of a true incident being misremembered: The two men have never been physically close enough to be photographed together. (We searched for them in Google Images and gave up after scanning 500 results.) And this incident is supposed to have taken place barely a year ago. Yet 47 percent of subjects who were shown the Obama photo remembered the handshake, and 26 percent remembered seeing it.

When the 47 percent who remembered the handshake were asked to guess which incident was fake, most chose one of the true incidents instead. In fact, 35 percent of all subjects who saw the handshake photo guessed that the handshake was real and that one of the authentic episodes—the Schiavo legislation, the Powell presentation, or the Florida recount—was the fake one. Their recollections of the handshake were often quite clear. "I saw the news footage," said one. "The Chicago Trib had a big picture of this meeting," said another. "I don't remember the picture but I seem to recall he shook hands," said a third. "I remember most the political hay Republican bloggers made about the handshake," said a fourth.

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The comments, like the data, illustrate the power of doctored images. In a sample of a highly educated and informed subjects—Slate readers—half came to remember bogus political stories as true. Even when they were told that one of the four incidents they had seen was fake, and even when that incident was a complete fabrication, half of this deceived group—and 37 percent of the overall sample—couldn't guess which one. A modern-day Ministry of Truth could alter memories on a mass scale.

But that isn't the scary part. The scary part is that your memories have already been altered. Much of what you recall about your life never happened, or it happened in a very different way. Sometimes our false memories have done terrible things. They have sent innocent people to jail. They have ruined families with accusations of sexual abuse.

These are the tragedies that drive the work of Dr. Loftus, whose research inspired our experiment. To understand our minds and how they can be manipulated, she plants memories. Tomorrow, we'll begin to look at the techniques she has learned—and what to do with them.

Click here to view a slide show on how Slate edited history.



Next: Removable Truths

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