For years, NBC News anchor Brian Williams has been telling the dramatic story of the time he was in a helicopter that was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade in Iraq in 2003. The teensy problem with this: It wasn’t true.
After being called out via social media this week, Williams recanted his story — he was, he now says, in the helicopter behind the one that was hit. In a statement on Facebook, Williams blamed the false story on “the fog of memory” that had crept in over the years, and he expanded on that in an interview with the U.S. military news site Stars and Stripes. “I don’t know what screwed up in my mind that caused me to conflate one aircraft with another,” he said. Now some people, outraged at the apparent lie, are calling for NBC to fire Williams.
It is certainly possible that Williams made the whole thing up, as some who say they were there say there are holes in the story he’s telling now, too. (Some are claiming Williams didn’t even arrive at the scene until an hour after the fact.) But it’s also entirely plausible — however unlikely — that Williams is telling the truth, said all of the memory researchers I contacted today, including Elizabeth Loftus, a leading expert on the implantation of false memories. The human memory is a weird, mysterious thing.
“A lot of people want to say he was deliberately lying, but I think we should give him a break,” Loftus said. We tend to believe that memory works like a video camera, dutifully recording every detail we’ve personally witnessed. But Loftus has compared the human memory to something more akin to a Wikipedia page, in that you’re able to make edits — and so can other people, to your own memories. And she should know: She’s spent her career deliberately planting false memories into the minds of the people who’ve volunteered to take part in her studies. “We’ve been planting what we call rich false memory for decades now,” Loftus said. “We and others can get people to believe these very detailed events happened to them — that you were lost in a shopping mall and frightened and crying, that you nearly drowned and had to be rescued by a lifeguard, that you were attacked by an animal.”
In one experiment, she recruited 24 individuals, ranging in age from 18 to 53; she also contacted family members of those individuals and asked them to tell her a few stories from their past. When she brought her 24 study participants into her lab, she handed them a booklet containing three stories: two that had really happened to them (as corroborated by their family member) and one that had not. Their task was to write what they remembered about each event; if they did not remember it, they were simply to write, “I don’t remember this.”
The made-up memory was a detailed story about getting lost in a shopping mall as a child, crying, getting comforted by an elderly woman at the mall, and, finally, a happy reunion with family. Seven of the 24 participants said they remembered this happening, and many also added more details to the story. In two follow-up interviews, six of them continued to assert that this had really happened to them.
Most of the work Loftus described to me focused on implanting false childhood memories, something we’ve written about before, and it’s not so surprising to think that our real memories from our earliest years may be hazy enough to allow a few fake ones to take root. But she says she’s also successfully tricked study volunteers into believing in a fake memory supposedly from their adolescence. “We tell them, You got sick drinking vodka, and then they don’t want to drink vodka anymore,” she said. And even memories from adulthood can be reconstructed, said Doug Bermingham, who studies memory at the University of Utah. He’s worked with veterans who’ve misremembered some incredibly dramatic events. “Some, after years of telling themselves that what happened was their fault (e.g., buddy dying because they turned left instead of right and then drove over a mine), [they] actually believe this, and their memory has changed as a product of this,” Bermingham said in an email.
Back to Williams, who said yesterday that “the constant viewing of the video showing us inspecting the impact area … made me conflate the two.” Bermingham said that this statement made him wonder if “after repeated inspections and discussions about the event, he began to conflate his location in all of it.” Or, here’s another possible scenario: Perhaps he embellished the story once, and then kept embellishing it; then, as the years went by, he genuinely started to believe the story he was telling. Because, Bermingham said, the way you remember an event once has implications on the way you continue to remember it in the future. “This is called the fuzzy-trace theory of memory,” Bermingham said. “So if Williams was asked about his time in the helicopter, and there were indeed bullets flying — and I can only imagine he’s been asked to tell the story hundreds of times — he may have focused more on the bullets flying, to the point that that became more central to his memory.”
According to a timeline from CNN, Williams’s story starts to get dicey in 2007, when he says that all of the helicopters, including the one he was in, came under fire. “If that was a genuine mistake rather than a purposeful lie, then that may have been the beginning of the change in his memory,” Bermingham said. “From a cognitive psychology standpoint, we call this ‘assimilation’ — memories are changed to fit certain beliefs. … Maybe Williams has consciously or unconsciously changed his memory to fit the belief that the event was actually worse than it was.”
Another memory researcher, Charan Ranganath at the University of California, Davis, called Williams’s story “hard, but not at all impossible to believe. Memory is totally weird like that.”