Constrained by collective memory

A follow up now to our program last week on lies and deception (Is Honesty Still Important?) , the take-home message of which was that the line between what we know as honesty and what we recognise as deceit is far more fluid than we might like to think, and also that it's linked to social acceptance.

Well, this is an area of research that fascinates Henry Roediger, a professor of psychology at Washington University in the United States. He cautions about our trust in collective memory, and he warns that even what we all agree to be true, can in fact be false, and that has significant implications for the way we plan for the future.

Winston Churchill [archival]: Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be freed.

Henry Roediger: In 1940 the Germans began a heavy air bombardment of London and surrounding cities of England. This is known as the Blitz. And the way it's typically remembered in England now is that the Londoners were very plucky, they went about their business, they were not ruffled. Yes, it was bad, but they bore their stiff upper lip and soldiered on.

Winston Churchill [archival]: So I have myself full confidence that if all do their duty, if nothing is neglected, and if the best arrangements are made, and they are being made, we shall prove ourselves once more able to defend our island home, to ride out the storm of war and to outlive the menace of tyranny, if necessary for years.

Henry Roediger: However, from diaries and newspaper accounts at the time, we can see that this wasn't the case at all. Historian Angus Calder has gone back and written a book called The Myth of the Blitz in which he describes that there was utter panic in the streets, a quarter of people in London left the city, people were in a constant state of shock and mourning, they reported having terrible trouble sleeping because they never knew when another bombing was coming.

And so the actual occurrences on the ground were terrible and horrific and people reacted as they probably should have, but the memory of the way they acted is quite different from their actual behaviour, and probably it's a very soothing memory, to remember that we stood up to Hitler, but actually the time of the Blitz was pretty horrific in London. So it's an example of how we can have a memory for an event which is at odds with the way the event actually unrolled.

Antony Funnell: Now, in that example that you've given, why would people misremember what actually went on? Is it just because the conditions were so bad, were so appalling at the time?

Henry Roediger: Often our memories tend to put a rosy tint on events. For example, even women in childbirth, it's terribly painful, but even a day afterwards they say it was certainly worth it, I would do that again, the pain wasn't so bad. So we have individual memories that are often somewhat better than the actual events that occurred, and we can have collective memories of that too. World War II was really terrible, but if you read about the United States there is this uplifting account that it was the great war and they were the greatest generation, the people who fought in that war. So we tend to put…especially on events that had an eventual good ending, we tend to remember them as better than they were I believe.

Antony Funnell: Time is a factor here as well, isn't it. I know that there have been studies done looking at perceptions of American presidents and how favourably people view them, and time certainly becomes a factor in those, doesn't it.

Henry Roediger: Yes, it certainly does. Most presidents by the time they end office, certainly our last few presidents, their ratings are much worse when they go out of office than when they come into office, and then gradually over time it seems they have a rebound. So even Richard Nixon who resigned from the presidency in disgrace, he has enjoyed something of a rebound. People remember he opened relations with China, he created the Environmental Protection Agency. So he did a number of things that are now viewed as quite positive, even though at the time he resigned from office he was pretty much held in disdain and disgrace.

Antony Funnell: What are the future implications for this selective use of memory? Because we often hear the adage that to deal with the future we have to be aware of the past, of history. But if our memory of history is wrong at an individual or collective level, then that's quite significant for the sort of planning we do in the future, isn't it.

Henry Roediger: It is. One of the things though is history is so varied that you can pluck from it what you want. So, for example at the time that George Bush's administration was considering invading Iraq, if you read our newspapers, the people who favoured invading Iraq pointed to Saddam Hussein as being a new version of Hitler and we should go in early and stop him before he invaded neighbouring countries, as he already had done in Kuwait. So they used World War II as an example of why we should act.

On the other hand, the people who opposed going into Iraq, and there were many of them, pointed to saying a better analogy was remembrance of the war in Vietnam where we would be entering a country where we had no significant vested interest and we might be engaged in a protracted war, losing many American lives, spending much money, killing many civilians on the other side, in a part of the world where we really had no business. And so you could see both sides of the debate dredging up an event or a war in the past to support their point of view.

Antony Funnell: And so if you use memory as the basis for decision making, whether in the present or in the future, you have to be aware of these kinds of problems, don't you, that could occur, either at that individual or that collective level.

Henry Roediger: Absolutely, and of course you could bring up the presidents. I've done studies of how well Americans remember the presidents, and even college students who all took American history, at least in high school, the presidents we had in the 1800s are very poorly remembered, except for Abraham Lincoln. In fact, speaking of false memories or false collective memories, there was another famous early American named Alexander Hamilton, and he was never president but he did a lot of other things early on, and 71% of the people falsely recognised Alexander Hamilton as a president, and they were highly confident. They were confident, think it was about 85% who…we had a 100-point confidence scale, 100 was I'm completely confident, zero was I'm not at all confident.

Antony Funnell: It's interesting, isn't it, because we tend to look at the future and we tend to accept the fact that the future is an unknown, so that therefore any kind of visioning of the future is going to be highly speculative. On the other hand, we look at the past and we say, well, at least we know what the past did. We might argue about some of the details, but most of our history is there and it's a solid commodity that we can look at on which to base decisions. But from what you're saying, that's not necessarily correct.

Henry Roediger: Well, it's not true either at the level of historians. Historians debate the past and make their careers on doing so, but certainly among just people at large…we are going through our big US presidential election now, and the way the past is used is very different among the different candidates from both parties.

Antony Funnell: And once again, that subjectivity that you're saying there about collective memory is going to be important if you are sitting at a conference table now and trying to make decisions about international relations, say, and either side is looking back to their version of the past.

Henry Roediger: Absolutely. I think we see differences in collective memory between Russia and the United States all the time. So, for example, when the Russians invaded and took back Crimea, which they argued was theirs, it wasn't really Ukrainian, many people there spoke Russian, and we saw that in the US as an act of provocation and invasion by Russia. The way the Russians perceived it from all their surveys and from their newspaper reports was that this was a defensive act, that NATO was surrounding them, NATO was arming on their borders, and they were simply taking back a part of Russia that had always been theirs, and so Khrushchev gave it away to the former Soviet Republic of Ukraine in the 1950s.

There's a huge difference in the way people perceived a relatively recent event in our history, and so in order for us to understand and negotiate with the other side we have to appreciate their worldview. We should hope they appreciate our worldview, but I think that's a first step I believe in gaining trust and international understanding is…at least if you might not agree with their perspective, but at least understand why they hold it.

Antony Funnell: Henry Roediger, professor of psychology at Washington University, thank you very much for your time.

Henry Roediger: Thank you.

Antony Funnell: And that's a wrap for this week's program.

Thanks to the production team Karin Zsivanovits and Steve Fieldhouse.

Remember there are transcripts of all our stories on our website. And you can also stream or podcast the audio from there.

I'm Antony Funnell, until the next edition of Future Tense, cheers!


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