The latest flap in the U.S. presidential campaign is Hillary Clinton’s vivid recounting of arriving in Bosnia in 1996: “I remember landing under sniper fire. There was supposed to be some kind of a greeting ceremony at the airport, but instead we just ran with our heads down to get into the vehicles to get to our base.” That kind of arrival would indeed make an indelible impression, one would expect. In this case, though, the campaign admits that the incident described didn’t really occur. This morning, I caught news footage at the gym that showed Clinton being greeted by a little girl, listening to a poem being read, and participating in the rest of the greeting ceremony.
Naturally, some pundits are using this as evidence that politicians in general and Hillary Clinton in particular are unable to tell the truth. While I’ve never been impressed by Clinton’s candor, this particular incident to me represents just one more example of the vagaries of human memory. Experiments have repeatedly shown how easy it is to implant false memories that are utterly believable to the person recalling them. Clinton would be incredibly dumb to deliberately fabricate a story which could so quickly be disproved not only by dozens of witnesses but by videotape. More than likely, her memory of the event was altered by some bits of external information. An offhand remark by an aide like, “remember how the plane used a different approach because they were afraid of snipers?” might have morphed into a more elaborate scenario. Or, a different event Clinton heard about might have become fused with the memory of the real arrival. Perhaps there were some gaps in the retrieval process and “The Interpreter” filled in the blanks.
We’ll never know exactly what happened in Hillary Clinton’s brain, but her gaffe shows the problem we face when doing market research and asking customers about their past behavior. When a customer describes a past experience, how accurate is he? Clearly, some things are imprinted in a way that yields minimal errors in recall. You no doubt accurately remember the last car you owned, and even the first one you bought. The more the researcher tries to probe emotional associations, descriptions of one-time experiences, and so on, the squishier the ground. Even neuromarketing tools like brain scans may not be particularly helpful in separating a false memory from a real one if the individual really believes it.
Perhaps the fallibility of human memory also explains why both Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and former chief of staff Christine Beatty seem to have entirely forgotten their affair and the 14,000 text messages they exchanged. Then again, maybe not.