By Dr. Ken Broda-Bahm:
When you're a campaign front-runner, you can expect a little extra attention, and Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson is now finding that out. The controversy is based on claims that he received and turned down a scholarship offer from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Following some journalistic digging and subsequent clarification by the Carson campaign, it appears that Carson didn't apply or receive any kind of formal offer from the academy. In his defense, the candidate has emphasized that he is remembering events from fifty years ago, and the lines could easily have blurred as Carson remembered the advice he received from a friendly general as an offer of admission and scholarship. A similar reconstruction error could be found in the recent downfall of NBC anchor Brian Williams who frequently told the story of being in a helicopter that was shot down over Iraq in 2003, but who actually rode in a helicopter that was forced to land when it's companion helicopter had sustained fire. It is possible, some suggested, that through subsequent tellings, the details just tended to blur in Williams' mind.
Of course, many don't buy that it is a reconstruction error when it comes to either Williams or Carson. But the two stories do remind us of a generic weakness in human memory that matters in a legal context. The law generally assumes that memory provides clear access to an event as long as the witness is a competent and reliable narrator and is under oath. But that fails to appreciate the profound extent to which memory is reconstructed. As a result, it fails to account for the possibility that the honest and unbiased witness can be dead wrong. Instead of acting as a simple storage and retrieval system, memory is a complex process involving active transformation at every stage. In this post, I'll share some of what we know about the reconstructive process of memory as well as a few implications for dealing with memory in testimony.