Total Recall

On Oct. 4, 1992, a badly damaged Boeing 747 cargo plane crashed into a pair of apartment complexes in Amsterdam. Fifty-one people died in the huge fire that followed. Many who lived in the city at the time say they’ll never forget every detail seared into their minds by the disaster — the smoke over the city, the fire on TV news reports, the way the chair across the table looked when they first heard the news. After all, most people believe memories are straightforward and reliable records. (According to a 2011 survey by the psychologists Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris, 63 percent of Americans think their memories work just like a video camera, and nearly half believe that all memories are permanent.) Unsurprisingly, then, when residents were asked 10 months after the crash if they recalled watching the TV footage of the plane, wings perpendicular to the ground, as it smashed into the buildings, more than half said yes.

Trouble is, there was no television footage of the crash. The news vans had arrived only after the plane hit. Witnesses’ sense of certainty about their memories was strong, but the accuracy of those memories left much to be desired.

And what is true of “flashbulb memories” of intense events is also true of other treasured recollections. You may have a familiar first memory — hanging tinsel on a Christmas tree as relatives fawned over your 3-year-old self, or splashing around at the beach, or saying something kid-funny to your great-aunt. If you could compare it to an actual recording, it is highly likely that you would find big differences.

Consider a simple test run by psychiatrist Daniel Offer of Northwestern University’s medical school and his colleagues. In 1962, Offer launched a long-term study of adolescence, for which his team interviewed 14-year-old boys about their lives and attitudes. In 1991, Offer had a different team of researchers re-interview 67 of the 73 original subjects, who were by then middle-aged men, asking more than two dozen questions about what they had said and felt “when you were in high school.” How closely did their answers match what they had said and reported feeling in the past? No better than chance.

In fact, personal memories can be complete fabrications. Remember that iconic photo, by Alfred Eisenstaedt, of a sailor kissing a nurse in Times Square on the day in 1945 that Japan surrendered to the Allies? In subsequent decades, 11 men and three women came forward to say they were the people in the photo. None was lying; all were certain in their memories of that day. But only two could have been right. Far from being unusual, this belief in false memories is easy to instill. Psychology researchers have been doing it to unsuspecting undergraduates for years.

For example, a few years ago, Maryanne Garry and Kimberley A. Wade of Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand were able to convince 10 out of 20 young adults that they had gone for a hot-air balloon ride as children — by showing them doctored photos of their childhood selves on such a trip. A later experiment compared doctored photos with made-up narratives about the fictional balloon ride. The stories convinced an even higher percentage of volunteers that they had experienced a balloon flight years before.

Of course, natural disasters and childhood excitement evoke strong emotions. How about the memory of the mundane details of a routine workday? We all like to think we can accurately recall who met with whom, who said what, what’s in the latest report. But we shouldn’t be so sure.

In 2010, the online magazine Slate conducted an experiment with its readers. Each of the 5,279 who participated was shown photos and told that the pictures represented four major news events (for example, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell’s presentation to the U.N. Security Council before the second Iraq War or President Obama shaking hands with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad). The reader then had to state what he or she recalled about each incident. Then the reader learned that one of the four was fake (for example, Obama and Ahmadinejad have never shaken hands; the image was fabricated).

Did Slate readers spot the fakes? Not all that well. Plenty (26 percent of those who saw the fake Obama-Ahmadinejad meeting, for example) “remembered” the false events. When asked to pick the false event out of the four images they had seen, more than half of the participants chose wrongly. They identified a photo of a real incident as the phony.

Findings like this don’t mean our brains are poor at noticing what’s happening in the world or forming lasting impressions about such events. Brains perform both jobs well. After all, being able to recall lessons learned from past experience can increase an animal’s chances of survival. That is one reason formidable brains have evolved in creatures as different as octopuses, parrots and apes. Evolution demanded an ability to recognize past experience and apply the information to future behavior, in a world with predators and rivals but no video recorders or Facebook pages.

Memories help us deal with an environment of dangers, opportunities and strong emotions — an environment where getting the gist (friendship) is important and getting details (what time exactly did they shake hands?) is not. So memory — both the personal kind that individuals carry and the collective kind that makes up the shared past of workers in an organization — is a mighty mental tool. It’s just not the tool most people think it is.

Why, then, do most of us have such misplaced confidence in our memories? Blame technology — not just because it supplies us with photos and recordings to correct our memories, but because it also supplies the metaphors we use to understand it.

Today, it seems obvious to speak of “flashbulb” memories and experiences that were “like a movie,” as if photography and video recording must be the way that brains work. But historians of science have long noticed that “thought leaders” in every era have compared the mind to the latest technological innovations of their time. And early in the 20th century, the latest and greatest tools of a modernizing, organization-centered society included the camera and the filing cabinet, notes Alison Winter, a historian of science at the University of Chicago. And so, unlike ancient scribes who thought memory was like a wax tablet, storing impressions and then replacing them with new ones, people in the 20th century assured themselves that each memory was a discrete and permanent record. That record, they believed, would be stored in the mind until it had to be retrieved. Though the computer revolution replaced Kodak prints and paper files with digital records, the metaphor didn’t change: Modern technology “remembers” by creating discrete, changeless and permanent records — and that makes it easy to assume, mistakenly, that human brains work the same way.

As Winter points out in her recent book, “Memory: Fragments of a Modern History,” this notion of memories as unchanging records had many practical consequences. It spurred, for example, the 1950s quest for “truth serum” (a drug that would strip away confusion and deception and lay bare the contents of the mental file cabinet), and a vogue for hypnosis as a tool to recover those supposedly 100 percent accurate memories that had been buried or misplaced. This metaphor also girded the legal system’s confidence in witnesses’ ability to recall “the whole truth and nothing but the truth” whenever they had to. It led to dependence, especially, on eyewitness testimony. What could be more reliable than a witness’s memory of things she had seen with her own eyes? (In fact, eyewitness testimony is unreliable, because of the memory effects already mentioned.)

A metaphor reveals some aspects of the truth, but hides others. The concept of memory working like a computer disk helped scientists think systematically about different kinds of memory. Though inaccurate, the metaphor contributed to a better understanding.

In reality, human memory does not work like a pack of Fortran punch cards or sectors of a hard disk. For one thing, the computer model leads us to think of memories in binary terms — is your recollection of your fourth birthday party “true” or “false”? Then, too, if you think your memories are perfect, permanent records of real experience, then any memory trouble must be a retrieval or storage problem. The memories must be in there somewhere, so call the hypnotist or break out the sodium pentothal.

Neither assumption — that memories are discrete, permanent and unchanging, or that recollections are either true or false — jibes with what researchers have learned. Here’s why.

As I type these words, a digital representation of them will be stored on the hard drive of my computer, as a magnetic pattern on a spinning platter that (I hope) will stay unaltered through time, no matter what is going on elsewhere around and in my computer, and which will always be in that location until it’s erased or the disk fails. But my memory of working out this paragraph is dispersed among different brain regions, involving cells that, when they aren’t engaged in this memory, are performing other jobs. Each time I recall writing this paragraph, a pattern of activation occurs in various brain regions. Each time, the pattern will involve different cells, and thus be affected by their different histories — their participation in other patterns, as the brain uses them to make and recall other memories and perform other tasks.

If memory is like a map, then, as the playwright and actor Simon McBurney has written, it’s a map where we discover each time we read it that thousands of roads have been added and all the contours have shifted. “The job of remembering,” he wrote, “is to reassemble, to literally re-member, put the relevant members back together.”

This is why remembering isn’t finding the right file and pulling it up. Rather, it’s more like singing a song you think you know. What you remember is recreated each time, with materials that vary in availability and quality every time you do the task. This means that the boundary between memory and imagination is easily crossed. It is often said that we cannot escape the past; but because our memories are created anew right here, right now, it’s also true that the past cannot escape us. We create it in the present.

One consequence of this is that when we are engaged in the present tense, here-and-now activity of recalling the past, we’re susceptible to what others are saying and doing around us. Stress, social pressures and even an excess of positive feedback can affect how well memory works. Such factors also have an effect on memory content. Studies have found, for example, that listening to a speaker give a selective account of an event can induce listeners to remember it in the same way, leaving out the same details that the speaker “forgot.” It has also been shown that a working group’s memory of details can be altered by whoever talks the most during a meeting. Interaction with other people is one of the main reasons memories can change from day to day.

This means that the notion of collective or communal memory — the memory of an organization or community — is not just a metaphor. Shared patterns of thinking and behavior prod members of a group to harmonize their memories.

The great British psychologist Frederic Bartlett demonstrated this effect in experiments with Cambridge undergraduates in the 1920s. He would ask students to read a folktale from a Native American tribe in faraway Oregon, then wait a few hours or a few days, and then retell it.

Of course, students trying to recreate the tale left out many details. But Bartlett was more interested in what they included — because often those details had not been in the original story. Sometimes the students would transform Native American objects or activities into their ancient British analogs, recalling “acorns” and “rowing” where the tale had spoken of peanuts and paddling. Sometimes they would add details from their general impressions of American Indians, recalling “that Indian has been hit” as “that Indian has been hit by an arrow.”

In making memories about this unfamiliar story, the students were depending on their own shared culture — their own ways of living and their shared stock of knowledge about American Indians. Each one thought he was simply recalling what he had read, when in fact he was creating a blend of new information and what he had learned through his upbringing.

In his first address as president of the United States in 1861, Abraham Lincoln spoke of “the mystic chords of memory” that bind Americans together, which he suggested might prevent a civil war.

Lincoln’s musical metaphor is apt. People who live and work together tend to harmonize their memories about the past they share.

That means that their leaders can have a huge impact — by actively engaging with communal memories as they are created, in order to shape them.

But as Lincoln spoke about mystic chords in 1861, rebels in the southern United States showed little interest in singing in the “chorus of the Union” that he described. In fact, Southerners had been seizing forts and weapons from the federal government. But the tense, uncertain days before the American Civil War broke out are remembered as a period in which the possibility of peace remained. In describing his version of the American past, Lincoln helped bolster that narrative in the minds of his constituents.

Memory for an organization, community or nation, then, has this in common with memory for an individual: Rather than a metal cabinet full of unchanging office records, it is an activity that takes place in the present. It can, and will, be influenced by present circumstances. And that is an opportunity for leaders, because an organization’s shared recollections of the past will define its possibilities for the present. They who shape the past also shape the future.

Does an actively tended collective memory have any practical consequences for an organization? Research suggests that the answer is yes. Steven P. Feldman of the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland argues that companies often overlook collective memory when trying to foster a positive and ethical organizational culture.

Such a culture has many benefits. In one study, Feldman looked at 22 companies that had maintained high moral standards over decades and found that they had more effective responses to crises, higher customer loyalty and extraordinarily low employee turnover, all of which meant lower costs. But many companies fail to maintain a culture of high standards over time. The reason? They’re trapped in the storage-and-retrieval model of memory, so they treat organizational memory as an archive of dead facts about the past. Instead, they should treat it as an ongoing creative activity that takes place in the present.

“Tradition is a chain of memory,” Feldman writes, “the mechanism of social and cultural reproduction that enables organizations to endure by maintaining the same identity over time.” Like recollections of an individual past, collective memories are not files to be retrieved in the same way every time they are needed. Instead, organizational memories, like the personal kind, must be created fresh, with today’s concerns and today’s emotions.

That sounds a bit like the latest descriptions of memory’s workings in an individual life. Indeed, it can seem that companies with effective traditions have anticipated today’s science of memory. They do not simply quote their founder once a year in a report or distribute ethics guidelines at an orientation meeting now and then. Rather, they nurture their organization’s memory, and their leaders actively shape it.

Consider, for example, the famous “credo” of Johnson & Johnson, which spells out the company’s responsibilities to its customers, employees, communities and shareholders. The credo, written 69 years ago by one of the sons of company founder Robert Wood Johnson, has been referenced by management in decisions big and small for decades. It has been effective not just because it is literally written in stone at company headquarters and framed on the walls, but because executives often refer to it to explain their actions and thinking. It serves as a guide even today because the company strives to make it a part of today’s decision making.

In fact, in April 2012, in his first shareholders meeting, J&J’s new CEO, Alex Gorsky, spent more than half an hour discussing the credo, relating each of its tenets to an anecdote that, he said, illustrated the principles. “The credo is so relevant and so essential to who we are,” Gorsky said, according to a report in the Newark Star-Ledger. “It’s part of why the company is so successful.”

It was, wrote reporter Susan Todd, “as if the company was reaching into a pocket to remind itself of the details of a favorite old map — or to prove to investors that it had not lost its way.”

David Berreby ( writes the Mind Matters blog for and has written about the science of behavior for a number of leading publications.


  • David Berreby

    Contributor, Korn Ferry Institute