In police psychology, we need to have a pretty good understanding of memory in order to help cops deal with police stress.

Have you ever been accused of having selective memory? Has your spouse ever asked you to do something that slips your mind, and they accuse you of deliberately ignoring that task? Have you ever thought back on a relationship and remembered it differently than the reality? Buzzfeed recently made a video about this: one girl who was telling her friend how happy she had been when her ex-boyfriend had taken her on a hike and told her, “I love you” for the first time. The friend quickly reminded her that they had only made it to the entrance of the hike before the ex insisted they turn around, and he had actually said, “Love ya.”

It is very common for us to look back on events and remember them differently (“It was raining!” “No, it was sunny!”), or not remember things that happened to us at all! For some reason, the stories we tell tend to get better or worse each time we recount them. If you’ve ever fallen down and gotten a small scrape, chances are you told all your friends you got injured saving a dog from getting hit by a car. And then that you single-handedly lifted the car up in the air. And then you threw the car all the way down the street. Too much? Maybe. But that doesn’t change the fact that we all have the tendency to remember things inaccurately. Perhaps Paul Simon said it best in his song Kodachrome:

If you took all the girls I knew
When I was single
And brought them all together
For one night
I know they’d never match
My sweet imagination
Everything looks worse
In black and white.

Football Days of Youth

When I was younger, I used to have warts on my hands (I wish I didn’t remember that, I actually used to get them one at a time maybe once a year). One day while I was playing nose tackle in varsity football my sophomore year, my hand wart and all—got caught in the face mask of the center. The guy, (who by the way used to give me rides until I was legal to drive), bit off one of my warts with his teeth. I know, I know, it was disgusting. He was spitting and choking, but when he recovered we had two sides to a great story. In his, he almost bit off my hand he was so mean, in mine he ate my wart and they have not come back since. We told that story to every single person we knew, and to many people we didn’t. The story changed a little, but we both had gotten the maximum laugh from it. About 30 years later when I went back to my hometown and saw this guy again, he said to me, “Hey Gary, remember that time you bit a wart off of my hand?” He actually believed this version of the story—to him, that was exactly what happened. I mean, you definitely can’t blame the guy for trying to change the story in this direction, but what made him do this? Why do we change our memories to fit our needs? And, more interestingly, how do we manage to get away with doing something like this? Don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story, but how do we get to the point that we actually start to believe that the good story is the truth?

The Power of Reconsolidation and Repression

There are a number of different reasons we can force ourselves to forget or alter a memory, and we often aren’t even aware of doing this. One such way is through embellishment. When we retell a story, essentially we are recalling it from the place we stored it in our long-term memory. And yet each time we recall the story and recount it, we are only recalling a facsimile of the actual event, a mere picture of the episode. Thus each time we tell the story, it tends to be slightly different than the reality. Further, every time something happens to us, the “event” travels from our short-term memory into our long-term memory in a process called consolidation. If something interrupts this consolidation process, the event will never make it all the way to our long-term memory. Think of it like a train that gets derailed or sidetracked, and never ends up back at the station. Importantly, recent studies on memory have shown that every time you recall a memory (either in your own mind, or in order to recount it to someone else) and then put it back in your long-term memory, your memory reconsolidates. And when this reconsolidation process occurs, any emotion or feeling that you are experiencing in this moment tends to get stuck to the memory. Thus, the next time you recall this memory, not only are you remembering a facsimile of the original memory, but you are also remembering bits and pieces of the last time you brought up this memory, and the time before that. It’s like an internal game of telephone. So, even if we don’t embellish a story on purpose, and tell it often enough that we start confusing it with reality, our minds will automatically adjust the memory slightly every time we recall it. Of course, in police psychology, cops are known as the great embellishers to make stories funny or more poignant, except the incident that gets to them and that gets us to our next change.

Another reason memories tend to get changed or forgotten is due to repression. When something extremely embarrassing happens to us or rattles our cage a little, we may feel like it’s the end of the world, but in reality, the acute embarrassment or shock fades and is often forgotten. That is called repression. If we repress a memory often enough, our minds will actually throw it away, in a sense, permanently erasing it from our memory store. It does this either as a defense mechanism, or because there is so much going on in this world, that we need to get rid of some information if we want to engage in any higher cognition. Think of it as a spring-cleaning—your brain periodically throws away some things that are just don’t sit well or clutter your mind. You need to be extremely careful with this one though: sometimes repressing or removing memories is good for your mental health (in fact, we use this in police psychology to help cops deal with police stress), but if it gets to the point that you become avoidant, that can lead to some really detrimental long-term consequences.

Cognitive Dissonance

A third reason we remember things differently is due to a concept called cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance was a theory created by Leon Festinger based on observations of cult members who believed the earth was about to be destroyed. Many of them sold their homes and prepared for The End. Yet, when The End was not forthcoming, instead of admitting they were wrong all along, the devoted members said the disaster was averted because of the faithfulness of the cult members. Another study he conducted involved having participants do a number of mindless tasks, like stack papers and then unstuck them, and stack them again and again and again. They were either paid $1 or $20 to tell the participants in the waiting room how exciting and interesting the task was. Later asked to rate how interesting the task was, those who were paid $1 said they really enjoyed the task, while those who were paid $20 said it was pretty boring. Why? Cognitive Dissonance, of course!

Cognitive dissonance is when a feeling of discomfort forces you to change your attitude or how you feel. Those who were given $20 to lie about the task being interesting didn’t feel any dissonance or guilt about doing so because they were being substantially rewarded. Those who were given only $1 to lie about the task felt guilty for lying because that really isn’t such a strong incentive to tell a lie, and in order to assuage this feeling of guilt/dissonance, they changed the way they felt and remembered the task. So when you make a big fuss about going somewhere, and your partner has no interest in going but finally agrees to take you there, and it turns out to be a big flop, chances are you will remember it being better than it actually was so that you don’t feel so bad for dragging your partner all the way there. The mind is a beautiful thing!

Three Steps to an Using this Material

1. Reconsolidation. So why do you forget that your spouse told you to do something on her honey-do list? It could be that you kept repeating it over and over in your mind and the internal game of telephone morphed it into something like “don’t forget to watch the football game today honey!” She probably won’t buy that, but give it a shot.

2. Repression. It could be because the memory was connected to some seriously traumatic event and you just repressed it. I mean perhaps cleaning the bathroom has a trigger connection to an errant memory of gang graffiti that almost got you killed when you were a young cop. SO you just threw the memory away. That’s probably not going to work either, but it would be scientifically correct.

3. Cognitive Dissonance. Or you could give yourself permission to realize you got a bunch of good stuff on your mind, and some bad stuff and it just wasn’t the top thing in your priority inbox. Then you fashion a response that you believe your spouse deserves a better job that you could do so you were looking to hire a team of migrant workers to outsource who barely have the porridge to feed their children much less built a school so they will do the bathroom job and make it a sparkling clean. The only problem was the struggling migrant workers won’t be in town until tomorrow. She definitely won’t believe that, but the laugh payoff may work for the cognitive dissonance and let you make it through another day. Sometimes that’s all we need in life.

Gary S. Aumiller, Ph.D.

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