While some are accusing Brian Williams of deliberately lying about his account of being on a helicopter under attack in Iraq, researchers have long said that memory is not as straightforward as we tend to think.
Williams is under pressure for telling changing versions of the helicopter ride, which he took during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and researchers who have been studying human memory have a number of potential explanations for that.
For decades, Elizabeth Loftus, a professor of psychology and social behavior at UC Irvine, has been conducting research that plants false memories of events in people’s minds. People are convinced of these made-up memories through the power of suggestion, Loftus said.
There are plenty of situations that could influence the creation of false memories, including conversations someone might have with another person, or a news story a person might read. Loftus said it was “certainly feasible” that Williams could have developed the false memory that put him onboard a U.S. military helicopter that was hit and forced down by enemy fire in 2003.
“Memory is susceptible to contamination and distortion and supplementation. It happens to virtually all of us,” Loftus said. “This could easily be the development of a false memory.”
Williams began taking heat for the “memory” when he mentioned during a recent broadcast that while working as a wartime journalist in 2003 he was in a helicopter that was forced down. He wasn’t the only one involved in the incident who recanted claims and blamed his memory; Richard Krell, a pilot who verified parts of Williams’ story to CNN on Thursday, recanted as well.
“The information I gave you was true based on my memories, but at this point I am questioning my memories,” Krell said, according to CNN. Krell had told CNN he was flying the helicopter that Williams was on in Iraq and that the three helicopters in the formation, which included the one Williams was on, came under “small-arms fire.”
But soldiers aboard the 159th Aviation Regiment’s Chinook helicopter that was hit told Stars and Stripes that Williams was nowhere near the aircraft or two other Chinooks flying in the formation.
The anchor delivered an apology Wednesday on “NBC Nightly News,” admitting he “made a mistake in recalling the events of 12 years ago.” However, he said he and his crew were on the chopper behind the one that was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade.
Williams told Stars and Stripes: “I don’t know what screwed up in my mind that caused me to conflate one aircraft with another.”
Daniel Schacter, a Harvard psychology professor, said people are subject to memory distortion for a variety of reasons. One common memory error is when people combine bits and pieces of things that happened into an event that never happened, but contains elements of what really did happen, Schacter said.
“There’s a large literature that shows that memory is prone to error and distortion,” said Schacter, who has been doing research in memory for over 30 years and has written books on memory and memory errors. “We sometimes have high confidence in things that didn’t occur exactly in the way that we remember them.”
Schacter said that when a person retrieves an event and inserts details that may not have been part of the original event, that retrieval can come to be the memory for the event instead.
“It’s possible something along those lines occurred here,” Schacter said. “There’s a lot of ways in which memory can become distorted, and it certainly is possible in this case.”