About 4 years ago, I was out with friends camping. We had some tools that were available to us all, and were instructed to handle them with care. About 3 days into being there, the guy responsible for signing out the tools approached me and accused me of mishandling them, saying it had to be me because he’d seen me going over to where they were stored earlier, and that no one else had been there since.
In fact, I hadn’t been there and hadn’t used the tools that day at all. But he was unshakable in his certainty. It wasn’t until the person who had actually been there volunteered to say so that I was off the hook.
It was a dramatic moment – being accused of something I’d never do, from someone who was so certain he was right.
In my family, my mother was notorious for having different memories of the same event at different times. So, I grew up knowing that people can be certain of something that ends up being false.
How can this happen? According to Julia Shaw, a criminal psychologist and specialist in false memories, the key is suggestibility: a false memory is most likely to develop in situations where a person is exposed to suggestive information.
As an example, read this list: sit, write, eat, legs, seat, desk, arm, sofa, wood, cushion, rest, stool. Now count to 30.
Did you spot the word “table”? If so, you experienced a false memory, because even though the words in the list were associated with “table”, the word “table” wasn’t one of them.
In Apr 2019 Psychology Today – How Memory Became Weaponized – the author argues that our brain is wired to believe what it hears. I’ll add to that our wonderful ability to conceptualize – bringing a number of different things together by recognizing their similarities. This ability of ours is essential for thinking and learning – and it has at least this drawback.
Most of the time, it’s not critical and doesn’t get in our way. But sometimes it does, and sometimes people will deliberately feed us misinformation to steer us in one direction or another.
So, what can you do to arm yourself against such manipulation and mis-direction? Three things.
- First, learn to always check the “facts” when determining the truth of something that’s important. Look for supporting evidence, for repeated instances in similar situations. Develop a healthy sense of disbelief.
- Second, examine your own motives for wanting to believe something – or not. If your motives are strong enough, it could blind you to what is really true.
- Finally, check in with your own inner knowing to see how the information sits with you. Our inner knowing doesn’t have a true/false indicator, but it does have an automatic “feel” that – once we learn to recognize and trust it – provides us with a sum of all our experiences to date, measuring it against what is in front of us at the moment.
It takes a while – sometimes a long while – to learn to trust this inner knowing, but it’ the only way I know of that will lead us a good sense of what’s true.
Elizabeth Loftus – the fiction of memory
Quote of the Week
“Nostalgia has a way of blocking the reality of the past.”
― Shannon L. Alder
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