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Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Remembrance of Things Not Past

Last week, while discussing a research project on the venture capital (VC) industry that I'm working on with a friend, the conversation became quite animated because I believed the regional variable included in the dataset was tied to VC firms and he believed it was tied to the companies that received VC investments. Since I've worked with the dataset more than he has, I was certain he was wrong. I was mistaken, however.  I was the one who was wrong.

Thankfully, I'm not the only one whose memory doesn't work perfectly. As it turns out, false memories are quite common. In fact, it just happened to Hillary Clinton. Reminiscing about her time as Secretary of State, she recalled that one time her entourage landed "under sniper fire. There was supposed to be some kind of a greeting ceremony at the airport, but instead we just ran with our heads down to get into the vehicles to get to our base." The problem is, it never happened. Hillary remembered wrong. Reflecting on this, UC-Irvine Professor Elizabeth Loftus remarked,
What I love about this example is that it shows you that all that education, all that experience, all those IQ points -- that Yale Law School degree, it doesn’t protect you from having a false memory.
Indeed, all of us are prone to false memories. Loftus and her colleagues just completed a study involving 5,000 participants (which is quite large) that looked into how well people remember political events. As it turns out, we don't remember them too well, and this tendency cuts across educational and ideological lines. Moreover, our ideological beliefs affect what we remember. That's to say, both Democrats and Republicans are just as likely to have false memories; it's just that they're memories are more likely to confirm their ideological convictions than not. And just in case a few of you are thinking you're an exception to the rule, that you're immune to false memories: You're wrong.

False memories are the subject of the latest Freakonomics podcast ("Sure, I Remember That"), which can be downloaded from iTunes or found at the Freakonomics website (click on the above link). The audio transcript is also available at the website.

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