Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Do you trust your memory? Perhaps you shouldn't

I was chatting with some friends over a lovely Sunday BBQ lunch a couple of weekends back. It was a gorgeous Sydney day – warm, not too hot or humid, the bluest sky you ever saw and only a gentle breeze rustling of the leaves on the gum trees around us.

One of my friends started to tell us all about seeing a couple having an argument in a restaurant. As the story unfolded, his wife who had been in the restaurant with him, started to ‘correct’ him, saying things like: ‘no, she was the one who thumped the table, not him’ and ‘no, you’ve got it wrong, he stormed out first, not her’.

Sadly our friends then started to argue between themselves about who had the correct recollection. Initially they each adamantly believed that they had the right version. Eventually the husband changed his mind and agreed that his wife’s version was correct and that his initial thoughts were wrong.

Now some of you are thinking – of course he’d give in to his wife!

This might be a serious problem

But is this a familiar scenario? i.e. people witness the same event or discussion but their recall and memories of it differ.

Perhaps you’ve even doubted your own memory of what you saw or heard. Yet after talking to other witnesses, you may have changed your mind about what you saw or heard and genuinely agree with and adopt the other version as your own.

That what happened in 1995 during the investigation of the Oklahoma Bombing. You may recall that one witness Tom Kessinger initially said that Timothy McVeigh had an accomplice. Other ‘witnesses’ who had talked with Kessinger and others agreed and this sparked a huge hunt and expenditure in time and resources for the non-existent John Doe No.2.

Kessinger later testified that he was mistaken. There was no accomplice.

Dr Helen Paterson from the University of Sydney is exploring the ramifications of memory recall in the context of contaminated witness testimony in court cases.

You can listen to her talk about her research here. It goes to the heart of witness reliability and may have very serious implications for veracity of evidence from witnesses in trials especially criminal matters where innocence or guilt is determined.

Memories are not fixed

Memories are retrieved usually with the help of some cues – that’s where the problems of The Almond Effect® come in!
And the old thinking was that memories were stable and permanent. All that happened was that they faded with time.

But research has shown that memories are much more malleable and impressionable than that.
So the challenge is that we may not even be recalling accurate memories. Our memories may have become contaminated. For example by taking on other people’s versions of events?

Why can this happen? Well we now know that memories are simply reconstructions. And as such they can be adjusted, changed, tampered with.

False Memories

At one end of the spectrum there is the psychological condition known as False Memory Syndrome. This is where someone has a memory which is a distortion of an actual experience, or a confabulation of an imagined one. Many false memories involve confusing or mixing fragments of memory events, some of which may have happened at different times but which are remembered as occurring together.

However in our day to day lives, we experience this shifting in our memories as simply not quite an accurate reconstruction. For example, we can forget things, include things, ‘remember’ the event as being bigger, smaller, more dramatic, less dramatic, and declare that the fish was over a metre long!

And neuroscientists also tell us that our recall can grow or diminish under the influence of other people’s remembrances.

So what?

We have talked before about the role of ‘history’ in leading change. If you are implementing any kind of change in your organisation, then the way that employees ‘remember’ how change was implemented in the past, its implications and ramifications usually has a major impact on the mindset and willingness of your employees to adopt your proposed changes now.

So you need to pay attention to what has happened during previous organisational change.

And you need to ensure that the recall of the events is accurate.

As Paterson said: "When people remember an event together their memories become more similar to each others' than if they had not had this discussion.
"Through this process, known as memory conformity, a group of people can come to share a single, inaccurate memory for the event."

Evidence based change history

The best way to ensure accurate history is to look to the evidence, notes and records made contemporaneously. However many organisations simply do not keep records of the feelings and reactions of people during the change process. Plenty of project and technical data is recorded for posterity but rarely the qualitative journey.

Test the organisational and individual recollections

So if your organisation doesn’t have such records, you will be relying on people’s recall. This means you’ll need to carefully test and explore any negative memories to get to the reality.

However as you do so, remember that the negative feelings could be the result of The Almond Effect®. And even if the facts are wrong, the emotions evoked by a perceived accurate recollection of an event will be very real indeed.

At the very least ensure that records are kept of both the qualitative and quantitative aspects of the people change management journey so that future change initiatives in your organisation have an accurate history to work from.