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A Teachable Moment, Indeed

June 19th, 2015

Shortly after news anchor Brian Williams was exposed for exaggerating a war story on January 30th, Professor Elizabeth Loftus rushed to his defense. It was “a teachable moment,” she declared, criticizing everyone who concluded that Williams had exaggerated the story for glory. (See the video linked to this NYT story for an illustration of how Williams puffed up the story over time.) Williams simply had a “false memory.” That was the lesson that Loftus thought we should learn. Pamela Freyd, the Executive Director of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation, followed suit, labeling Williams’ exaggeration as a “memory mistake.”

Those conclusions were contradicted by the investigation that NBC conducted. It was reported that NBC found at least ten other instances in which Williams made exaggerated statements about his involvement in stories. Today, Mr. Williams apologized for his behavior. He said it was “clearly ego driven” and came from “the desire to better my role in a story I was already in.” It was a mistake in judgment, not memory.

A teachable moment, indeed.  The lesson is clear: those who promote the false-memory defense are both too quick to acquit people of wrongdoing and too willing to ignore facts that contradict their template. The larger lesson is even more important: that is, the false-memory template cannot distinguish between false valor and false memory. Neither can those who employ it.

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