YANSS 043 – The Science of Misremembering with Julia Shaw and Daniel Simons

Did Brian Williams lie, exaggerate, or misremember?

If he originally reported the truth behind the events in Iraq more than a decade ago, and those events were filmed and broadcast on the nightly news, then why didn’t he fact-check himself before going on national television and recounting a false version of those same events? Surely, as a journalist, he knew the original video was out there for anyone to watch.


This episode is brought to you by The Great Courses. Order Behavioral Economics or another course in this special offer and get 80% off the original price.

This episode is also brought to you by Shari’s Berries. Order some delicious dipped strawberries for Valentine’s Day and get 40% off or a double order for $10 more using the special code “delusion” by clicking the microphone at this link

If you’d like to support the show directly, now you can become a patron! Head over to the YANSS Patreon Page for more details.

DanielSimonsIn the first segment of this episode of the YANSS Podcast, psychologist Daniel Simons explains that although we will never know for sure if Brian Williams intentionally mislead people in the many retellings of his adventures in the desert, the last 40 years of memory research strongly suggests the kind of misremembering he claims to have suffered is easy to reproduce in our own lives. In fact, chances are, giant swaths of your own personal history are partially fictional if not completely false. The problem isn’t that our memory is bad, but that we believe it isn’t.

JuliaShawOur in-depth interview in this episode is with psychologist Julia Shaw whose latest research demonstrates the fact that there is no reason to believe that a memory is more accurate just because it is vivid or detailed. Actually, that’s a potentially dangerous belief. Shaw used techniques similar to police interrogations, and over the course of three conversations she and her team were able to convince a group of college students that those students had committed a felony crime. You’ll hear her explain how easy it is to implant the kind of false memories that cause people just like you to believe they deserve to go to jail for crimes that never happened and what she suggests police departments should do to avoid such distortions of the truth.

After the interview, I discuss a news story about implanting false memories into the brains of mice using viruses and beams of light.

In every episode, before I read a bit of self delusion news, I taste a cookie baked from a recipe sent in by a listener/reader. That listener/reader wins a signed copy of my new book, “You Are Now Less Dumb,” and I post the recipe on the YANSS Pinterest page. This episode’s winner is Michelle Brigham who submitted a recipe for lemon zucchini cornmeal cookies. Send your own recipes to david {at} youarenotsosmart.com.

Links and Sources


Previous Episodes

Boing Boing Podcasts

Cookie Recipes

Julia Shaw

Daniel Simons

Constructing Rich False Memories of Committing A Crime

How Not to Be the Next Brian Williams

Brian Williams Admits He Wasn’t on Copter Shot Down in Iraq

With an Apology, Brian Williams Digs Himself Deeper in Copter Tale

Why Our Memory Fails Us

Do politicians lie, or just misremember it wrong?

Fake Memory Implanted in Mice with a Beam of Light

Original Photo Credit: David Shankbone – CC 3.0