You Must Remember This ... But You Won't

Here for your consideration is the gist of a conversation between me and my friend Shelly, concerning a lovely Mexican restaurant she’d just had dinner at.

Shelly: You know the place. Remember? Ariel and I ran into you guys there one night.

Me: I remember, but I don’t think you were there. I think it was Ariel and a friend of his.

Shelly: Liar! (I’m exaggerating this part a little)

Me: I’m pretty sure you weren’t there.

Shelly: You know, now that I think about it, you are right. (Emphasis added).

After she came to her senses, we decided that the trick her memory had played on her was the result of hearing the story of the chance meeting (Arial and I had both mentioned it) and knowing the restaurant well. Toss in the passage of a few years, and her mind took it upon itself to create an image of her there too. Makes you wonder how many faux memories you have floating around in your head, doesn’t it?

While this example is benign (Shelly’s psyche most likely wasn’t attempting to ease past trauma) many other memory distortions can lead to serious consequences. Most of us have probably, at least once, remembered that psycho ex far more fondly than we should have. So-and-so wasn’t so bad, we tell ourselves, drunk and ready to dial.

And people regularly acknowledge that, when it comes to market cycles, we have “short memories,” though we don’t seem to do much past making the acknowledgement.

But lest my brilliant observations do not suffice to convince you we’re all delusional about the past, I recently became aware of a long-term research study that appears to prove just that, especially as we age and long periods of time pass. 

The Grant Study is the subject of a fascinating article in the June issue of the Atlantic Magazine, and I should point out that memory is only a small part of the life-sized story the study tells about the human condition. The article, by Joshua Wolf Shenk, delves deeply into the Grant Study, which has followed a group of men, all sophomores at Harvard in 1937, through their entire adult lives. 72 years.  

It has been led since 1967 by Dr. George Vaillant, who, after more than 40 years following these men, has determined that, “Maturation makes liars out of all of us.”

For example, in 1946, 34% of the Grant Study men who had served in World War II reported having come under enemy fire, and 25% said they had killed an enemy. In 1988, the first number had climbed to 40% and the second had fallen to 14%. “With the passage of years, old wars become more adventurous and less dangerous,” Vaillant notes.

Likewise, in a test involving a set of pictures, older people tend to remember fewer distressing images (like snakes) and more pleasant ones (like Ferris wheels) than younger people. This tendency, Shenk points out, can make for a more pleasant old age, but also a deluded one.

One example that Shenk cites is a brilliant woman from a similar study, the Stanford Terman study, who wanted to become a doctor. She’d studied pre-med in college, and when she was 30 a vocational survey identified medicine as the field most suitable to her. Unfortunately, her ambitions were squashed by gender bias and the Depression, and she ended up a housewife. When the study staff asked her years later how she managed to deal with the gap between her potential and her achievement, she said she never knew she had any potential. Had she ever wanted to be a doctor? Never, she said. 

This softening of our personal histories is something to keep in mind when we are looking back on the “Great Recession” of ’08 and ’09. While we may find comfort in remembering the Ferris wheels, better to remind ourselves that, even though we don’t recall the snakes, they certainly must have been there. Or risk getting bitten again.

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