Showtime’s new television series The Affair offers an interesting illustration of the fiction of memory. It’s a topic that many psychologies and organizational development theorists have written about, and I’ve blogged about it previously too. But it’s one thing to read a study about how we exaggerate, distort, bury and even invent memories about past events; it’s quite another to see it in moving, storytelling color.
The Affair tells its story by alternating between the perspectives of the two people involved in the affair, showing you how they remember every aspect of their relationship differently. Some of the differences are predictable, like Noah remembering Allison wearing a sexy short skirt while Allison remembers wearing a pair of jeans. But the differences go far beyond superficial details. Each remembers that the other made the first move, and remembers being resistant to the other’s advances. Each remembers dialogue differently, not just in tone but in actual content. In one of the final scenes of the season, Allison remembers a “come-to-Jesus” meeting between family members ending with her husband brandishing a gun, while Noah remembers that Allison’s husband intervened when he jumped on Allison’s brother-in-law and tried to beat him senseless. It’s the kind of scene that makes you question how such a difference in memory could even be possible amongst rational people. I read a few online reviews of the final episode and the consensus seemed to be that as a device, the comparing of Allison’s and Noah’s memory had devolved to a point beyond belief and no longer worked for the audience. And yet these drastic differences in memory happen all the time. We remember what we wish we had done, or wish we hadn’t done, or felt we should have done. Or we remember what was important to us and suppress the memory of what wasn’t important or was too disturbing. Sometimes we even remember what someone else has planted into our memories through suggestion, intentionally or not. Elizabeth Loftus writes about studies in which scientists planted false childhood memories in research subjects through a combination of asking leading questions and planting false suggestions. In most of the studies, they were successful in implanting these false memories in 50% or more of the subjects; memories such as being attacked by a vicious dog, or getting lost in a shopping mall, or nearly drowning and being rescued by a lifeguard. “Memory works kind of like a Wikipedia page,” she says, “you can go in and change it, but other people can too.”
One reviewer of The Affair got so frustrated with the differences in the two stories that she contacted the show’s writer with questions, and the writer responded, “Every single person’s memory is laughably faulty and the product of so many influences that have nothing to do with what actually happened.”
When I was a kid and fought with my brothers my parents would say, “Just remember there are three sides to every story: your side, his side, and the real side.” But when there is only memory, how can there be a “real side?” It seems there are just competing versions of the story that can never be resolved toward any kind of truth. When workplace conflicts, performance issues and organizational problems depend on memory to interpret, we’d better remember this. Never mind what “actually” happened; the more important consideration is what people think happened. Only when we uncover and recognize people’s memories and interpretations of an event can we effectively begin to address it.