Many of my favorite organizational development theorists reference studies about the unreliability of memory in their work, and I find it particularly interesting to think about how the creation of false memories influences workplace conflict. When things get heated between teammates at work, each of us moves up our ladder of inference, creating our own story about what the other person said and did and often mis-remembering details in the service of our stories. Elizabeth Loftus, in a recent Ted talk called The Fiction of Memory, says most people think memory is like a recording device but it’s actually a reconstructive function. “Memory works kind of like a Wikipedia page; you can go in and change it, but other people can too.” She talks about the many cases of wrongful conviction that have occurred because of false memories, cases that were only later discovered to be miscarriages of justice because of DNA testing—often after the wrongfully accused spent many years in jail.
Loftus has been involved in 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. Loftus also talks about how we can affect future behavior with false memories; for example, a subject who has been given a false memory of getting sick from eating a particular food will eat that food less in the future. Clearly this is a power that can be used for great evil, but as Loftus points out, it can be used for good too: a parent might plant the memory of liking broccoli in order to create good future eating habits for a child. To the charge that this constitutes lying to and manipulating your child, she flashes a photo of Santa Claus on the screen. Point taken.
So how could we use this as a force for good in the workplace? Take that conflict between teammates. Couldn’t a skilled facilitator re-spin the story of the original event for both parties in such a way as to highlight their good intentions toward each other? And couldn’t a team leader trying to boost the motivational level of the team plant a few good memories about previous accomplishments? Certainly the extent to which someone might do this is subject to many ethical questions. But when you think about it, isn’t this really what the practice of appreciative inquiry is all about? It’s re-spinning memories and highlighting the positive aspects of organizational performance. We all know that you get more of what you focus on, so if we need to enhance a memory or two for the sake of the collective future good, I’m all for it.