Misremembering Life

The Brian Williams controversy got me thinking. Was his motive self-aggrandizement, or did he succumb to the emotional temptation to make a good story great? In telling what happened, did he give into his feelings instead of sticking to the facts? For all his apparent unflappability, he may be guilty not of narcissism, but hysteria.

He’s not the only one to misremember things. Many of us have “remembered” stories we heard so many times it felt like we were there. The human mind projects itself into a story in a way that feels like we lived it, whether it is reading a novel or flying in combat. When you get emotional over a memory, it can feel like things happened that didn’t. Sports psychology relies on this phenomenon, using visualization and mental practice to give us faux-experiences that feel like real practice.

It isn’t only celebrities who are vulnerable to falling for their own press. We all have self-images we’re convinced are true, regardless of the facts. When other people point out our discrepancies, we can be incredulous that our behavior did not match our self-image. Sometimes there are amazing inconsistencies between what we believe and how we act.

Psychologist Walter Mischel gives us additional insights in his book, The Marshmallow Test, describing his classic research on self-control in children. In a lab experiment, he put marshmallows and other treats on a table in front of the children, but told them they would get twice as many if they waited and did not gobble them up immediately. He found that some children’s ability to wait for a greater reward later was a strength that continued later in life, showing up in things like better SAT scores and higher life success. Mischel then applied the lessons from this research to situations where the mighty have fallen, undone by their momentary inability to wait a minute and consider the consequences.

Surprisingly, Mischel found that a person’s highly developed self-control in one situation didn’t necessarily translate to other circumstances. We like to think someone who has integrity will act the same no matter what, but apparently human behavior is a lot more context-dependent than we think it is. We may be wrong if we assume that anyone will maintain self-control across all situations. Given the right kinds of prompts or temptations, those controls may fail to function.

The truth is, people are not as consistent as we think they are. And if we add moral judgment into the mix, we can get really confused. Instead of making a sweeping judgment that a person is immoral or of poor character, it is probably more accurate that a person is genuinely trustworthy in some situations but not in others. It all depends on how yummy that marshmallow looks and how hungry we are that day.

Mischel found that kids who were especially good at resisting the impulse to eat the marshmallow used distraction to help their self-control. They didn’t just sit there and fight the impulse while staring at the treat. Instead, the successful ones distracted themselves by singing, playing games, turning their backs on the treat, or otherwise putting their attention on something else. Others told themselves that the treat wasn’t all that good, or pretended that it wasn’t really real—anything to get them past the moment of greatest temptation. In other words, they were realistic about themselves, knowing full well what would happen if they allowed a single moment of imagining its deliciousness.

As confusing as it is to our need for certainty, it is oddly comforting to know that we can’t predict people’s integrity as well as we believe we can. When someone’s behavior shocks us, it makes us feel a little bad about ourselves for being deluded. But were we really wrong about them, or did that person wander into something that felt too good to resist?

People who get in trouble with temptations may have been too confident that they could count on their self-control across all situations. They may have relaxed the need to be vigilant in tempting circumstances and instead may have become unwary, sure they would never do such a thing. If they have labeled themselves trustworthy, self-controlled, or too smart for temptation, that assumption might turn out to be their undoing. Many of us have not been confronted with situations that are truly irresistibly tempting. Feeling completely sure of oneself may be a luxury that comes from never being exposed to your greatest weakness. The more narrow your life, the more consistent you can probably be. But broaden your opportunities, and you may face circumstances that your self-control has never prepared for. 

As Brian Williams described potentially life-threatening situations, his irresistible temptation might have been to portray himself as handling the worst with aplomb. Wishful thinking about calmness under fire might have accompanied hysterical exaggerations that made life more exciting than it really was. 

Can we trust Brian Williams? Perhaps the better question is, under what conditions? Will he be trustworthier in the future under similar circumstances? I would say yes, but only if he keeps his guard up against what marshmallows can do to our self-control when we keep looking right at them. Can we forgive him? I would say yes, but only after he realizes the problem was temptation, not memory. 

Lindsay Gibson, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist. For information, call 757-490-7811.

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