Another worthy addendum to our series on self-justification, and the role that memory plays, from Wired, “How Friends Ruin Memory: The Social Conformity Effect.” Where Tavris and Aronson chalk false memories primarily up to internal factors – the reducing of cognitive dissonance and reinforcing of our pre-existing self-image – the article highlights a few recent experiments that suggest that we revise our memories to appease social pressures. I see no reason why we can’t embrace both as motivators. That is, while the internal stuff may ultimately provide the foothold, clearly the Law takes external forms as well, from stone tablets to unspoken social contracts to public perception/reputation. Just read Lennon and McCartney’s conflicting accounts of who wrote what… In fact, once I finish Duff McKagan’s (awesome) new autobiography, perhaps we’ll grab Slash and Adler’s books and put the GNR story to the test. More commentary at the bottom:

Humans are storytelling machines. We don’t passively perceive the world – we tell stories about it, translating the helter-skelter of events into tidy narratives. This is often a helpful habit, helping us make sense of mistakes, consider counterfactuals and extract a sense of meaning from the randomness of life.

But our love of stories comes with a serious side-effect: like all good narrators, we tend to forsake the facts when they interfere with the plot. We’re so addicted to the anecdote that we let the truth slip away until, eventually, those stories we tell again and again become exercises in pure fiction.

We tweak our stories so that they become better stories. We bend the facts so that the facts appeal to the group. Because we are social animals, our memory of the past is constantly being revised to fit social pressures.

By comparing the differences in brain activity between the persistent false memories and the temporary errors of “social compliance” the scientists were able to detect the neural causes of the misremembering. The main trigger seemed to be a strong co-activation between two brain areas: the hippocampus and the amygdala. The hippocampus is known to play a role in long-term memory formation, while the amygdala is an emotional center in the brain. According to the scientists, the co-activation of these areas can sometimes result in the replacement of an accurate memory with a false one, provided the false memory has a social component. This suggests that feedback of others has the ability to strongly shape our remembered experience. We are all performers, twisting our stories for strangers.

This research helps explain why a shared narrative can often lead to totally unreliable individual memories. We are so eager to conform to the collective, to fit our little lives into the arc of history, that we end up misleading ourselves.

Again, this phenomenon is one of the many reasons some of us find the New Testament so compelling. The little contradictions in the various accounts confirm the truth of the events, rather than contradict them. If the disciples’ recollections didn’t contain some misremembrances, they might indeed be fabricated. Instead, the discrepancies make total sense in light of what the Bible itself says about the comprehensiveness of our desire to justify ourselves. If anything, what stands out is the unflattering depiction of the disciples. Which rings true, at least if these men had genuinely come to believe that they had been justified by someone else, that their identities were secure in Christ. Take it away, Johnny…