Memory experts have argued that NBC News anchor Brian Williams’ dramatic fall from grace provides a wonderful “teaching moment” to alert the public about research findings on how flawed human memories are. These experts also intimate that their research suggests that journalists should not be treated harshly for embellished and fabricated news reports–Williams’ repeated error. It is a teaching moment, but the wrong lesson is being taught.

This is the opening paragraph of “Brian Williams’ Fall from Grace, ‘False Memory,’ and Incentives,” one of the two Feature Articles for April.

Why is this article on an economics site? Here’s the third paragraph:

Indeed, there is a larger theme here, one that goes well beyond memory. Researchers often find that human decision making and behavior are constrained, if not determined, by a multitude of bodily and mental limitations (say, genes or the size of the brain), as well as external conditions (say, neighborhood and income). Many of these researchers suggest, on that basis, that people’s wayward behaviors can be largely excused, with the implied message: “The offenders are not responsible and not to blame.” Many scientists and memory researchers conclude that consequences (or incentives and disincentives) for behaviors will have little or no effect. They too readily conclude that physiological and environmental limitations on people’s control of their own behavior (e.g., passing off flawed memories as truth) imply that people are unable to respond to consequences (and have only imagined “free will”). But the economic way of thinking–thinking about incentives, in particular–is relevant here. Even flawed human beings, if they face consequences for their actions–especially harsh ones–will change their behavior. Incentives work.

The author is Richard B. McKenzie, the Walter B. Gerken Professor of Enterprise and Society Emeritus at the University of California, Irvine.

Read the whole thing.