Brian Williams' Fall from Grace, "False Memory," and Incentives
By Richard B. McKenzie
“Even flawed human beings, if they face consequences for their actions—especially harsh ones—will change their behavior. Incentives work.”
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.1 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.
Their own research on false and flawed memory actually suggests the opposite: that journalists must feel the pressure of harsh penalties for ethics violations so that they will work hard to override any natural inclination to let their guard down and not carefully check the accuracy of their memories.
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”).2 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.
Brian Williams’s Flawed Reporting
Williams admitted on air in February 2015 to a “mistake” (far from an admission of a lie) when, in March 2003, he first exaggerated the threat to his life, claiming that his helicopter had come under fire in an Iraqi war zone. With each retelling of the incident, even on late-night television,3 Williams further embellished the supposed threat to his life.
After veterans who had been with Williams in the helicopter convoy called him to task for fabricating the story about the threat to his life, he apologized to viewers on February 3, 2015. However, Williams acknowledged only that he had been “wrong” in his reports. He attributed his “mistake” to “the fog of memory over 12 years” that “made me conflate” memories. He then insisted that he had not sought self-aggrandizement. Rather, he had the best of intentions: “This was a bungled attempt by me to thank one special veteran and by extension our brave military men and women veterans everywhere, those who have served while I did not. I hope they know they have my greatest respect and also now my apology.”4
Williams was not aboard the downed Chinook helicopter, as he had repeatedly misreported. Rather, he was on a helicopter that was following the downed helicopter by half an hour.5 He effectively denied intentional wrongdoing, “I would not have chosen to make this mistake,” adding, “I don’t know what screwed up in my mind that caused me to conflate one aircraft with another.”6
Investigators subsequently found that, contrary to his reports, Williams could not have seen a “dead body” floating on the street outside his hotel in New Orleans’ French Quarter after Hurricane Katrina. New Orleans officials insisted that the French Quarter was not flooded by more than two or three inches. No dead body was found floating anywhere in the city’s flooded areas.7
Other on-the-scene reports by Williams have been brought into question, as self-appointed Internet investigators began searching for his journalistic transgressions of reporting ethics. For example, Williams reported in 2005 that “armed gangs” had infiltrated his New Orleans hotel and had “terrorized” him and other guests; apparently, that never happened.8
On February 6, 2015, Williams took himself off the air for “several days” because he had become a part of the news. Presumably, he intended to return to his anchor desk once his troubles faded. Now, his name has been removed from the promo announcing the evening news broadcast.
How Memories Can Become Flawed
Pointing to a mountain of academic research on memory, many prominent experts have since told reporters that Williams should be given a pass (or treated compassionately) because he is a “victim of false memory syndrome.”9 UC-Irvine memory expert Elizabeth Loftus protested: “You’ve got all these people saying the guy’s a liar and convicting him of deliberate deception without considering an alternative hypothesis—that he developed a false memory.” She added, “It’s a teaching moment [on] the malleable nature of memory.”10
A New York Times reporter suggested the “malleable memory” hypothesis is nonpartisan, evident in Hillary Clinton’s false claim that she had come under live fire in Bosnia, and Mitt Romney’s assurances that he participated in a Detroit jubilee that happened before he was born.11 Were they lying or robotically conveying their warped memories? The researchers can’t say.
Implications of Flawed Memory Research
Does a theory of flawed memories suggest that Brian Williams can be excused for his embellished and fabricated news reports? Actually, the findings suggest an opposite “teaching moment”: Documented memory flaws imply that journalists should be hit with harsh consequences when they succumb to their memories’ limitations. By suspending Williams for six months without pay, NBC executives showed that they did not buy memory experts’ implied management recommendations.12 However, by not summarily firing Williams, the executives, ironically, could be encouraging more journalistic transgressions because some reporters might expect to be given a “second chance” if they are caught fabricating stories.
Williams’ critics insist that the currency of journalists’ approbation is viewers’ trust that the news is free of reporters’ distortions and self-aggrandizements. Program viewership depends on anchors’ credibility, which, in turn, depends on anchors’ reputations for honesty and integrity. Accordingly, NBCUniversal CEO Stephen P. Burke explained Williams’ suspension: “By his actions, Brian has jeopardized the trust millions of Americans place in NBC News…. His actions are inexcusable and this suspension is severe and appropriate.”13
Nevertheless, memory experts assure us that reporters and anchors (and everyone else) don’t record events in their brains the way video cameras do, with complete digital details stored on hard drives. On the contrary, humans record events in their brains by imprecise associations in scattered locations, often in condensed form, leaving out many incidental details.
Research findings have indeed shown that memories can be completely “false,” as well as “implanted” by suggestions, leading to false memories that can become ever more embellished with time. After viewing a poster supposedly featuring a variety of Disney characters, including Bugs Bunny, about a third of subjects in laboratory experiments later recalled that they had met Bugs on a childhood trip to Disneyland. Here’s the problem: Bugs Bunny is not a Disney character.14
These findings must be questioned simply because the subjects had no reason—or incentive—to question the poster’s origin or even to carefully check, in the laboratory, the accuracy of their recollections. Also, twice as many subjects did not fall for the fabricated, misleading poster, suggesting that many people are hardly condemned to concocting false memories in laboratories, even when the suggestions are strong, immediate, and directly from an authority figure.
An Economic Perspective on Flawed Memories
The conclusion that is too easily drawn from memory research is that people like Williams (and Clinton and Romney) should be excused for memory lapses, especially when under the stress of enemy fire and deadlines. No one need dispute the researchers’ claim that they have found memories to be problematic, especially in eyewitness testimonies. However, researchers have not shown that people like Williams and others lack a capacity to improve or relax their ability to recall memories accurately. Casual (and scientific) observations suggest that many people’s legs are flawed. That doesn’t mean that they cannot or will not run faster if given a reward for doing so.
False-memory studies demonstrate that people vary in their predisposition to suggestions designed to implant false memories. But, with rare exceptions, most people retain some capacity to retrieve, more or less accurately, those memories. Research has also shown that people can increase the reliability of memories by their repeated actuation. On first hearing phone numbers, many people repeat them to improve recall. Why? Repeating numbers “strengthens” neuronal connections devoted to the numbers.15
Reporters take notes and sometimes delay filing reports until they have checked their recollections and notes for consistency and accuracy with interviewees and others. Fact-checking is a common journalistic practice because editors recognize that reporters have imperfect recall, with some reporters succumbing to temptations to inflate their stories’ drama. Editors understand that they will catch wayward facts, but fact-checking can also keep alive a threat of penalty for fabrications. Fact-checking carries the message, “Someone is watching. Work diligently to overcome your flawed memory.”
So long as people have some control over the accuracy of their recalled memories, meaningful internal motivations and economic and social incentives (including suspensions, firings, and ostracism) for inaccuracies can improve (but not perfect) reports’ trustworthiness. Paradoxically, the more defective people’s memories are and the greater the difficulty they face in overriding flawed recollections (and the greater the tendency to seek self-aggrandizement), the greater the penalty for false reporting might need to be in order to achieve the desired behavioral outcome and the desired trust in the news.
We can put this in economic terms as follows. Memory limitations make reporters’ demand for purposely overriding flaws in their memories very inelastic—that is, very insensitive to price. The greater the inelasticity of the demand for honest reporting, the greater the incentive reporters must face to achieve any given level of accuracy in recalling memories with some reasonable fidelity—or the greater the disincentive must be for flawed, embellished, and fabricated reports.
If memories and recall processes were more perfect than they are, people would not require the monitoring that imperfect mental processes require. If memory processes were close to perfect, Williams might need only the proverbial “slap on the wrist,” because “light” punishment could then lead to the desired response in him and in all other reporters. However, if memory experts are right about the extent of memory limitations, then it follows that reporters (and others) must be hit with serious incentives to be induced to seek the desired level of propriety. Moreover, the harshness of the consequences for inaccuracies may need to be disproportionately greater than the offense, mainly because catching wrongdoing by far-flung reporters is difficult, and unlikely.
In the abstract, achieving the “optimum punishment” for wayward reporters is tough, because individuals vary in their proclivity to override their memory flaws. The economic perspective on the tie between incentives and memory accuracy makes the case for lenient punishment for misreporting questionable. Memory experts do not know as much as they claim to, and, in the case of Williams, they may know less than NBCUniversal’s CEO.
No one should lose sight of the economic purpose of imposing disincentives for inaccurate reporting: It is not retribution for Williams, or even to deter his inaccurate reporting in the future. He is, by all accounts, “gone,” wounded by his own weaknesses. Rather, the purpose of imposing harsh consequences for Williams is to send a message to all other journalists that inaccuracies in reporting carry serious consequences.
Brian Williams’ misreporting has cost him dearly, a reported $5 million in lost income at NBC during his suspension, and maybe far more over the rest of his career. Furthermore, his misdeeds probably have undercut the audience and the revenues of NBC Nightly News for a long time to come. His personally felt consequences will also send a message to other journalists who seek Williams’ position: “Be mindful that your memories are seriously flawed. However, you can reduce the flaws. If you choose to relax your attentiveness to storing and recalling memories and to reporting the news accurately, we will fire you.”
Scientists, more generally, should take to heart the bigger lesson from the Williams’ case: Identified limitations on humans’ control of their behavior do not imply that consequences don’t matter. On the contrary, they matter all the more.
As reported by Tara Parker-Pope. 2015. “Was Brian Williams a Victim of False Memory?” New York Times, February 9, accessible from http://nyti.ms/1ETu5Ho (New York Times permalink).
For example, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins (one among many scientists) suggests that criminals should be viewed in much the same way we view broken-down cars: “Instead of beating the car, we should investigate the problem. Is the carburetor flooded? Are the spark plugs or distributor points damp?… Why do we not react in the same way to a defective man: a murderer, say, or a rapist?” (as cited in Sally Satel and Scott O. Lilienfeld. 2013. Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience. New York: Basic Books, p. 128.) Dawkins makes much the same point in his The God Delusion. London: Bantam Books, pp. 213-214.
Several videos of Brian Williams telling and retelling his fabricated Iraqi story can be found here: “Watch: Brian Williams Tells Iraq Helicopter Story.” USA Today, posted February 6, 2015 at http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2015/02/05/brian-williams-timeline/22928153/.
As reported by Ravi Somaiya. 2015. “Brian Williams Admits He Wasn’t on Copter Shot Down in Iraq.” New York Times, February 4, accessible from http://nyti.ms/16j0Xud (New York Times permalink).
See Parker-Pope. 2015. “Was Brian Williams a Victim of False Memory?”
As reported by Joe Flint. 2015. “NBC’s Brian Williams Recants Tale of Helicopter Attack,” Wall Street Journal,February 4, accessible from http://www.wsj.com/articles/nbcs-brian-williams-recants-tale-1423101759.
As reported by Terrence McCoy. 2015. “Brian Williams Perhaps ‘Misremembered’ Dangers of Katrina, Hotel Manager Says.” Washington Post, February 10, accessible from http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2015/02/10/brian-williams-perhaps-misremembered-floating-dead-body-and-gangs-during-katrina-hotel-manager-says/.
See the instances of Brian Williams’ misreporting collected by Matt Vespa. “Brian Williams’ Tales about Gangs and Riding Katyusha Rockets.” February 10, Townhall.org, accessible from http://townhall.com/tipsheet/mattvespa/2015/02/10/brian-williams-tales-about-gangs-and-riding-katyusha-rockets-n1954979.
Parker-Pope. 2015. “Was Brian Williams a Victim of False Memory?”
Parker-Pope. 2015. “Brian Williams a Victim?”
Parker-Pope. 2015. “Brian Williams a Victim?”
As reported by Emily Steet and Ravi Somaiya,. 2015. “Brian Williams Suspended From NBC for 6 Months Without Pay.” New York Times, February 10, accessible from http://nyti.ms/1IOVQ73 (New York Times permalink).
Steet and Somaiya. 2015. “Brian Williams Suspended.”
For samples of Professor Loftus’ work on “implanted” and “false” memories see a review of her work on Bugs Bunny, 2001, “‘I Tawt I Taw’ A Bunny Wabbit At Disneyland: New Evidence Shows False Memories Can Be Created.” ScienceDaily, June 12, accessible from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2001/06/010612065657.htm. See also Elizabeth F. Loftus. 1999. “Lost in the Mall: Misrepresentations and Misunderstandings.” Ethics and Behavior 9(1): 51-60, downloadable from http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1207/s15327019eb0901_4?journalCode=hebh20#.VN5mfnQ5Azk.
See Jeffrey D. Karpicke and Henry L. Roediger. 2007. “Repeated Retrieval During Learning is the Key to Long-Term Retention.” Journal of Memory and Language 57: 151-162, accessible from http://memory.psych.purdue.edu/downloads/2007_Karpicke_Roediger_JML.pdf. PDF file.