The issue of "false memory implantation" keeps coming up in the Woody Allen accusations as a way to discredit Dylan Farrow while painting Mia Farrow as a "vengeful bitch, angry that her lover left her." False memories are so common that literally every person has them. Dylan says that things happened. Moses says that he remembers that day and the two were never alone. They both think that they are telling the truth, neither of them is, and that's ok. TW: non-explicit extreme grossness ahead.
I've talked about some of the other
software glitches issues that
our brains have with memory and decision making, where some behavior in our
brains that works well under one circumstance, especially in a way that could
give us an evolutionary advantage, but sabotages us under other circumstances.
In this piece, I explain how our perception is colored by greater access to
negative memories than to positive memories than to mundane memories, and how
this can cause us to perceive something as statistically more negative even if
statistically it is more positive or mundane. In this piece, I talk about identifying
with a person or failing to identify with someone else causes us to give them
the benefit of the doubt, regardless of known facts. When discussing false
memories, the fish tale is the quintessential example and I think it's
extremely accessible to a lay audience, so don't give me credit for the example*.
The Fish Tale: Storytelling is Memory Enhancement
A fish tale is any story that improves each time that it's told. The classic fish tale involves a fishing trip, perhaps even a first fishing trip. Every time the tale is told, the fish gets bigger, the catch gets more difficult, and the story gets more exciting and more boastful. The interesting thing about fish tales is that if you take a picture of the fish on the day that it happened and the tale becomes a fish tale, if you come back in 20 years and show the person the picture of the fish, they will honestly believe that there's some sort of trick because that fish is far too small. What's happened is actually pretty straightforward.
Telling a story reinforces our memory of it by resaving the memory while telling the tale. This allows us to remember things that we consider meaningful or worthwhile; if something is recently and frequently accessed, it's important so we should keep that information. The problem in a fish tale is the embellishment. A fish tale can always use improvements. If we make those improvements, we will eventually remember the improvements as facts.
The Evolution of a Fish
"OMG I just got back from going fishing and I caught this
fish—it was like 5 inches long! It's the biggest fish I ever…"
"5 inches long? That's it?"
"Well, maybe more like 6."
"Let me know when you catch a real fish. I can buy bigger filets at the grocery store."
Memories stored: I'm really excited that I caught a 5 inch fish but because someone wasn't impressed, I retold it as 6. He still wasn't impressed and I want people to be as excited for me as I am so maybe next time, I should make it bigger than a filet available in a store.
Memories retrieved: I'm really excited that I caught a 5 inch fish but because Dave wasn't impressed, I "corrected" to 6. He still wasn't impressed and I want people to be as excited for me as I am so I should make it bigger than a filet available in a store.
"OMG I went on a fishing trip two days ago and I caught this
fish—it must have been 8 inches long! It's the biggest fish I ever…"
"Did I tell you about my Alaskan fishing tour last year? I caught a salmon that was 3 feet long! I fought that sucker for 20 minutes to get him into the boat!"
Memories stored: I'm really excited that I caught my biggest fish, which I know wasn't 8 inches like I told Bob it was. I just wanted Bob to be excited for me. But apparently, unless the fish is huge I'm not allowed to be excited. Bob says that a 3 foot salmon takes 20 minutes of fighting to get into the boat.
Data omitted: the fish was 5 inches long. Last time, I told Dave it was 6.
Memories retrieved: I'm really excited that I caught my biggest fish, which I know wasn't 8 inches like I said it was. But apparently, unless the fish is huge I'm not allowed to be excited. Really big fish take a lot of fighting to get into the boat.
"OMG I went on a fishing trip last week and I caught this
fish—it was so huge! I had to wrestle with it just to get it into the boat!"
"Oh nice! How big was it?"
"A full 18 inches!"
"Cool! You should tell Frank about it! He loves fishing. HEY FRANK! Come hear about this fish!"
"Oh hey Frank! So I caught this fish—it must have taken 5 minutes to get it into the boat!"
"Oh so like a 2 footer, eh? You should come fishing with me sometime!"
Memories stored: I'm excited that I caught a fish but now everything thinks that it must have been 2 feet long because I said it took 5 minutes to get it into the boat. It wasn't that big but now I have to keep up appearances. Besides, now I'm getting invitations to go fishing with Frank, which is awesome!
Data lost: the fish wasn't 8 inches.
Memories retrieved: I'm excited that I caught a fish and because I let people think it was 2 feet long, I got an invitation to go fishing. I'd better keep up the 5 minute story that I told to Frank.
"Hey! I finally got the pictures back from our fishing trip!"
"Oh let me see! Hey, that's not right. This must be your 5 inch fish. My fish was bigger!"
What I'm saying here is that high school was neither as good as you remember it nor as bad as you remember it, just far more boring than you remember it. Your hair style was stupid though.
Rehearsal and "False Memory Implantation"
As you can see from the fish tale, the story changes iteratively, by which I mean that every time it is told, it gets fishier. For another example of iteration, see my piece on the Bohr Atom and how we use iteration and correction in teaching. The rewriting of the story into memory is what we refer to in computing as "lossy." Some data gets lost but that's ok because that data wasn't very important. In the case of the fish tale, we are iterating over lossy data saves that include new data, thus for every iteration, the most accurate original data becomes lost.
This is why keep talking about "rehearsal" in "memory implantation" when discussing the issue of Dylan's memories. The claim is that Mia Farrow instructed Dylan to tell a false story, rehearsing it until she thought that it was her own story. The "rehearsal" thing is something that literally every one of us does, and it does change memory about the thing that is rehearsed, but this happens iteratively and over time. Time is key. If you tell a fish tale 6 times over a day, it won't change as much as if you tell the fish tale 6 times evenly spaced 2 years, because memories from a few days earlier are still considered important, retrieved and stored in a less lossy way.
Rehearsal in Eyewitness Testimony and by Suspects
The rehearsal problem is one of the reasons that eyewitness identification of a stranger is often incorrect, especially if the identification is done incorrectly. If you've ever watched a "line up" on a crime drama, you'll see that they get several guys who fit the general description of the person to be identified, of whom not all are suspects. These are presented at the same time in as equivalent a way as possible. The reason is that we know (because science!) that if the police say to a crime victim or a witness "we caught the guy and that is him," if the victim or witness is unsure if it is him, they think it's possible, they want to believe that the bad guy has been caught, so they tell themselves that it's him until they believe it. If they then go to a line up and see that guy in a group of other guys who look like him, they'll pick that guy even if a different guy in the line-up is known to be guilty.
Eyewitness identification of a stranger is notoriously terrible because of rehearsal issues. But if you've ever watched a crime drama where there are multiple criminals who "all got their story straight" the reason that the detectives suspect them is that their stories "sound rehearsed." One thing that investigators do to verify a story is to ask it from multiple angles over a period of time. They may start with "start with the morning and tell us everything that happened all day." Then a few hours later they may say "in the afternoon, you went for coffee. What was the barista wearing? Now what happened when you left the coffee shop."
Starting from a different angle should result in a different story if the story is true. The core of the facts will be the same, but details will change. Investigators will throw in questions to change the angle again. This should cause the story to be told slightly differently, accentuating things that were not presented in detail before because the police seem interested in them, removing details that the interviewee thinks that the police aren't interested in, etc. By doing this, a truth teller will navigate their memory retrieval differently and remember things that they didn't recall before.
This isn't "false memory;" this is a sign of truth-telling. If the story doesn't change under these circumstances, that implies that the teller is trying to stick to a script to ensure that the story is consistent. It's just that being consistent is a sign of lying. If a detail changes, it changes through iteration; if they asked what the barista wore, then later asked what the name of the coffee shop was, they may discuss what the barista wore because that's a detail that they need to keep consistent.
This is a wholly different kind of rehearsal and the two are being conflated in a way that makes people side with Allen.
The Kernel of Truth
One thing that's important to remember about faulty eyewitness testimony and fish tails is that they started somewhere. There was a fish and someone caught it. Maybe it wasn't a big fish. Maybe I'm not even the one who caught it. But there was always a fish. So let's look for the kernels of truth in the two tales. To give Allen as much benefit of the doubt as possible, I'll compare the best case scenario for him in both tales. Since I've already talked about how time and rehearsal can change a story, I'll err on the side of giving Allen the benefit of the doubt and use Dylan's initial testimony, since it will be the least affected by the fish tale problem.
Dylan's Tale, Circa 1992
As a child, Dylan testified that Allen touched her in her no-no zone on a mattress in the attic. Kernels of truth here: an attic exists and has a mattress in it. We know this because the mattress was examined by authorities; these things are not in question. Initially, Allen said that he had never been in the attic because he's claustrophobic. Well, the attic was big enough for a mattress. The attic was also big enough to house a painting that had one of Allen's hairs on it, the discovery of which caused him to change his story. Yes, he had spent some time in the attic; he regularly went there to think. But he's never been in the attic with Dylan.
Allen changed his story from "I have never been in the attic because I'm claustrophobic" to "I go in there all the time to think" but only after being caught in a lie. The first story was pretty definitive and emphatic but it was a definitive and emphatic lie that he didn't think he could get busted on. Why did he lie? The second version tells us why. He gave a reason that his DNA could be all over the room because he's in there so often. His DNA might even be on the mattress because he's there so much. He's been in there tons of times but never at the same time as Dylan. It's impossible to remember every time that you've been in a room if you've been in it a bunch of times "to think." As such, it's impossible to remember who may or may not have been in the room with you unless there is a specific reason that you would refuse to be in a room with that person. There is no reason for him to refuse to be alone with Dylan, so this level of recall is highly improbable. Given that he has already lied to say that he was never in the room—along with a plausible reason that he would refuse to be in it—the level of emphaticness with which he tells this version denotes that it is a deliberate lie. Thus, we can consider it a kernel of truth that Allen and Dylan were alone in the attic.
This brings us to the next question: why would he so emphatically and deliberately lie about something as simple as whether or not he has been in a room with a child with whom he was close and affectionate? There are two possible reasons to lie here: either he is offended that someone would accuse him of something so heinous or he has something to hide. It's unlikely that he would emphatically lie twice because he's offended, especially over a period of time long enough to prove that hair found in the attic was his; a common reaction might be to lie once, get busted, and say "Sorry, the accusation was just so heinous and unbelievable that I said that and that was wrong of me. Once I said it, I couldn't take it back." But another thing to consider is that Allen is on record as not thinking that sex with underaged girls is heinous, so that wouldn't be a reason for him to lie. Thus we can consider it a kernel of truth that Allen has something to hide in the attic regarding Dylan.
Now let's go back to the "rehearsal" allegation. The alleged proof that Dylan had rehearsed the story is that her story wasn't consistent. I've already talked about how inconsistency in storytelling is a sign of truth telling or a sign of rehearsal, depending on whether details get omitted if the story is approached from a different angle. The allegation here is that when the story was approached from a different angle, Dylan didn't say that she was molested. So what did Dylan say? Sometimes when Dylan was asked where Allen touched her, she pointed to her no-no zone; sometimes she pointed to her shoulders. Let's look for the kernel of truth in the shoulder claim.
There is undoubtedly a time in which Allen touched her on her shoulders. He may have touched her on her shoulders during that incident. This response is undoubtedly true. The question isn't whether or not it is true but whether the truth of it contradicts the other claim. Well, having touched her on the shoulders doesn't preclude him from having touched her elsewhere. But is it a sign of rehearsal?
We have three options here for why she would sometimes claim that he touched her shoulders and sometimes claim that he touched her no-no zone: she was trying to protect someone that she considered a father; or she was embarrassed by all of the attention that she got when she said that he touched her no-no zone; or her story was rehearsed and the no-no zone claims were an attempt to keep her out of trouble with her mother, per Allen's defense. The first two are plausible, likely, and typical of child molestation victims. For the last one we need to look back at the barista's outfit. Allen's defense is referencing the "trying to keep a story straight" version of rehearsal. This form of rehearsal results in consistent testimony because the goal isn't truth; the goal is consistency. That lack of consistency is what is being called proof of lying to please the mother, when it is actually proof to the contrary. Once again, Allen's defense is a lie.
If we combine the conclusion that Allen has something to hide regarding Dylan with the claim that her lack of consistency proves what it actually disproves, we end up with another kernel of truth in Dylan's story.
My opinion? Dylan's story was true. Of course, the grooming behavior was reported by third parties and the investigators believed that Dylan was telling the truth. Allen's defense? "Lack of prosecution proves that the investigators didn't believe Dylan," despite the investigators explicitly stating that they believed Dylan and the prosecutor explicitly stating that he chose to not prosecute because the lack of physical evidence meant that the only way to prosecute was to further traumatize Dylan. Once again, Allen lied, not just about Dylan, but about the investigators and the prosecutors.
Moses's Tale, Circa 2014
"I remember that day clearly and he was never alone with Dylan." Jeez, where to start? It's impossible for him to remember the entire day that clearly even if it was the most memorable day of his life. He could remember recalling that there was a point at which Allen was out of his sight at the same time as Dylan if and only if he had been looking for Allen or Dylan. It's so nearly impossible to have this level of recollection that having that level of recollection is considered a mental disorder. The events of the whole day are far too mundane to remember, especially 22 years after the fact. Really, this claim that he personally remembers that they were never alone together on that day is absurd, so why is he making it? Because over the years, he has argued with people on this topic and he has discussed this topic with Allen, who he wants to believe. He has had reason to embellish the tale of that day: indignance that someone would make such an accusation against Allen. Over time, the details have gotten closer to something that proves that Allen is telling the truth.
Moses is unknowingly telling a fish tale. His tale is rehearsed. The kernel of truth here is that he remembers something about that day.
Dylan's Tale, Circa 2014
Now if we go back to my original paragraph, I said that neither Dylan nor Moses is telling the truth now. What I mean is that Dylan has encountered people in her life who have disbelieved her when she told her tale and the natural inclination is to embellish to make the tale more condemning. She has told the tale to her mother, to her siblings, to her therapist, to pieces of paper, to journalists. That's rehearsal and it does change the memory of what happened. It's difficult to protect against the fish tale effect even if you are aware of it, because when people disbelieve a story that you remember as true, you try to make it more believable. **
She has also been presented with information that as a child wouldn't have been meaningful enough to recall, but as an adult survivor, would be meaningful to relate (specifically, grooming behavior). While initially, the information would have been attributed to a third party, that information has been incorporated into Dylan's version as her experience. In fact, she did experience it; she merely didn't know to recall it and that has been added into memory after the fact.
However, that memory came from truth. Like Moses's tale, it started with a kernel of truth and the details changed. That kernel of truth remains and that kernel of truth is what matters here. Neither of them is deliberately lying; they both believe that they are telling the truth. We can tell from their stories what the truth is and that's why it's ok.
Woody Allen and the Benefit of the Doubt
Oh the benefit of the doubt. I was about 2/3 of the way through Part III of my Benefit of the Doubt series, the one on sexual misconduct, when I decided to write specifically about how Allen is abusing the benefit of the doubt. Then people kept coming in with claims that false memories totally exist and are epidemic and that's why we need to give Allen the benefit of the doubt on his claim that Dylan is lying because Dylan's mother is his "crazy bitch ex." (Ohhai, standard misogyny and gaslighting.) Now, Dylan doesn't get the benefit of the doubt and Farrow doesn't get the benefit of the doubt; that would make Allen guilty. Only Allen gets the benefit of the doubt and he does so based partly on conflating the real problem of rehearsed memory changes (fish tales) and the largely overblown "false memory implantation." False memory implantation has no kernel of truth; that takes a long time and quite often drugs or torture to achieve. Torture by Farrow is not alleged here. That said, if Allen read this, that could be his next claim.
You see, I am giving Allen the benefit of the doubt, because Allen is clearly informed enough about rehearsal and false memories to engage in deliberate creation of false memories in Moses, in case this ever came up again. It is entirely possible that Allen is accusing Farrow of doing what Allen has actually done. But I'm not assuming that; I'm assuming that Moses doesn't want Allen to be guilty and thus engaged in a fish tale all on his own. I gave Allen the benefit of the doubt by not assuming the worst; claims to the contrary are assertions that I am not being nice enough to Allen and dismissing evidence that I believe condemns him even though it should be fairly clear by now that I've put some thought into it. In fact, I explained part of this on Facebook and was shamed and unfriended by someone who "lost a lot of respect for me" because his opinion of my analytical skills wasn't supported by us coming to the same conclusion. Womp womp. Sorry dude, not the first time I've seen you give unlimited benefit of the doubt to a guy or treat women as less than men; I've merely not stood up to it in the past. I laughed.
There was a time when I was giving Allen the benefit of the doubt and it was when I realized how he was taking advantage of it that I stopped myself and started examining what was really going on. That moment was when I read about the letters that he sent to Dylan as an adult; when I pointed out the problem with the letters, I was told that I need to give Allen the benefit of the doubt. He was told that she didn't want him to contact her, so he sent a letter; it was returned unopened. He crossed her stated boundary; he gets the benefit of the doubt. He sent her another letter; it was returned unopened. He crossed her stated boundary; he gets the benefit of the doubt. He does it again. Then, realizing that she might open the letter if she doesn't realize that it is from him, he sent a letter through a third party, with a different return name and address. This crossed a boundary that was repeatedly made clear that he should not cross, by circumventing the protections in place to keep her from being subjected to him crossing it.
The letter was seen by several people, and recounted by Ronan Farrow. Allen included pictures of him with Dylan and said that he would forgive her for lying about him and he hopes to have her back in his life soon. Gross. That is so manipulative and it's manipulative in a way that is common for abusers. Apparently, I'm supposed to give him the benefit of the doubt because maybe he's just sad that Dylan lied about him and he really does want her in his life. But that gives him an inherent pass for every time that he crossed her stated boundaries and for circumventing her stated boundaries.
You do not get unlimited benefit of the doubt for crossing someone's stated boundaries. Insisting otherwise is how sexual predators get away with escalating their behavior. Now, if someone is behaving in a way typical of a sexual predator, why am I expected to give him the benefit of the doubt on whether or not he is a sexual predator?
PS. Do you know whose story hasn't changed since 1992? Woody Allen's.
* Also, what I'm saying is that if I tell a story and in
that story, I give credit to someone else or I fail to embellish something that
would make the story more fun, that's because I am mitigating the problem and
trying to ensure the accuracy of my memory by ensuring the accuracy of the
tale. So stop complaining about this at parties. (I get complaints about this a
lot but it takes a high level of drunkenness for me to respond with "well, I'm
telling the tale accurately so that I don't misremember it in the future. This
is because of the way that we reinforce memories. You see…." No one wants to
hear that at a party—except extreme nerds, including guys that I date.) I said
that this is not my example because if I did, I would risk thinking in the
future that I came up with it.
** This is one of the reasons that I try to respond with "fuck you. I know the truth and I don't need your validation" instead. There are many reasons. I tend to be a very deliberate person.