False Certainty

31/03/2014 11:00 BST | Updated 28/05/2014 10:59 BST

Shocked, stunned and not a little amazed

I was incredulous. The account relayed to me of a conversation with a friend with whom I had once worked had me flabbergasted. I had absolutely no recollection of the event described and the account was so diametrically opposed to my core values that I was, 'shocked, stunned and not a little amazed'. I was so disturbed I spent the night trawling through emails and going through my notebooks in which I had jotted down key points from conversations held from the time we worked together. Surely what had been described couldn't have happened.....could it?

Let's be clear - we're not talking about abuse, but a description of working with me that simply isn't my style. In fact it was an approach I abhor and that's what made it all the more incredible.

In revisiting my notes and emails I wanted to work out what the truth might be in the hope of protecting my sanity. The following day I met with some colleagues and went through their recollections. By the end of this process whilst I was relieved by what the evidence showed. I was however amazed by how much of the detail of the experience of working with them had been forgotten. But two questions remained:

1) How is it possible that someone can have such a strong false memory?

2) What are the lessons for business?

The journey of discovery took me on a fascinating journey into the world of research into memory and the lessons we can apply in the workplace. It seems that the statement "I was there, I can remember really clearly" has about the same evidential validity as an opinion unsubstantiated by fact. The reliability of memory is significantly overstated.

False memory

How did this friend manage to end up with such a strong emotional memory of events that simply had either not taken place or that were so distorted as to be unrecognisable.

Memory, it seems, is an active process. We fill in missing gaps in the information we are trying to recall and dismiss facts that do not fit into our expectations. We embellish some things and edit others. One of the amazing things the research highlighted is that even something as significant as being involved in a major accident - a situation you would think would be permanently and indelibly burned into your memory - can get changed.

When discussing the lessons with my colleagues, one recounted a story from his previous job when he and his colleagues were in a bus when right next them a road traffic accident occurred. It was a horrible scene involving a motorbike and a car. They were allowed to continue on their way by the Police after a short while without any statements having been taken. The following morning prior to the start of the meeting they were discussing the incident and it soon became clear there were some differences in the accounts. So they all agreed to write down on a piece of paper what happened and then shared their accounts. It was, he said, as if 15 people had seen 15 different accidents.

It's an interesting exercise to try about a meeting you had last month - get people to write down what they thought the decisions were and then see what they remember.

It turns out that memory is, to quote Elizabeth Loftus - one of the leading thinkers in the area of memory - "malleable and subject to all kinds of suggestive influences". According to Loftus, when people remember the past, they reconstruct what happened to fit within what they know and believe. Things that have happened since the event can influence how the past is recalled.

Re-writing the script

We write what the psychologists call a 'script' for ourselves. This script, or structure helps us organise and make sense of information. It is the scripts we write in our minds that fill in the 'gaps' in the story. The research shows that people will recall events that simply did not happen because it helps make the story more credible. For example, you would expect to see a waiter in a restaurant, or a barrista in a coffee bar, therefore recalling a memory involving a restaurant or coffee bar may well include these elements even though they were never there in the first place.

But also, by adjusting the memory, it allows us to feel better about ourselves or see ourselves in a more positive light. It allows us to believe that we were perhaps better than we actually were. Erika Hayasakinov in her article "How many of your memories are fake?" ( quotes Professor James McGaugh's explanation of scripts as narratives that help explain beliefs and values such that "a true story is always filtered through the teller's take on it".

On a scale of 1 - 10

A demonstration of how we view ourselves and remember things in a way that overstates our contribution is a perception test I carry out when working with business teams. I ask them to rate their individual performance on a number of specific performance criteria on a score of 1 to 10 (10 is the best). I then repeat the exercise but this time I ask them to rate the rest of the people in the room as a group. On every single occasion I have done this, the average of the individual rating is always higher than the average of the rating given to the rest of the team. People seem to rate themselves as better than they perceive others and those others similarly rate everyone else as less good. It seems our perception and memories of what we have done are held in such a way that we feel we have done better than others think we have.

Blurred lines

Truth and fiction can become blurred into a new construction of the past. Loftus quotes a paragraph from the novel by Thomas Hinde "The Day the Call Came":

"I was able to invent incidents in my past and elaborate them and after a few weeks became genuinely unsure whether I was remembering what had happened or what I had thought about so carefully I now believed. And even when remembering it and rethinking it I could make it nor more but less real because any real memory there might have been was obscured by the process of remembering it"

The new story of what happened can make so much sense to the individual it becomes a 'real' memory, with such power and intensity that events that were imagined have become real in their mind. They can recall and see the scene even though the scene described never happened!

Sympathetic suggestions

Such false memories are more likely to happen if someone else is involved. For example, let's suppose my friend and former colleague had been talking to a sympathetic friend, who, understandably was biased in his or her support and wanted the friend to feel better about what had happened. The suggestions made about what might have happened will help influence the false memory. Loftus describes the recipe that is required to create a strong false memory:

• The person becomes convinced that the false story is plausible "....well it could have happened that way". According to Loftus, implausible events can become plausible through suggestion, such as a helpful friend bending the story a little to help the person feel better about themselves.

• The person then becomes convinced that they experienced, personally the event.

• With guided imagination and visualisation, as Thomas Hinde described, the false memory is created. For example, if the person is imagining how the event might have happened in a different way and visualises this in their mind, then it reinforces the false memory.

In this way, something that never happened or was experienced becomes a memory. As Loftus states: "...just because a memory report is expressed with confidence, detail and emotion does not necessarily mean the event actually happened." Interestingly, the corollary is just because we can't remember it doesn't mean it didn't happen. The evidence suggests that people are more likely to forget negative or embarrassing incidents. Thus they may choose to fail to remember the true extent of doing something wrong.

As if this were not enough, people also confuse what happened in one situation with what happened in another. In a piece of research about where you were when 911 happened, there was a high degree of error in where people reported where they were and what they were doing.

How is it possible that someone can have such a strong memory?

The difficulty is as Loftus suggests that "No-one knows just how much of our memory for the past is built up from things that never happened in the past but were real or imagined items drawn from other sources." What's clear is that in creating our memories in the way we do, we then become who we imagine ourselves to be.

If people construct and reconstruct events, forgetting some things and filling in the gaps with other things and through visualisation create events that never happened, it seems a reasonable explanation for the experience I described in the opening paragraph, namely a person having trouble distinguishing what they think happened from what actually happened.

What are the lessons for business

Such problems with memory and recall do not make for running a good business. We need people to remember what happened and when. I've been in too many meetings where there has been a disagreement over what was said previously and it's a painful experience that drives in frustration, conflict and a breakdown in trust. So what can we do?

Keep great records

Keep great records of what was said and done. It doesn't need to be an essay, but a few key bullets jotted down, or a couple of pages of contemporaneous notes go a long way to help reconfigure what was remembered with what actually happened. You can see why call centres record things for 'monitoring and training purposes'. The ability to back to a specific conversation and hear what was said as opposed to what people thought they said is very important.

In meetings, ensure everyone agrees the conclusions of what has been discussed (i.e. they agree that people agreed or disagreed and on what points) and as soon as possible send round a summary of those points and keep them on file. Whilst the meeting may seem unimportant now, you have no idea whether the conclusions reached could be a critical piece of information in the future.

It took me all night to go back through my emails and notebooks to recall conversations - I need a better filing system! These days I use the Evernote app. This is one of many excellent note taking apps out there - but I need to organise this better to make sure I can find what I am looking for.

Keep future focused

Getting overly worked up about what happened in the past is a pointless activity - it's not as if you could do something about it. Instead keep the focus on the future and how you would like things to be. Arguments about what happened in the past in the absence of documented information are much more about wanting to be 'right' rather than about solving problems.

Peace of mind

In revisiting my notes, talking to colleagues and scanning email threads of old, I have a much clearer perception of what really happened when my friend and I worked together and sleep has returned. I'm calmer. I understand some of the processes at work. I'm very glad I'd gotten into the habit of jotting things down.

I wonder how many hours are wasted in business between people arguing over who said what and when, memory that without records is almost certainly erroneous on both sides.

I, for one, am much more diligent about taking good quality notes and I encourage you to do the same. It might cost you some time now, but it will save you heartache and hours of discussion later.

Dominic Irvine 28th March 2014 All rights asserted