Monday, September 3, 2012

A Medical Student/Runner/Psychologist's Take on Paul Ryan's Memory

So earlier this week Paul Ryan mis-remembered his marathon time as sub-3 when it was actually a little over 4 hours. There are very many ways to intepret this information.

First, it makes complete sense why he would mis-remember the time. In 1990 a 4 hour marathon time was a lot more impressive than a 4 hour marathon time today. Relative to his peers 21 years ago, he had a really high performance. Twenty years ago was the era of Richard Simmons and Jane Fonda. The first ladies were talking about not taking drugs (Nancy Reagan) and reading (Barbara Bush), not exercise and diet (Michelle Obama). We didn't have elliptical machines for cross training. And we didn't have the training groups we have today. Many marathons had just recently been started. In fact, it seems as though a conversion table could be called for so that we can compare racing times from years past the ways we do for monetary inflation. Then we could see how impressive a 4hr-1min marathon really was.

Second, as he did finish with an impressive time for twenty years ago, it is understandable that he would remember himself as being a relatively high achiever. According to my internal medicine mentor, who is a big Paul Ryan fan, Paul Ryan came from the working class to go to Harvard and was elected senate at a young age and is now a Vice Presidential candidate, along with several other very impressive achievements. This is not personally fact-checked (**Upon fact checking this information I received, it turns out that he went to Miami University of Ohio. This is the importance of Source Memory, another major source of Memory errors), but this story shows how in accomplishments that can be compared, Paul Ryan has outperformed probably 99% of the populace at what he has accomplished. Hence, when asked for a specific time, he knew that he had accomplished a lot relative to his peers in running, and substituted in a solid marathon time by today's standards, not by the standards in 1990. This is actually an understandable and normal memory mistake, the exact reason why eye-witness testimony is no longer taken for granted. Further, if he trained for a marathon with proper support, a personal trainer, he could probably at some point reach a sub-3 hour. He seems like a pretty fit guy and a lot of making a sub-3 marathon time as a man is just consistent training.

So what makes people uncomfortable about the memory mistake? Well it shows that he is not aware of how memories work and the common memory fallacies that everyone encounters. Memory is a reconstructive process. Every time we retrieve a memory it is altered by the context in which we retrieve it. Further, memory uses the same processes as imagination (which, by the way is one possible reason behind the strong correlation between reading fiction novels and improved memory at later ages). So Paul Ryan accurately remembered that 21 years ago he ran a time that was impressive relative to his peers and then spliced in a number that would be impressive for 21 years later.

This could be the Sin of Bias where we "often edit or entirely rewrite our previous experiences--unknowingly and unconsciously--in light of what we now know or believe. The result can be a skewed rendering of a specific incident." It could also be the Sin of Suggestibility which is when a memory is "implanted as a result of leading questions, comments, or suggestions when a person is trying to call up a past experience."  These are two of the "Seven Deadly Sins of Memory" that have wrought havoc on courtrooms throughout eternity (not to mention personal lives).

By insisting upon of the veracity of a false memory, Paul Ryan shows he is unaware of how memory works and how it plays tricks on people. Further he shows that he can asserted as fact an false memory based on circumstantial evidence. Thus, the scary thing (in my opinion) is his ignorance of how healthy cognitive and memory processes lead to false memories. Or his refusal to admit that his memory is subject to the same fallacies as have been proven in the vast literature on memory and especially memory and courtroom testimony.

Is this enough to demonstrate that Paul Ryan is not adequately humble to be a good leader? Or that he will be a poor leader because he will not account for how the mind and memory works? I don't know. Are the other candidates more aware of memory fallacies and more willing to account for memory fallacies to prevent mis-information from being disseminated? Once again, I don't know.

I do know Paul Ryan's memory made understandable mistake and thus he created a memory of a time he never achieved. I also know that being adamant about the veracity of a false memory is a dangerous trait to have in someone close to you or with power over you (Oh, I would NEVER let a boy get away with something like this). So let us all hope that he uses this as an opportunity to learn about how memory works and in the future be more aware of how the present circumstances affect one's memory of the past.

** For more information on memory in the courtroom see anything written by Elizabeth Loftus. For a layperson's book see the "Seven Deadly Sins of Memory" by Daniel L. Schacter, Professor of Psychology at Harvard and was Chair of Harvard's Department of Psychology. For a great textbook see Memory by Alan Baddely

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