“Memory is insubstantial. Things keep replacing it.”
~Annie Dillard, “To Fashion a Text,” 1988
Often in life we do not expect something to happen until it does, whereupon—seeing the forces that produced the event—we feel unsurprised. We call this phenomenon the hindsight bias (aka the I-knew-it-all-along phenomenon).
Hindsight bias is fed by our after-the-fact misremembering of our before-the-fact views. We don’t just retrieve our memories, we reweave them. Like those who continuously revise Wikipedia pages, our brain often replaces a retrieved memory with a modified one. Memory researchers call this process reconsolidation.
Reconsolidation explains some unnerving observations. In several studies, people whose beliefs or attitudes have changed have nevertheless insisted that they always felt much as they now feel. In one study, Carnegie Mellon University students answered a survey that included a question about student control over the curriculum. A week later, after being induced to write an essay opposing student control, their attitudes shifted toward what they’d written—greater opposition to student control. Yet when recalling their earlier opinion, the students “remembered” holding the opinion that they now held.
After observing other students similarly denying their former attitudes, researchers D. R. Wixon and James Laird noted that “The speed, magnitude, and certainty” with which the students revised their own histories “was striking.”
And so it has been even for President Trump and his self-proclaimed “world’s greatest memory,” as reflected in his evolving views of the coronavirus (documented here and elsewhere):
- January 22: “We have it totally under control. It’s one person coming in from China. It’s going to be just fine.”
- February 2: “We pretty much shut it down coming in from China.”
- February 24: “The Coronavirus is very much under control in the USA… Stock Market starting to look very good to me!”
- February 26: “We’re going to be pretty soon at only five people. And we could be at just one or two people over the next short period of time. So we’ve had very good luck.”
- February 27: “It’s going to disappear. One day—it’s like a miracle—it will disappear.”
- March 6: “I think we’re doing a really good job in this country at keeping it down … a tremendous job at keeping it down.”
- March 7: “I’m not concerned at all. No, I’m not. No, we’ve done a great job.”
- March 13: “National emergency. Two big words.”
- March 17: “I’ve always viewed it as very serious. … This is a pandemic. I felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic.”
Our explanation of these contradictory statements depends partly on the lens through which we view them. Democrats may see them as evidence of dishonesty, Republicans as normal memory flaws. Or perhaps the truth lies somewhere in between.
After following a group of adults from the 1930s through the 1990s, George Vaillant observed, “It is all too common for caterpillars to become butterflies and then to maintain that in their youth they had been little butterflies. Maturation makes liars of us all.” Decades later, his observation holds true—not only for the President but for us all. How easy it is to be wise after events.
(For David Myers’ other essays on psychological science and everyday life, visit TalkPsych.com.)