We like to think of our memories as sepia celluloid snippets of our life upon this Earth.
We think they “reflect us” and remind us of the person we like to be. True, memories can be iffy sometimes. We don’t always remember all the details, but mostly our memories are real.
For a long time, scientists backed us up. Early memory researchers thought that most memories retained some connection with reality. To be sure, memories were elaborately constructed in a bubbling and boiling cauldron of expectation, emotion, motivation, personal opinion, prejudice and self-delusion — what we scientists call, in our typically obtuse way, self-induced, systematic distortations. But there would usually be some element of reality.
As it turns out, we are wrong. When it comes to memory, reality need not apply.
Psychologists have demonstrated that a skilled manipulator can create memories out of the fantastical thin air. Psychologist Julia Shaw does this in experiments with students. Using basic psychology, she can convince 70 per cent of her subjects that they committed a crime, when in fact they never did. It is “alarmingly easy” to do, she says.
How does she achieve this remarkable fabrication?
First, she makes people trust her. Second, she establishes her authority. Third, she constructs their new memory by invoking, through image, visualization and narrative, the subject’s imagination.
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Like a potter at her wheel, she moulds and shapes the memory, layering in detail and reinforcing through repetition. Finally, she fires the new memory in the kiln of social pressure and group membership. Voila, the student is a convicted criminal!
Human survival requires group coherence
It’s shocking, but understandable, from an evolutionary perspective. Neurological mechanisms that create malleable memory do not make us sheeple, but they do go a long way towards creating group identification and coherence, an absolute requisite for human survival before advanced civilization.
Malleable memory is an evolutionary thing, and a lot more common than you think.
For better or worse, we’re all doing it all the time, unconsciously or consciously.
Even — perhaps especially — Donald Trump.
Just as Julia Shaw did with her students, Trump establishes trust by saying things like: “Nobody would fight harder for free speech than me,” “I will create jobs like no one else,” I’m the greater doer of things and suggests I’m a good old down home family boy, just like you.
He uses images, visualizations and narratives to create whatever memory and new reality he wants. He does it, as he well knows, with consummate mastery and skill.
He practised these skills when he, and the people who were helping him, took down Hillary Clinton. He portrayed her to the people as a crooked, corrupt, incompetent and dangerous failure who would screw over Americans and take them to war. He reinforced it by naming her Crooked Hillary.
And, finally, he invoked group membership and social pressure to lock it all down. He divides Americans into “winners” and “losers,” and invites the winners to stand on his side. They apparently heed his call:
There’s no doubt Trump is a skillful manipulator of people’s memory system. It explains why people who would never ordinarily have voted for Trump cast their ballots for him anyway. He is not a moron, and he’s certainly not crazy.
Addicted to accumulating cash?
I imagine he’s having a good chuckle. While everybody moralizes and judges, he simply “gets it done.” He is making America great again, for the filthy rich. Under the discredited guise of trickle-down economics, he is accused of trouncing on everybody, and possibly taking us all to war, so he and his brethren can legislate their conservative agenda.
In the interests of the uber-rich, his administration has decimated environmental controls, executed a coup d'état of the American education system and passed into law the “biggest” tax bill and tax cuts in history. The only thing he’s failed at so far is wiping out health care for the poor, but he might also get that job done in the future.
So what to do? I suppose that depends on whether you’re a fan of trickle-down economics or not, or think Trump’s a dangerous traitor or not. Personally, I’m on the side of Will Rogers and the IMF, both of whom say, in their own special way, trickle-down economics is a joke.
Making fun of him and calling him crazy only serves his agenda. I suggest we all quit playing into his hands and instead do what Chelsea Handler did. Start taking his agenda, and his threat, a whole lot more seriously than we are.
About The Author
Dr. Mike Sosteric, Associate Professor, Sociology, Athabasca University