False perception, false memory

The biggest social event of the year 1878 in Palo Alto, California, took place on a horse-breeding farm. Leland Stanford, former governor and co-founder of the all-powerful Southern Pacific Railroad, had retired and was indulging, here at the site where he would soon found Stanford University, in his passion, which was anything equestrian.

Stanford was, at a general level, an alpha male who trusted his own opinions. More specifically, when it came to horses, he considered himself “an expert”. So it was utterly clear to him that he, the expert, knew how horses galloped.

After all, all you had to do was look! And Stanford had looked, as had artists throughout all of human history. It was obvious that horses briefly “flew” by splaying their four legs in the air before alighting for the next leap. Like this:

So Stanford, as this account tells the tale, made contact with Eadward Muybridge, an eccentric Briton who had mastered the cutting-edge technology of the day, photography, and was able to take photos in rapid succession. Muybridge brought his kit to Palo Alto.

At Stanford’s invitation, large crowds turned out for the occasion. Muybridge was to document a galloping horse and thus prove common sense.

Eadweard Muybridge

Muybridge’s photos did nothing of the sort. Instead, they were shocking. For they disproved mankind’s common sense, thereby contradicting the direct observation of many generations.

You can see this disproof above, in the (deservedly famous) animation derived from the images. If you want to be sure, you can look at the stills in one of the other sequences:

During the only instant in the cycle when the horse is entirely in the air, its legs are actually tucked together, not splayed.

After Muybridge’s breakthrough, mankind thus had some adjusting to do, not least its painters:

Artists of the day were both thrilled and vexed, because the pictures “laid bare all the mistakes that sculptors and painters had made in their renderings of the various postures of the horse,” as French critic and poet Paul Valéry wrote decades later… Once Muybridge’s photos appeared, painters like Edgar Degas and Thomas Eakins began consulting them to make their work truer to life. Other artists took umbrage. Auguste Rodin thundered, “It is the artist who is truthful and it is photography which lies, for in reality time does not stop.”

(Does Rodin’s reaction remind you of anything today?)

The general insight

The big point here is really that we should be less confident in (= more skeptical about — however you want to put it) our own opinions and grasp of reality. That’s because:

  • we tend to “see” what we want or expect to see (as Stanford did with his horses),
  • what we notice is determined by what we pay attention to (which is why distracted driving is so dangerous), and
  • we can only make sense of the world by interpreting it through stories we tell, and storytelling can be problematic.

In that sense, this post is a follow-up on

This topic seems to strike a chord with writers and journalists in particular. The other day, for instance, I was discussing it with Rob Guth, a friend of mine at the Wall Street Journal. Rob recently wrote great stuff about the surprising recollections of Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen (surprisingly negative about Bill Gates, in particular). As Rob got deeper and deeper into his research — meaning: as he “fact-checked” his sources’s memories of Microsoft’s early years — the “truth” became ever more elusive. Was so-and-so in the room all those years ago when such-and-such happened? A says Yes, he was. B says No. Suddenly A begins to doubt himself (re-narrating the story in his mind). And so on.

Journalists, of course, are not the only ones relying on the recollection or observations of others. Judges, lawyers and jurors do as well, to name just one particularly germane area.

Can you trust eyewitnesses?

In this article, Barbara Tversky, a psychology professor, and George Fisher, a law professor, suggest that eyewitnesses cannot always be trusted. (Since witnesses are at the heart of the adversarial legal system, this undermines our entire tradition of justice.)

As Tversky and Fisher say,

Several studies have been conducted on human memory and on subjects’ propensity to remember erroneously events and details that did not occur. …

In particular,

Courts, lawyers and police officers are now aware of the ability of third parties to introduce false memories to witnesses…

But even without such tricks,

The process of interpretation occurs at the very formation of memory—thus introducing distortion from the beginning. … [W]itnesses can distort their own memories without the help of examiners, police officers or lawyers. Rarely do we tell a story or recount events without a purpose. Every act of telling and retelling is tailored to a particular listener; we would not expect someone to listen to every detail of our morning commute, so we edit out extraneous material.

In fact, these studies show what Rob discovered during his interviews of sources for the Paul Allen story:

Once witnesses state facts in a particular way or identify a particular person as the perpetrator, they are unwilling or even unable—due to the reconstruction of their memory—to reconsider their initial understanding.

Tversky and Fisher conclude:

Memory is affected by retelling, and we rarely tell a story in a neutral fashion. By tailoring our stories to our listeners, our bias distorts the very formation of memory—even without the introduction of misinformation by a third party…. Eyewitness testimony, then, is innately suspect.


It is not necessary for a witness to lie or be coaxed by prosecutorial error to inaccurately state the facts—the mere fault of being human results in distorted memory and inaccurate testimony.

My memory, found again in the LSE library

Like many of you, I’ve been following, with shock and amazement, the tale of Greg Mortenson, the author of Three Cups of Tea.

If 60 Minutes is correct (and with allegations such as these, the target deserves the benefit of the doubt), then Mortenson fabricated much of his best-selling book.

But then I remembered this talk by Chris Chabris, a neuroscientist, in which he talks (starting at minute 5) about “the illusion of memory.”

In brief: We trust our memories, but we shouldn’t, because many of them are wrong. The human brain reconstructs the past by telling stories (an extremely familiar idea here on The Hannibal Blog), and it does so by conflating different events, people, times and anecdotes. So when politicians (among others) seem to “lie” about their past (remember Hillary Clinton dodging sniper fire in Bosnia?) they are probably making honest and all-too-human mistakes of memory. (Whether this applies to Mortenson, I have no idea.)

In any event, as I was watching the 60 Minutes report, a fear suddenly struck me. What if I myself misremembered anecdotes in my own book? (To be published, as it happens, by Riverhead, which is part of Penguin, which also owns Viking, which published Three Cups of Tea.)

So I thought of the personal bits in my book. There aren’t that many personal memories — most of it is based on history and biographies, with sources. But there are some. For instance, there is a part where I recall burrowing through the dusty shelves of the library at the London School of Economics, in 1994 or 95 when I was a graduate student there, and finding, to my considerable surprise, a book that turned out to be the PhD thesis of my father. I remember how the book cracked as I opened it, and I recall noticing that nobody had ever checked it out.

Never mind why I told that little anecdote in my book (it makes sense in the context). Suddenly I was afraid whether this was in fact how it happened. Was it there, at the LSE, where I found it? Or perhaps at the nearby University of London library? Or perhaps around that time at some library in Germany? Does the LSE library even have the book? (That would be very embarrassing.) If I did find it there, is it true that nobody had ever checked it out? Was the cover grey, as I recall? Had I just dreamt the whole damn thing?

So I fact-checked my own memory.

Fortunately, the LSE library does have the book, as can nowadays be ascertained online. What about the rest?

So I called the library. I expected a phone tree. There was none. Somebody named Andy Jack answered.

Having spent years in California, I have learned never, unprompted, to attempt irony or humor because that can fall so utterly flat in America. So I was bracing myself for a long and complicated explanation and an awkward request for help — in short, a conversation as pleasant as calling, say, an American health insurance company.

Instead, within seconds, I was reminded of my old world over there: For Andy was, of course,

  1. British and
  2. at the LSE.

I barely got out three or four words (alumnus … book … Three Cups of Tea… anecdote…) when he understood.

His reply came in a tone that contained … irony. Very subtle, just a nod, really. At once, I knew this was going to be easy, unAmerican.

At that instant, I realized that he was already walking up the stairs. Whither? To the shelf! Before I knew it, he was holding my dad’s thesis in his hands and confirming my memories.

What a relief. I had remembered everything correctly. The cover is blue now, but that’s because the book literally fell apart at some point and had to be rebound. Andy told me it has 164 pages, plus 22 more of references. My dad’s name is in gold. It has indeed never been checked out, at least not since they changed computer systems, which was after my time. But it has no barcode :), so it could not have been checked out!

Andy, by this point, took pride, you understand, in making an anecdote in a book — my book, unpublished and completely unknown to him — correct and good. If you’re reading this, Andy, thank you.


I know, I know. You’re at the edge of your pew. What was my dad’s book about?

Why his PhD thesis, published in Bonn in 1967, was not an international bestseller, nobody knows. Its sex appeal is obvious. The title is:

Probleme einer allgemeinen aussenhandelspolitischen Liberalisierung

That means something like: Problems with a general liberalisation of international trade

I divulge this reluctantly, because you may pounce on the copy, spread the meme virally, and we all know where that might lead for my dad: Sudden fame, groupies, temptation, trashed hotel rooms, my mom destabilized.

The regulars among you might already have made a few other connections:

  • My dad, in his thesis, was exploring the tradition of Ordoliberalism and Austrian Liberalism, which has also cropped up here on The Hannibal Blog.
  • Without knowing about his thesis, I was, in 1995, doing almost the same thesis at the LSE (hence my discovery).
  • My dad, for his part, had been taught by his own uncle and godfather, who was the main implementor (as economics minister and then chancellor) of Ordoliberalism in West Germany, up to right about the time of my dad’s thesis. Here they are again, below: