Cognitive Psychology

Trump, the Election, and the Seven Sins of Memory

Ain’t this one of the greatest elections EVER!!?! It seems like it has a bit of everything from the rabid mob of Republican candidates to fake-scandals of the Clinton campaign to the naked racism of Trump and now we have the cray cray of Trump’s epic meltdown! Beat me with a bag-o-tits! I was born at the wrong time. If I were twenty years younger and full of spunk, I’d be working on my dissertation in political science. There’s enough material here to make several generations of academic careers.

The question is whether these incidents will affect the way people vote in November. Will people remember these incidents? If they do remember them, will those memories be accurate? It comes as no surprise to any husband who has “forgotten” a wedding anniversary, birthday, or even Valentine’s Day that memory is fickle. I can remember that Peter Mayhew played Chewbacca, but I can’t remember to pay my electric bill by the tenth or that Pierre is the capitol of South Dakota or that John Edwards was John Kerry’s running mate in 2004. While being able to recall the capitol of any state much less South Dakota is a fairly dubious talent at least the Chewbacca thing can help you pick up chicks, amirite? Chicks dig sci fi trivia, science fact.

The October Surprise

DouglasPinkPosterTrump has given us many egregious statements and acts, but none seem to damage him in the polls. The list is seemingly endless: Mexican rapists, bleeding from her wherever, Judge Curiel’s conflict of interest, the total ban of Muslim’s entering the country, the wall, and his attack on the Khans. One of the salient questions from this bountiful stream of political diarrhea is will the electorate remember any of this by the election? meaning that if Trump can clean up his act some time in September and be a good boy in October, he could get lucky in November. Why on God’s green earth would anyone forget any of this stuff? But, then again many Americans aren’t sure whether World War I or World War II came first.

Nixon and his merry band of rat-fucking bastards taught us lots of things, but none more important than that of the October surprise. The fictitious Communist League of Negro Women was used to smear The Pink Lady, Helen Gahagan Douglas, in the California senate race of 1950 in the waning days of campaign. The idea was to publish damning allegations or “evidence” too close to the election for your opponent to counter and for the electorate to forget. Part of this phenomenon is due to recent events having more influence than more distant ones, unless you’ve forgotten to put the toilet seat down last November or lost your keys during your last vacation; those things never seem to be forgotten! I KNOW, Ma! I locked the keys in the trunk that time on Padre Island. I was ten for crying out loud! TEN! These things never seem to die.

Ebbinghaus, Schacter, & the Seven Sins

HermannEbbinghausWhy wouldn’t we remember Trump’s transgressions against human decency? Human kind has pondered the vagaries of memory since Aristotle’s time, but things didn’t really take off until the 1880’s when a plucky young lad, Hermann Ebbinghaus, hid himself away in a left-bank Parisian loft to memorize three letter nonsense syllables. He gave us such gems as the forgetting curve, the learning curve, short-term memory, and long-term memory. In 2000, Eric Kandel establish the biological basis for memory, but it is the work of Daniel Schacter and his Seven Sins of Memory that interest us most.

Schacter has studied memory from his lofty ivory perch at Harvard’s Memory Lab. He has distilled seven flaws in memory most of which are connected to forgetting: transience, absentmindedness, blocking, misattribution, suggestibility, bias and persistence. Some of these are quite simple and we all intuitively know them. After all, we’ve all experienced them on an almost daily basis and can figure out what went wrong.

Transience is just Schacter’s fancy-schmancy term for I forgot. Memories fade, no, duh, over time. Unless reinforced, memories will leave us. What did your second grade teacher look like? What was her name? If you’re like most of us that information is lost in the misty swamp of memory never to be retrieved again. The conventional wisdom is that elections are like etch-a-sketches: give ’em a good shake in September and everything in the past year disappears like so many iron filings trapped under glass. Clearly, Trump is counting on this phenomenon.

NuttyProfessorAbsentmindedness is just like Jerry Lewis’s Nutty Professor — okay, okay, I’m showing my age — or Einstein neither of which could remember mundane things like appointments, taking a bath, or meals. The trick here is that you need to pay attention to something to have a chance at remembering it — get off your phone and forget your FB for five minutes! Where did you lay your keys down at? Where did you put your glasses? What were you asked to get at the store? If you don’t focus you can’t remember.

Both of these sins certainly will explain much of the annoying forgetting that most of us will have done by election day. How many are really focused on the election? Many are just tuning it out as if it were so much background noise. What seems to me as fascinating and irresistible as your average train wreck, sadly, is just an unimportant impediment to Pokemon Go and Candy Crush achievements. Even if it did some how pierce the thick veil of uninterrupted pursuit of Jason Bourne and Game of Thrones, I’m guessing that most folks will turn away without much reflection or focus.

Some of the other sins are much less intuitive and more pertinent for explaining the effects of the campaign on our memories. Misattribution means that you’ve connected a memory to something that it doesn’t belong to. For example, you think it was Captain Kirk who said Make it so when it really is Captain Picard. Do do that one when trying to pick up chicks. They’ll shoot you down every time.

Misattribution would allow a voter to displace a remembered statement from Trump to another candidate. Or, from another candidate or talking head to Trump. This is very easy to do in the blizzard of claims, statements, opinions, memes, Twitter rants. Under these circumstances, it is very easy to confuse who said what when. Worse, it is exploitable. We are vulnerable to being manipulated by indirect claims to the ideas of others.

Trump has attempted to manipulate this tendency by claiming that he opposed the Iraq War when there is no record of him giving a clear statement against the war until years after it had started. Another example is Clinton’s claims that FBI Director Comey said she had been honest. Is it that Trump, Clinton, and other politicians have misattributed these statements and are making an honest mistake, or is it something more sinister like a lie or a deliberate attempt to mislead?

Some people are likely to believe these statements and likely to develop memories that reflect them as true, much like Trump saying that he remembers seeing thousands of Muslims cheering 9/11 in New Jersey. Remembering something that did not happen because of some stimuli in the environment like a the wording of the question or changing emotional state is called suggestibility.

IKEAInstructionsSuggestibility works because memory is not a recording like a videotape or DVD but is assembled like an IKEA desk… profanity is a necessity. If every time you needed your desk, you had to assemble it and when you were done, you would disassemble it would be a more accurate analogy to how our memory works. When you assembled the desk the first few times, everything would be fine: all the pieces would be there and fit like they should. But, over time, you would lose pieces, screws, nuts, handles, and, perhaps, larger pieces. The little screw holes would become worn, the edges knocked, the finish chipped. You might then replace some of those pieces in order to assemble a serviceable desk.

Memory works a lot like that. When you recall something, you tell yourself a story and fill-in the blanks when encountering something missing: It must be this way. How did the dog get out of the yard that day? The gate must’ve been left open, so you remember leaving it open… or at least everyone else remembers you leaving it open. Why was Trump so angry at the Khans? They must’ve unjustifiably insulted him. How did FBI Director Comey describe Clinton’s email server? It was illegal! She should be in jail! She is not being prosecuted because corruption.

We are more vulnerable to suggestibility when we discuss things with friends and family members, like your favorite drunk uncle. If he asks you how much Clinton said she hates America, don’t fall for it. You might just conjure a memory of Clinton at a news conference saying she hates America a LOT. You can ask him, though, how many undocumented immigrants Trump said he’d deport. Wait, he said all of them, Katy. Or how many Muslims would he prevent entering the US… wait, he said all of them, Katy.  Or, what is the best position an attractive woman should take to present herself in the best light… wait, he said on her knees.

When you’re in the voting booth or responding to pollsters, it is hoped that you’ll create memories that will support the conclusions that have been suggested to you.

I haven’t covered a couple of the sins because bah! those sins are losers and, like Trump, I don’t like losers! So, the last sin of memory addressed here is bias. Bias is adjusting your memory of the past to match your current condition. Ask you favorite drunk uncle about Trump’s failed candidacy and loss next November — accurately recalling his enthusiastic slurring prediction that Trump would win in a landslide as he vomited at last years Thanksgiving dinner — and he’s likely to say that he always knew Trump would lose and in fact predicted it because of the lying liberal media and the Republican elites… blah, blah, blah, retch, and vomit.

Examples of the Seven Sins

Let’s have some fun! Let’s go through and identify more examples of how each sin covered here might affect the election:

  1. Transience: The Trump blizzard of embarrassment causes transience because we can’t reinforce the first incident before the seventeenth one occurs.Without rehearsing these memories, they will fade and be lost by the time election day roles around.
  2. Absentmindedness: The ever rising cesspool of Trump’s outrageous statements means that we become numb to them, and, almost literally, we can no longer focus on them. Without attention, nothing can be encoded. No encoding means no memory exists to be recalled on election day.
  3. Misattribution: If Trump ever is believed to say something that doesn’t absolutely betray our values as Americans and might even have a passing resemblance of truth or being worthy of electability, it will come from misattribution meaning that perhaps Pence will have something that people will believe Trump uttered or thought of. Perhaps on election day, people might believe that Trump supported the candidacy of Ryan for representative because Pence supported it.

  4. Suggestibility: I suppose someone somewhere might conjure a memory of Trump speaking and seeming very presidential and diplomatic… is it possible? Certainly, everyone has a memory of Clinton being dishonest even though she isn’t anywhere near as dishonest as most people believe. Science fact.


16 replies »

  1. I agree Trump will try to pull this memory stunt to clean up his act for erasing our bad memories of him. I recall how OJ’s lawyers tried similar methods in the courtroom to disassociate their client from his wife’s murder?

    Liked by 1 person

    • OJ, the grift that keeps on grifting. Jeez. But, between luck and incompetence of the prosecution, OJ managed to distance himself from a guilty verdict. Memory and truth are some of the most interesting things going.



  2. I am very much afraid that someone reading this out loud to a Trump supporter will accidentally pick up on the suggestibility and change their minds about the worm prior to the election. lol

    Liked by 1 person

    • Howdy Suze!

      That’s actually why I’m hesitant to copy any of Trump’s slogans or “ideas” because if their seen, they become part of your memory and have an effect on your perceptions. My hope is that people can become somewhat inoculated against some of these unconscious processes by introducing conscious ones.


      Liked by 1 person

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