Memory and Character, What Are They Good For?

October 1, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

Christine Blasey Ford is 100% sure that a drunken Brett Kavanaugh tried to rape her thirty-six years ago at a party. Kavanaugh “unequivocally” denies it, says that he was not at any such party.

Often, those involved in the debate seem to be arguing on the basis of unquestioned assumptions that are incorrect. With two areas in particular — memory and character — widely held commonsense ideas just do not square with the findings of social science.

1. Memory.  It’s likely that neither Ford nor Kavanaugh is lying — deliberately saying something they know to be untrue. But memory is faulty. Our memories of events are incomplete — we can’t remember all the details — as most of us would admit. What people refuse to believe is that what they do remember may also be wrong.

We like to think that a memory is a photo or video. Over time, details may become faded or blurry or disappear entirely, but what remains was there when the event happened. Sorry, but that’s not how it works. Instead, memory is more like a document that we edit each time we open it. We add details, delete, change. Then we resave. Yet each time we call up the memory, we think that what we are seeing is the unedited original. We do this even with harrowing events. We can wind up entirely appropriating other people’s experiences, as Brian Williams did when he “remembered” being in a helicopter that was hit by an RPG. (See my 2015 post, or listen to Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast from last June. .)

Often, we edit memories in a way that makes them consistent with our idea of who we are now.  The man who in his fifties is sober as a judge will have a hard time remembering things he did as a hard-drinking and drunken teenager. He may not remember them at all.

2. Character. Kavanaugh and his defenders make much of his character. Because he is a man of excellent character, they argue, he could not have done what Ford says he did. This character argument rests on two dubious assumptions
  • that character is an unchanging, and ever-present quality
  • that behavior, especially behavior that can be judged as moral or immoral, flows from character.
We think that if we know someone’s character, we can know how he acted. Bad acts are committed by people of bad character. A person of good character could not have committed a bad act.

These assumptions about character are wrong, or at least incomplete. As Philip Zimbardo has said, reflecting on his own famous study and those of others, “behavior is largely under the control of social forces and environmental contingencies rather than personality traits, character, [or] will power.” In other words, situational forces matter more than does character. Zimbardo could have added that predictions as to how someone will behave become still murkier when that situation includes sex and alcohol.

Behavior is inconsistent. The person who acts heroically in one situation may act cowardly in another. But we know that person in only a limited range of situations, and usually, that range does not include sex. Nevertheless, we form judgments about their character. We think we  know how they would act in most other situations, including those that do involve sex. Then we are shocked to discover that the kindly priest who was always so thoughtful and considerate acted very differently when alone with the altar servers. Or that the fatherly fellow, “America’s dad,” so wise and thoughtful, is the same man who drugged women in order to have sex with them.*

Many women have come forward to support Kavanaugh. (You can see a short version of their video here.) They are identified as having been Kavanaugh’s friends, classmates, co-workers, and law clerks. Their message is that they are a diverse group  of women who have known Kavanaugh in a variety of situations.

Well maybe not so diverse. The photo looks like it might be a reunion of Fox News on-screen women except that there’s a handful of brunettes. More important, the settings where they have known Kavanaugh are very unlike the one that Ford describes.  Were any of these women at parties where Kavanaugh had been drinking heavily with other heavy-drinking bros like Mark Judge? Did any of them ever try to resist Kavanaugh’s advances at a party or on a date? Has any of them resisted or challenged Kavanaugh in any way even in more recent years and even at work, where he was a judge and they were clerks or whatever?

I was waiting for a woman to come forward and say, “I dated Brett for a couple of months in college, and even when he’d had a couple of drinks, he was a lamb. Sometimes when we were making out, he’d try to push me to go a little further. I’d tell him I didn’t really didn’t feel comfortable with it, and he’d say, ‘Ooops, sorry’ or something like that.”

I haven’t followed this story all that closely. Maybe some woman has said something like this, and I missed it. But it’s the kind of testimonial I would have found persuasive, far more so than several admiring law clerks talking about Kavanaugh’s professionalism and character.

* I made this point in more detail in this 2011 post, which ended with a quote from Jay Smooth: “We need to move away from the premise that being a good person is a fixed, immutable characteristic, and shift toward seeing being good as a practice.”

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