Fuzzy memories

My memory for some things is awful. It’s a running joke at work, and my graduate students have teased me by admitting their strategy of coming back to me with a research idea that I dismissed weeks ago, with the hopes that I will have forgotten dismissing it, and will get excited about it the second or third time. I can’t say that this strategy hasn’t worked…largely because my memory can be pretty rotten at times. I don’t think it’s pathological, or a sign of early-onset Alzheimer’s. I think some things are salient, and stick, and others are easily dismissed, and forgotten. I also know that memories are quite flexible, and often we remember things very differently from how they actually happened. An article in Vox reminded me of this, and there are other excellent examples out there.

Fair warning, there’s a spoiler below, so if you haven’t listened to the episode of Radiolab called “Reasonable Doubt” and want to/plan to, you might not want to read below the fold just yet.

My wife and I have a recurring dance. I lose something. I ask her if she’s seen it or did anything with it. She says she hasn’t. I then ask her to imagine where she might have put it if she did see it and do something with it, even though she doesn’t remember doing so. She then gets angry at me for accusing her of moving my stuff. Part of this dance comes from me admittedly accusing her of messing with my stuff, which isn’t nice of me, and part of it is that she doesn’t believe me at all when I tell her that I’m not interested in assigning blame, but that I really just want to figure out the mystery of where the (usually meaningless) something went. I have convinced myself that I’m really seated in the latter, and I’m not trying to blame her, but I have to admit that it was a joyful experience when I had proof that she did, in fact, move something without remembering (or admitting to remembering) moving it. This was all about a nail clipper, and couldn’t be less important in the world, but we had a string of missing nail clippers, many of which mysteriously disappeared from my bathroom drawer. So, I did a little experiment (yes, I’m this much fun at parties too). I took a nail clipper, and I put it in my travel bag, and kept it in a different drawer. It honestly wasn’t done as an experiment, but lots of experiments don’t start off that way. Nevertheless, this nail clipper stayed with me for months, and was always there when I went for it. After several months, for a reason that I cannot remember, my wife needed a nail clipper and I revealed the location of the one in my travel bag. Within a week, it went missing also. Of course, this isn’t concrete proof, but the fact that it stayed in its “home” for months, and went missing only after my wife learned of its location, sure seemed to implicate my wife in its mysterious disappearance. Finding a nail clipper in her bathroom drawer, when there wasn’t one there before, added to the case. She adamantly denied taking it from my travel bag, and I believe that she has no memory of doing so, but I also believe she did it.

The nail clipper scandal is small potatoes, but our fuzzy memories, and our ability to remember things so differently from how they actually happened can be a much bigger problem. Radiolab had an excellent example in an episode called “Reasonable Doubt.”  This is about a rape case, and a woman who has a vivid memory of her attacker’s face, but is forced to question her memory when DNA evidence clearly shows that another man raped her. She is forced to grapple with her memory being wrong, but her recall feeling so clear, and his face being so recognizable as he attacked her. It’s an excellent episode and I highly recommend it. As an aside, I listened to it during a 20-mile training run that took me far from home and into farm country. As I was listening to this story, I was hit hard by the fact that I was running in the middle of nowhere, with nobody in sight for miles, and wasn’t the least bit afraid, but would likely feel very uncomfortable if I were a woman in the same situation. The difference in experiences of men and women was stark at that moment.

Back to where I was going: All of this brings us to what prompted me to put fingers to keyboard this morning: a post on Vox about our ever-changing policy views. The article starts by talking about polling showing clear changes in views of Trump supporters between the early days of his run for president and now. Only 12% of republicans gave Putin high favorability marks in 2015, but now that number has grown to 32%. Republicans have largely favored free trade, but support for free trade agreements fell 20 points over the past two years and now sits at 36% among republicans. The article goes on to discuss a new finding that only 20-40% of the public maintains stable views on policy issues, and also discusses research showing that we often don’t even remember changing our minds on these things. This is a mean combination: the majority of us change our views and don’t even remember doing so. The majority of us change our views, and honestly believe we’ve held those changed views all along. That is frightening to me, and makes me wonder how many times I’ve changed my views without even knowing it.

I’ve certainly changed my views on things, and have memories of some notable shifts. Free trade is one of those things. I’m a liberal, and consider myself a strong democrat, and I remember being wary of NAFTA, and feeling like Clinton had turned his back on his supporters by embracing this conservative policy (much like he did with the financial system deregulation and welfare reform; the former I honestly wasn’t aware of until after the collapse years later). I remember being convinced that free trade agreements were harmful to American workers and made it easier and more likely that American companies would send jobs out of the country. I remember taking some time (maybe over a few days, maybe I did this several times, that’s not clear) looking at countries with which we had free trade agreements, and comparing that to a list of countries that American companies used for labor. I was surprised when the lists didn’t match up, at all, and the big downside that I saw in free trade started to evaporate. So I changed my view, but remember having the opposite view, and remember the reason why my view changed. That’s not frightening. That seems reasonable.

I also changed my view on gay marriage. For as long as I can remember, I was supportive of men marrying men and women marrying women, and I think I always thought it should be legal, but there was a time when I failed to see constitutional or legal protection for it, at the federal level. Various federal laws (e.g., the Civil Rights Act of 1964) make it clear that the federal government cannot discriminate based on race, religion, national origin, age, sex, etc. Sexual preference is not explicitly protected by any of those laws, and, in the world according to me, therefore meant that there really wasn’t a constitutional case to be made in favor of same sex marriage. I have a vivid memory of a discussion of this with a gay friend, who I reassured repeatedly that I wanted him to be able to marry his partner, and thought that it was asinine for anybody to prevent it, but that I thought arguing that the constitution protected his right to marry his partner wasn’t the right way to go about it. I don’t know why it wasn’t obvious to me at the time, but at some point after that conversation, I came to see gay marriage not as discrimination against homosexuals, but as a clear case of sex discrimination. Sex discrimination is illegal under the Civil Rights Act and the Equal Pay Act, and applies to the States because of the Fourteenth Amendment (at least that’s my non-legal-expert understanding of it all). If same sex marriage is illegal, the issue isn’t that it discriminates against homosexuals, it’s that it says men can do something that women aren’t allowed to do: marry women. A law making same-sex marriage illegal restricts women from marrying women, but allows men to marry women. Conversely, it says that women are allowed to marry men, but men aren’t allowed to do the same. That’s pretty clearly different rules for different sexes, and that’s not allowed. Slam dunk, right? Well, maybe not, if you see it like some do: both men and women are equally allowed to marry somebody of the opposite sex, so men and women are treated equally in their equal ability to marry somebody of the opposite sex. I’ve come to buy into the former of these views, but I clearly see that it’s complicated. It doesn’t change my view that it’s backwards, and dumb (and just mean) to stop people who are in love from getting married without a better reason than your own homophobia, but I can certainly see the complicated legal ground here. Still, that’s an example of me changing my view, and remembering how it changed.

Here’s one where I might have changed, but didn’t realize it until I thought about it really hard: does a politician’s personal life matter? I remember during the Clinton years thinking that it didn’t matter to me if he was an awful husband, as long as he supported policies that I liked. But today I’m bothered by republicans who can vote for somebody with a tainted personal life, just because he agrees with them about policy. Granted, part of this is that I’m troubled by their hypocrisy, but maybe I’ve changed, without really remembering changing. I’m still not sure that I do care about a president’s personal life, except as it reflects his policy views. Would I prefer to have a guy who treats a few women like crap, but pushes for laws that benefit millions of women, over a guy who treats a few women very well, but pushes for laws that harm millions of women? I think I would, but I sure wouldn’t love having to make that choice…again.

But I’m still left with the frightening thought that I’ve changed my views and don’t even know it. That I’ve been subtly manipulated by the times to not only switch how I think about things, but also to not even recall ever feeling differently. Have I always supported a higher minimum wage? Have I always thought that health care should be treated more like a right than a privilege? Have I always been a Bartlet Democrat (even before there was a President Bartlet)?

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