Beware Memory Scholars Citing Case Studies

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by Neil Godfrey

I don’t often encounter two scholars of diametrically opposing viewpoints each citing the same experimental case study to support their respective conclusions. But it has happened in two very similar books about memory studies and the gospels, one by the agnostic Bart Ehrman and the other by the Christian Robert McIver.

jesusbeforeHere is Bart Ehrman referencing Ulric Neisser‘s study of John Dean‘s testimony against President Nixon at the time of the Watergate scandal in order to support his own argument that eyewitness memories can be pretty shocking.

A famous example can demonstrate my point. There is a much-cited study [link is to PDF] done of both detailed and gist memories of a person who claimed to have, and was generally conceded to have, a very good memory: John Dean, White House counsel to Richard Nixon from July 1970 to April 1973.

During the Watergate hearings Dean testified in detail about dozens of specific conversations he had during the White House cover-up. In the course of the hearings he was asked how he could possibly remember such things. He claimed to have a good memory in general. But he also indicated that he had used later newspaper clippings about events in the White House to refresh his memory and to place himself back in the context of the events that were described. It was after he publicly described his conversations with Nixon that the White House tapes were discovered. With this new evidence of what was actually said on each occasion, one could look carefully at what Dean had earlier remembered as having been said, to see if he recalled both the gist and the details correctly.

That’s exactly what the previously mentioned Ulric Neisser did, in an intriguing article called “John Dean’s Memory: A Case Study.” Neisser examined two specific conversations that took place in the Oval Office, one on September 15, 1972, and the other on March 21, 1973, by comparing the transcript of Dean’s testimony with the actual recordings of the conversations. The findings were striking. Even when he was not elevating his own role and position (as he did), Dean got things wrong. Lots of things wrong. Even big things.

For example, the hearing that involved the September 15 conversation occurred nine months later. The contrast between what Dean claimed was said and what really was said was sharp and striking. In Neisser’s words:

Comparison with the transcript shows that hardly a word of Dean’s account is true. Nixon did not say any of the things attributed to him here. . . . Nor had Dean himself said the things he later describes himself as saying. . . . His account is plausible but entirely incorrect. . . . Dean cannot be said to have reported the “gist” of the opening remarks; no count of idea units or comparison of structure would produce a score much above zero.

It should be stressed the Neisser does not think Dean was lying about what happened in the conversation to make himself look good: the conversation that really happened and the one he described as happening were both highly incriminating. So why is there a difference between what he said was said and what was really said? Neisser argues that it is all about “filling in the gaps,” the problem I mentioned earlier with respect to F. C. Bartlett. Dean was pulling from different parts of his brain the traces of what had occurred on the occasion, and his mind, unconsciously, filled in the gaps. Thus he “remembered” what was said when he walked into the Oval Office based on the kinds of things that typically were said when he walked into the Oval Office. In fact, whereas they may have been said on other occasions, they weren’t on this one. Or he might have recalled how his conversations with Nixon typically began and thought that that was the case here as well, even though it was not. Moreover, almost certainly, whether intentionally or subconsciously, he was doing what all of us do a lot of the time: he was inflating his own role in and position in the conversation: “What his testimony really describes is not the September 15 meeting itself but his fantasy of it: the meeting as it should have been, so to speak. . . . By June, this fantasy had become the way Dean remembered the meeting.” 

Neisser sums up his findings like this: “It is clear that Dean’s account of the opening of the September 15 conversation is wrong both as to the words used and their gist. Moreover, cross-examination did not reveal his errors as clearly as one might have hoped. . . . Dean came across as a man who has a good memory for gist with an occasional literal word stuck in, like a raisin in a pudding. He was not such a man.” 

And so, whether Dean had a decent gist memory probably depends on how broadly one defines “gist.” He knew he had a conversation with Nixon. He knew what the topics were. Nonetheless, he appears not to have known what was actually said, either by Nixon or himself.

Incidental to the main point of this post, the two conclusions Ehrman draws in the last paragraph quoted here strike me as problematic.

Firstly, on what basis does he appear to assume that “a fine memory” is more likely to be associated with “the extraordinarily intelligent and educated” members of society — especially when the article he cites suggests no such correlation.

Secondly, what is the relevance of any of us trying to recall what someone said two, twenty or forty years ago? No one suggests that the authors of the gospels were asking eyewitnesses or someone who heard eyewitnesses etc to recall for the first time what they heard many years earlier, as if they had never bothered to think and talk about those memories in the meantime. Yet Ehrman draws this analogy more than once in his book.

In this instance we are talking about an extraordinarily intelligent and educated man with a fine memory, trying to recall conversations from nine months before. What would happen if we were dealing with more ordinary people with average memories, trying to recall what someone said maybe two years ago? Or twenty? Or forty? Try it for yourself: pick a conversation that you had two years ago with someone— a teacher, a pastor, a boss. Do you remember it word for word?

Ehrman, Bart D. (2016-03-01). Jesus Before the Gospels: How the Earliest Christians Remembered, Changed, and Invented Their Stories of the Savior (pp. 128-131). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition. [Bolding in all quotations is my own.]

Ehrman’s point that memories even of eyewitnesses are unreliable seems pretty well secured. If John Dean could be so completely wrong about a conversation he had with the President of the United States — recalling a “fantasy”, not even the “gist” — then how can we trust any eyewitness?

But my own memory troubled me. Bart Ehrman’s book reminded me of a very similar one written five or six years earlier by another biblical scholar, but one better known for his attempts to argue for the reliability of eyewitness testimony in the gospels. The following is from Robert McIver, Memory, Jesus, and the Synoptic Gospels (2011)

mciverDean’s memories are true in general of the several repeated episodes in which he was a participant (“repisodes”). “What he says about these ‘repisodes’ is essentially correct, even though it is not literally faithful to any one occasion. He is not remembering the ‘gist’ of a single episode by itself, but the common characteristics of a whole series of events” (Neisser 1981, 19–20). . . . 

The case study of John Dean’s testimony before the Watergate committee provides a vivid illustration of many of the features of memory that will be canvassed in the next few chapters. His memories are most unreliable with regard to time. Dean himself says that he reconstructed the sequence of events from his collection of newspaper clippings. His actual testimony shows many “time-slice errors.” In other words, he reports things that did happen but that happened on occasions other than the one that he is reporting. His memory performs best at the level of gist. In fact, it turns out to be quite unreliable at the level of detail. (pp. 18-19)

So what’s going on here? How can the same scholarly article (Ulric Neisser: John Dean’s Memory: A Case Study, 1981) about a particular case-study support both Ehrman’s case for unreliability and McIver’s for reliability of memory?

Ulric Neisser
Ulric Neisser

Here is Ulric Neisser’s own summary of his main argument taken from the abstract:

[John Dean’s] memory for even the “gist” of conversations was quite poor except where that gist had been rehearsed in advance or frequently repeated. But while his testimony was often wrong in terms of the particular conversations he tried to describe, Dean was fundamentally right about what had been happening: the existence of a “cover-up” and the participation of various individuals in it. His testimony was accurate at a level that is neither “semantic” (since he was ostensibly describing particular episodes) nor “episodic” (since his accounts of the episodes were often wrong). The term “repisodic” is coined here to describe such memories: what seems to be a remembered episode actually represents a repeated series of events, and thus reflects a genuinely existing state of affairs.

The first sentence there would seem to suggest that stories frequently repeated about Jesus by eyewitnesses would be generally reliable. But there’s a but. Neisser concludes with a discussion on “Implications for the Psychology of Memory” and begins:

Are we all like this? Is everyone’s memory constructed, staged, self-centered? And do we all have access to certain invariant facts nevertheless? Such questions cannot be answered by single case histories. 

Neisser speculates on the possible effect the character of the witness would have in such circumstances:

The circumstances and the man conspired to favor exaggeration. The events were important; his testimony was critical; its effect was historic. Dean was too intelligent not to know what he was doing, and too ambitious and egocentric to remain unaffected by it. His ambition reorganized his recollections: even when he tries to tell the truth, he can’t help emphasizing his own role in every event. A different man in the same position might have observed more dispassionately, reflected on his experiences more thoughtfully, and reported them more accurately. Unfortunately, such traits of character are rare.

Memories have long been understood as being constructed, but the John Dean study does more than remind us of this fact:

What have we learned about testimony by comparing “the human tape recorder” with a real one? We are hardly surprised to find that memory is constructive, or that confident witnesses may be wrong. William Stern studied the psychology of testimony at the turn of the century and warned us not to trust memory even under oath; Bartlett was doing experiments on “constructive” memory fifty years ago. I believe, however, that John Dean’s testimony can do more than remind us of their work. For one thing, his constructed memories were not altogether wrong. On the contrary, there is a sense in which he was altogether right; a level at which he was telling the truth about the Nixon White House. And sometimes – as in his testimony about March 21 – he was more specifically right as well. These islands of accuracy deserve special consideration. What kinds of things did he remember? . . . .

What seems to be specific in his memory actually depends on repeated episodes, rehearsed presentations, or overall impressions. He believes that he is recalling one conversation at a time, that his memory is “episodic” in Tulving’s sense, but he is mistaken.

He is not alone in making this mistake. I believe that this aspect of Dean’s testimony illustrates a very common process. The single clear memories that we recollect so vividly actually stand for something else; they are “screen memories” a little like those Freud discussed long ago. Often their real basis is a set of repeated experiences, a sequence of related events that the single recollection merely typifies or represents. . . . 

Such memories might be called repisodic rather than episodic: what seems to be an episode actually represents a repetition. Dean remembers the million-dollar remark because Nixon made it so often; he recalls the “cancer” metaphor because he first planned it and then repeated it; he remembers his March 21 lecture to the President because he planned it, then presented it, and then no doubt went over it again and again in his own mind. What he says about these “repisodes” is essentially correct, even though it is not literally faithful to any one occasion. He is not remembering the “gist” of a single episode by itself, but the common characteristics of a whole series of events. 

This notion may help us to interpret the paradoxical sense in which Dean was accurate throughout his testimony. Given the numerous errors in his reports of conversations, what did he tell the truth about? I think that he extracted the common themes that remained invariant across many conversations and many experiences, and then incorporated those themes in his testimony. . . . 

Except where the significance of his own role was at stake, Dean was right about what had really been going on in the White House. What he later told the Senators was fairly close to the mark: his mind was not a tape recorder, but it certainly received the message that was being given.

In this instance I think on balance Ulric Neisser’s analysis of John Dean’s testimony supports Robert McIver’s thesis (and by extension even Richard Bauckham’s thesis) of reliability of memory rather than Bart Ehrman’s for unreliability. Perhaps Bart Ehrman could use the case study to argue for the unreliability of attempts to remember the incidental and one-off or atypical words and deeds of Jesus or at least to argue for a particular word or action occurring on a particular day: e.g. Did Jesus tell his disciples they would all desert him on the Passover evening or was it some other time he warned them about that? Was one of the times he was anointed really just prior to his death?


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Neil Godfrey

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5 thoughts on “Beware Memory Scholars Citing Case Studies”

  1. Or? Is the more Christian author, ever the apologist, wants to stretch facts, to argue for the reliability of a given pronouncement. Even in the face of plenty of negative evidence; the testimony obviously contradicting the tape. Whereas the less Christian agnostic, Ehrman, is not willing to willing to do that.

    The hard evidence seems to go against reliability. As for contextual, soft evidence? It’s already rather more speculative it seems.

    A Christian apologist supports bending specific facts, believing the overall goal or model justifies that. But the less religiously-motivated reporter, will not.

    Granted, Ehrman has his own problems. But since he is probably the less religiously-committed author, I’d expect him to be normally the more objective of the two, relatively speaking.

    As for the original author?

    Your general point is good though. Even memory scholars will remember or characterize things according to their own bent.

  2. But Neisser’s conclusion is otherwise, yes? The contradictions in detail paradoxically do not falsify the memory of the message that was repeatedly delivered.

    1. This could be carried a step farther though. Some metaphorically inclined authors will emphasize an overarching message, and regard detail as unimportant. Rather as priests emphasize their master scheme: the alleged theological implications in everything; drinking your morning coffee. Subordinating all detail to the overarching metaphysical scheme.

      But in contrast, the more scientific mind might 1) look more carefully at the detail. As important in itself, in its individuality. Or, 2) if looking for a larger pattern, they would suggest the detail might suggest some other pattern than conventionally imposed on the material.

      In this particular example to be sure, it seems the larger pattern is valid. Nixon was ordering government action against the opposition party, and then covering it up. But that at least was an empirical generalization, extrapolated from facts. Rather than the usual priestly theological imposition or colonization of all details, by their usual one all-purpose answer for everything.

      Sorry. Too much caffine?

  3. Yes, I just scarfed a twelve ounce cup.

    A priest might say:
    The Congressional Sanhedrin sought to prove that Our Messiah (Nixon) had broken The Mosaic Law.
    But, The Chosen One, Who delivered the Secret Plan for Peace in the War against Godless Atheism, Divinely attempted to reveal the Hypocricy of the Scribes and Pharisees, and the name of the Betrayer.

    I had to look up how to spell “caffeine”.

    1. Seems good.

      As I might roughly see it? Both 1) acolyte Republican priests and 2) reporters offered big-picture narratives. But of course today we favor the reporters. Who demanded transcripts, real evidence, before composing their summary.

      In the reporters’ overview, and ours, the maligned informant is found to be however, substantially true. And found to be so on the basis of actual data, and scientific evaluations. Rather than messianic myths.

      Am I getting this right? My own small iced toddy seems like about the same as five cups of regular. Should I do more? Or less?

      Enough for now I guess. Thanks for your help. Feel free to take over if you’re in the mood. It’s a complex but interesting subject.

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