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Examining The Political Event That Wasn't There

Politics is a subjective business, but a recent study seems to indicate — with some manipulation — people can claim to recall political events that never actually occurred. Weekend Edition Saturday host Scott Simon speaks with NPR science correspondent Shankar Vedantam about the research.

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Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Politics is a subjective business. The way we think about it could be influenced not only by issues - we like to think those are our listeners - but the color of a candidate's tie, or their names, their perceived personalities, and the way we remember events about which we are certain. But a recent study seems to indicate our memories can be influenced by our politics.

We asked NPR science correspondent Shankar Vedantam to look into this research for us. And, Shankar, thanks for being with us.

SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: Glad to be here, Scott.

SIMON: How'd the study work?

VEDANTAM: Well, this was a study that grew out of an article that was published in Slate magazine a couple years ago. Slate asked thousands of its readers to identify photographs that were described as being news photographs. Now, some of the photographs actually were real photographs taken from actual real news events. Some of these photographs were doctored photographs; they were Photoshopped to look like they were real news events but actually they were fake.

Attach the photographs, there also these captions. And two of the photographs in particular were of great interest. One of them showed former President George W. Bush vacationing. The caption said: With baseball player Roger Clemens, even as Hurricane Katrina was sweeping over New Orleans. And the second picture showed the President Barack Obama shaking hands with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on the sidelines of a United Nations meeting.

SIMON: Neither of which happen, right?

VEDANTAM: Neither of which actually happened, yes?

SIMON: How did people respond when they looked?

VEDANTAM: Well, it was actually pretty astonishing. I spoke with Steven Frenda. He's a doctoral student of psychology at the University of California, Irvine. And here's what he had to tell me.

STEVEN FRENDA: Each of the events, a pretty substantial proportion of the participants reported that they remembered these things happening, and that they saw them happen on the news.

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: I mean, I guess we've known for some time our memories aren't perfect.

VEDANTAM: Yeah.

SIMON: But what might be new in this study?

VEDANTAM: Well, first of all, I think the number of people who misremember the false images as being true is remarkable. Fifty percent of the people actually remembered false events being accurate. Twenty-five percent remembered where they had seen these images. But the other thing that was striking is that there was a link with political orientations. It turned out that Slate also asked the volunteers in the study what their political affiliations were.

And it turned out that liberals were much more likely to remember as true the picture showing George W. Bush in an embarrassing light. And conservatives were much more likely to remember President Barack Obama doing something that they didn't like.

SIMON: The implications of this research - I mean, I can imagine - dare I say it - political consultants taking a look at this and saying, boy, this is something we can use to our advantage.

VEDANTAM: I suspect that's the case. But it's also the case, Scott, that even without anyone manipulating them, it appears that large numbers of Americans are perfectly willing to manipulate themselves. And I think that's disturbing because most of us think of ourselves as being accurate and objective and careful viewers of the news.

One of the interesting things the Frenda study found is that people who had the best recollection of real news events, were the most likely to be biased in remembering the false images, as well.

SIMON: So the people who congratulate themselves on being constantly in touch with the news are the ones who are most vulnerable.

VEDANTAM: Yeah. And this has been matched by other kinds of research, Scott, which often show that the people who are the smartest - and often the most knowledgeable - are not the ones who are the most immune from bias. They're often the ones who are the most vulnerable to bias.

SIMON: Now that we know the tricks of which our memories are capable, is there any way of putting a cork in it?

VEDANTAM: You know, I asked Frenda that and here's what he had to tell me.

FRENDA: I would like to think that I've always been someone who would double check sources before I believed them something and let it influence my judgment, but I can't really say for sure that I am any more immune to these effects than anyone else.

VEDANTAM: And the think the point that he's trying to make that's a useful point, Scott, is that what might be really called for here is humility. Not so much our inability to say I'm not going to be biased, but a certain humility when it comes to our own certainty about the facts, that when we think we know and understand why politicians do certain things, that a certain humility might prompt us to say, you know, that's my opinion but it may actually not have happened.

SIMON: Shankar Vedantam, NPR science correspondent. You can follow him on Twitter @hiddenbrain - the title of a book, I believe - and while you're at it you can follow me @nprscottsimon. Always nice to be with you.

VEDANTAM: Thanks so much, Scott.

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