Anecdotes Can Be as Fictitious as Memory [Video]

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In the 1990 movie Total Recall, as well as in the 2012 remake, the protagonist, Doug Quaid, has trouble differentiating which of his memories are true after visiting a virtual reality company that supposedly implanted a fictitious memory of a secret agent into his brain. However, in reality, people do not necessarily need a machine or drug to impose false memories. Because of the brain’s ability to fabricate such memories and stories, anecdotes can be as fictitious as the memory that is recalled, whether it is done subconsciously or not.

Anecdotes are often used to recall events, people, objects and other things from memory. According to David Weinberg, M.D., vitreoretinal surgeon and professor of ophthalmology at the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, on Science-Based Medicine, anecdotes are “narratives of one-time events.” Because these events happen just once, anecdotes do not have the averaging effects resulting from multiple observations, which makes them “highly vulnerable to random errors.” A compilation of anecdotes does not guarantee the facts are true. In fact, the opposite is true. Because anecdotes are usually based on the memory of the observer, biases fester in them, making them more likely to reinforce a false conclusion. The quality of the anecdote depends on the observer’s interpretation, recollection and reporting of experience, Weinberg stated.

Relying on anecdotes to confirm, support or refute a claim is a type of irrational thinking known as the anecdotal fallacy. Gary N. Curtis, Ph.D. and author of Fallacy Files, cited an example of an anecdotal fallacy from Cognition and Social Behavior by John S. Caroll, Ph.D., and John W. Payne, Ph.D. If car buyers read on Consumer Reports that Volvo has a better repair record and is mechanically superior than a Saab based on a consensus of car experts, and they later heard an acquaintance say that a Volvo is horrible for various “reasons,” would the car buyers still buy a Volvo? Such fallacy is common among advertisers who claim one product is better or worse than another by using such anecdotes, emotional appeal and testimonials. It is also used in political debates and propaganda to sway an audience to support a party’s cause.

A recent study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) found that even people with extraordinary memory, known as highly superior autobiographical memory (HSAM), still fall to false memories. Psychologist Lawrence Patihis from the University of California, Irvine, divided a sample population into two groups: those with ordinary memory and those with HSAM after conducting a series of tests separating the groups, such as recalling events on a particular day and year.

There is no footage of the United 93 crash, yet subjects “remembered” seeing it crash.


Both groups were later tested in their ability to resist false memories from developing. In one exercise, the researchers talked to the subjects about the 9/11 terrorist attack and briefly mentioned footage that showed United Flight 93 crashing in Pennsylvania. Of course, this footage does not exist. However, one in five people in both groups “remembered” seeing this footage when they were asked about it later. The subjects were also tested for word recall in which both groups demonstrated false memory. They were shown a list of words and were tested on the words that had and had not been included. For example, the words duvet, pillow and nap may lead to a false memory or seeing the word sleep. All participants fell for the word lures with at least eight errors per person, according to the study. Thus, those with extraordinary memory are not more immune from false memory or bias than those with ordinary memory when recalling information. Thus, anecdotes are not reliable evidence because the recollected memory can be fictitious.

Cognitive psychologist Elizabeth Loftus, who has studied human memory for about 40 years, conducted a study in 1974 that examined the validity of memory recollection from subjects about a car accident scene. She showed them film clips of car accidents and asked them to estimate the cars’ speeds. Loftus found that the wording of the questions affected the estimations. For example, those who were asked, “How fast were the cars going when they smashed into each other?” provided higher average speed estimates than those who were asked the question using the verb “hit” instead of “smash.” Subjects who were told the cars had “contacted” each other gave the lowest estimates.

“Many people believe that memory works like a recording device,” says Loftus on a TED Talk in 2013. “But decades of research has shown that’s not the case. Memory is constructed and reconstructed. It’s more like a Wikipedia page — you can go change it, but so can other people.”

Anecdotes only tell an incomplete story  – a single story – and that can be dangerous, such as instilling stereotypes. Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie stated in her TED Talk in 2009 that her college roommate, who was American, had a limited view of her origin. “My American roommate was shocked by me,” Adichie said. Her roommate was surprised that she spoke English well and liked Mariah Carey’s music. She also assumed that Adichie did not know how to use a stove. “My roommate had a single story of Africa: A single story of catastrophe. In this single story there was no possibility of Africans being similar to her in any way, no possibility of feelings more complex than pity, no possibility of a connection as human equals.”

While anecdotes can help people understand an issue better by tying emotions and context to a story, there is also a high probability that the memory is fictitious and biased, as indicated by Loftus, Weinberg and Adichie. However, under the circumstances, anecdotes can help researchers form and test hypotheses. For them to be widely accepted, they “must be confirmed by more robust data gatherings and analytic methods,” stated Weinberg. Using more hypotheses that are stemmed from biased anecdotes does not mean the hypotheses are more truthful. “When it comes to bias, you can’t make it up with volume.”

By Nick Ng


Science-Based Medicine
Scientific American
Fallacy Files