False Memories, Social Roles: Elizabeth Loftus, Anthony Pratkanis, and More Storytelling

They may not have intended it, but back-to-back speakers Elizabeth Loftus and Anthony Pratkanis both discusses what could be considered the same subject: What a trivial effort it is to make humans believe something that may not be so.

Yesterday, Maria Konnikova told us about how storytelling, so beloved in the abstract, can be a powerful force for evil. And like Pratkanis, she was focused on con artists, those who manipulate people, through storytelling, in order to arrive at some desired behavior.

Loftus’s area was slightly different, focused on how memories, as opposed to identities and what Pratkanis described as social roles, can be manipulated. Again, through storytelling.

You know what’s kind of scary about all this? How easy it seems to be.

Famously, Loftus’s research has shown that people can be led to believe the they have experienced events in their lives that have never occurred. This comes up a lot in terms of therapists knowingly or unknowingly convincing patients that they’ve endured some kind of trauma that they’d since suppressed: abuse, Satanic rituals, etc.

But the dials go up and down in terms of the significance of these false memories. Loftus explained that people can be led to, on one hand, be convinced that they have always loved asparagus, or to the other extreme, come to “remember” seeing traumatic events or taking part in mind-boggling adventures.

No one is immune, it seems. Even when they tested a control group against people of “superior memory,” the results were the same.

Imagine the implications of this, and the ethical implications. “Should we ever use this mind technology affirmatively? Should we ever ban the use of this kind of mind technology?” It’s truly a great power when you think of it.

Pratkanis showed us how this power can be exercised in more malicious or underhanded ways, not with memories, but with the assignment of social roles. But it’s all still storytelling.

The term here is “altercasting,” putting yourself in a social role to get the behavior that you want from another person. “If I wanted you to be critical of my lecture,” said Pratkanis, “I’d remind you you’re all skeptics.” Then, rethinking this, said, “That would be a bad example.” Laughter ensues, of course.

So a good example is someone who takes the social role of a teacher. That assigns the role of student to others, and they begin to behave like students, dutifully taking down the things spoken by the teacher.

But it has to be consistent, Pratkanis says. You can’t be in the role of teacher and tell everyone to take their clothes off. The story has to make internal sense.

“Once we’re in those roles, then we live up to them,” he said, “and all around us are people reminding us of those social roles.” All around us people take their roles in the story. And the story may be entirely false. But when altercasting is successfully pulled off, it’s like we’re all handed a script for a play in which we’ve been cast.

What we as skeptics can do is to altercast ourselves with the aim of promoting critical thinking and humanist values. We can promote a social role that values evidence and reason. We can serve as the best example of this by assuming the “scientist” social role for ourselves, “to bend over backwards to prove yourself wrong.”

As Loftus concluded in her presentation on memories, “Just because somebody tells you something, and they express it with a lot of confidence…just because they cry when they tell you the story, it doesn’t mean that it really happened.”

“Memory, like liberty, is a fragile, fragile thing.” And so, as we learned from Pratkanis, are our very identities. And, as we learned from Konnikova, so are our beliefs about others. Through storytelling, it’s a wonder we can be sure of anything about ourselves or what’s around us.

Maria Konnikova on Stories as a Force for Evil

I used to make my living as a stage actor, and I was lucky enough to do almost nothing but Shakespeare for about five years. To explain what I thought was so important about Shakespeare and theatre, I often cite a scene in Al Pacino’s documentary Looking for Richard, in which a panhandler on the street tells Pacino, “Shakespeare teaches us how to feel.” So the stories I helped to tell as an actor could teach people how to feel. I loved that.

New Yorker writer Maria Konnikova reminds us this morning that as valuable as storytelling is, as intrinsic to the human experience it is, and as much as it does to give us new insights and deeper empathy, “In the wrong hands, stories can be a force for evil.” Her topic is con artists. “Con artists are actors, they are storytellers.”

You can imagine that this was quite an affecting line of thought for me. The core of Konnikova’s message is that humans are not the creatures of fact we think we are. Con artists are actors of the criminal element, and they succeed by weaving a story in which the victim of the con is the good guy, and to not follow through with what the con artist, posing as a victim, needs, is to betray the idea of the kind of people we think we are and want to be. If we default to skepticism, if we show skepticism, when someone seems to be in need, we’re violating the story.

Of course this negative power of storytelling is not just applicable to con men, but to almost all areas of our lives. Konnikova cited examples such as the law, where cases are won by the best story told. Politicians tell stories of varying degrees of truthfulness, and then another layer is added when journalists tell stories about the stories they’re being told.

Want she wants us to take away is that the more you want to believe a story, the more you have to rely on the trust-but-verify dictum.

Or, as she says she sometimes feels compelled to shout, “Humanity sucks, trust no one!” I kind of glommed on to that one.

Oh hey! You can hear Konnikova talk more about this subject on CFI’s podcast Point of Inquiry.