Plebgate and the Illusion of Memory

Okay, so Plebgate is back in the news today because Keith Wallis, the Metropolitan Police Officer who false claimed to have witnessed the incident in an email sent to his local MP has admitted a charge of misconduct in public office and offered to resign from the force.

So, we can safely conclude that there was a stitch-up after the fact in which at least one serving police officer lied to get at Andrew Mitchell and damage his political career.

But, if we strip away all the extraneous details and this post-hoc stitch-up and focus just on the incident itself, what have we still actually got on the table?

Well, what we have is a brief verbal exchange, lasting only a matter of six seconds or so, between a Member of Parliament and a police officer in which the exact words spoken are still a matter of dispute.

The MP, Andrew Mitchell, admits to swearing at the police officer in question, PC Toby Rowland, but claims to have said words to the effect of ‘I thought you guys were fucking meant to help us?’ or maybe ‘I thought you lot were supposed to fucking help us’; there is some disagreement in media coverage on the matter of the exact words spoken by Mitchell in his account of the incident but the gist of both statements is essentially the same.

PC Rowland, on the other hand, claims that what Mitchell actually said was “Best you learn your fucking place. You don’t run this fucking government. You’re fucking plebs.” and, as I write this, both men are sticking firmly to their own account of the incident to the extent that the question of what was actually said may very well end up being settled in court. Mitchell is currently suing The Sun newspaper for defamation over it’s published account of the incident and PC Rowland has issued a letter of claim notifying Mitchell that he intends to sue over a statement in which Mitchell asserted that any officer who maintained that he had used the word ‘pleb’ is ‘not telling the truth’.

So there you have it. Two men giving two different accounts of the same incident in which both were directly involved and so, logically, only one of them can possibly be telling the truth.


Are you absolutely sure of that..?

I want you to read this next couple of paragraphs very carefully:

Leslie Meltzer and Tyce Palmaffy, a young couple who had met as undergraduates at the University of Virginia, were on their way home from dinner on a summer night in 2002 in Washington, D.C. They drove their Camry north on Fourteenth Street and stopped at a traffic light at the intersection of Rhode Island Avenue.10 Today, it costs upward of $300,000 to buy a small apartment near the Whole Foods supermarket in this area, but then, the neighborhood was still recovering from the effects of race riots and arson that took place in the 1960s. Tyce, a writer on education policy, was driving. His wife, Leslie, who had recently earned a law degree at Yale, was in the passenger seat. To her right, Leslie saw a man riding a bicycle down the sidewalk in their direction. Suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, another man approached the cyclist, pulled him off the bicycle, and began stabbing him repeatedly. Leslie heard the victim scream. She grabbed her cell phone and dialed 911, only to be greeted by a voice saying, “You have reached the emergency 911 ser vice, all lines are busy, please hold.”

By the time the 911 operator got on the line, less than a minute had passed, but the assault was over and the light had turned green. Leslie described what she saw as they continued driving with the traffic down Fourteenth Street. The victim was a man in his twenties or thirties riding a bicycle. What about the assailant? He was dressed in jeans, she said. Overhearing her, Tyce interrupted to say that he was wearing sweatpants. They also disagreed about the kind of shirt he was wearing, how tall he was, and even whether he was black or Hispanic. They soon realized that they could agree only on the attacker’s age (twenties), on his weapon (a knife), and on the fact that they were not painting the clearest picture for the operator.

The Invisible Gorilla, pp 51-52

Okay, so here we have two people witnessing the same extremely shocking but brief incident – a sudden, violent attack on a cyclist – from the same location at the same time and yet, less than a minute later, the couple found that they disagreed on what most people would to be a number of very basic and obvious details of what they’d just witnesses, such as whether the assailant was wearing jeans or sweatpants, what kind of shirt he was wearing and even his ethnicity.

How can this possibly happen? Does one of two witnesses just have a poor memory for details?

No, this is an example of what the authors of The Invisible, Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons (and many other psychologists) call ‘the illusion of memory’.

The traditional view of memory, which most people assume to be correct, is that our brain records an accurate and complete record of the event we experience, rather like a collection of video recordings stored on a computer’s hard drive, and if we subsequently have trouble remembering something clearly it is because we’ve somehow lost track of the recording we’re looking for or it’s become corrupted and degraded over time.

The problem is, that’s not actually how our memory works, as this quote from Harvard Professor of Psychology Daniel Gilbert succinctly explains:

The elaborate tapestry of our experience is not stored in memory—at least not in its entirety. Rather, it is compressed for storage by first being reduced to a few critical threads, such as a summary phrase (“Dinner was disappointing”). Later, when we want to remember our experience, our brains quickly reweave the tapestry by fabricating–not by actually retrieving–the bulk of the information that we experience as memory. This fabrication happens so quickly and effortlessly that we have the illusion that the entire thing was in our heads the entire time.

What our brains initially store as memory is not like a video recording at all but much more like a brief outline for a scene in a novel or play, a general gist of the event(s) that we’ve just witnessed and a few bits of  detail that might have particularly grabbed our attention at the time, just enough reconstruct the scene later on with our brain seamlessly filling in the gaps with whatever other bits of information it happens to have to hand at the time. Our memories do not provide us with an objective record of events, they are subjective narratives which remain open to revision and amendment over time. We can and do incorporate things into our memories of certain events not because they were actually present at the time but simply because they meet our subjective expectations of what should have been there, what we should have seen and heard and even what we may have learned about a particular event after the fact but once these things are incorporated into memory as part of event they seem as real to us as if were viewing a contemporaneous video recording of an event as it actually took place.

In some cases, the things we remember as our own memories may not even belong to us at all:

About ten years ago at a party Dan hosted, a colleague of ours named Ken Norman told us a funny story about sitting next to the actor Patrick Stewart (best known for his roles as Captain Jean-Luc Picard of Star Trek and Charles Xavier in the X-Men films) at a Legal Sea Food restaurant in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The story was prompted when Chris noticed that Dan had a small figurine of Captain Picard perched next to his television screen. “Can I buy your Captain Picard?” asked Chris. Dan said that it was not for sale. Chris offered five, then ten dollars. Dan refused. Chris eventually raised his bid to fifty dollars— for reasons that escape him now— but Dan still refused. (Neither of us remembers why Dan refused, but to this day, Picard has not left his place amid Dan’s electronics.)

At this point Ken told us that at Legal Sea Food, Patrick Stewart had been dining with an attractive younger woman who, based on snippets of overheard conversation, appeared to be a publicist or agent. For dessert Stewart ordered Baked Alaska— a choice that stood out in memory because it appears rarely on restaurant menus. Toward the end of his meal, another distinctive event happened: Two members of the kitchen staff came out to Stewart’s table and asked for his autograph, which he readily granted. Moments later, a manager appeared and apologized, explaining that the “Trekkie” cooks’ action was against restaurant policy. Stewart shrugged off the supposed offense, and he and his companion were soon on their way.

The only problem with the story was that it had actually happened not to Ken, but to Chris. Ken had heard Chris tell the story some time before and had incorporated it into his own memory. In fact, Ken felt so strongly that the memory was his, and had so completely forgotten that Chris was the original raconteur, that even Chris’s presence when Ken retold the story did not jog his memory of the way in which he had actually “encountered” Captain Picard. But when Chris pointed out the error, Ken quickly realized that this memory was not his own. This anecdote illustrates another aspect of the illusion of memory: When we retrieve a memory, we can falsely believe that we are fetching a record of something that happened to us rather than someone else.

The Invisible Gorilla, pp 61-62.

Okay, so getting back to Plebgate what I want to do is set aside for a moment the question what was actually said and focus instead on what Andrew Mitchell’s state of mind is likely to have been at the time the incident took place and , consequently, how he is likely to have spoken to PC Rowland in terms of his tone of voice, etc. Let’s think for not about what Mitchell said, but how he may have said it, whatever ‘it’ was.

I think it’s pretty obvious that both conflicting accounts of the incident point to Mitchell feeling rather irritated and a little agitated, if not outright annoyed, at the refusal of the officers to open the main gate for him, so we can perhaps safely assume that when he spoke to PC Rowland he didn’t put on his best House of Commons speaking voice. He also clearly didn’t raise his voice or shout at PC Rowland, because if he had then whatever he actually said would have overheard by the other police officers at the scene, who were standing no more than 10-15 feet away at the time.

That being the case it seems possible, if not likely, that rather simply speaking to PC Rowland as he walked towards the exist gate, Mitchell may very well have ‘chuntered‘ at him.

Now, if you’re from the Midlands or the North of England then you should know exactly what I mean but if not then the best way I can describe chuntering is to suggest that you think in terms of the resentful tone of voice that teenage boys tend to adopt on being told by their parents to get off their lazy arses and go and put the bins out for collection or do some other type of housework – the one where they start complaining at a volume that’s just loud enough to make it absolutely obvious that they’re thoroughly pissed off at being asked to pull their weight around the house and that you are, therefore, absolutely the most cruel and heartless parent in the history of the universe ever, but not so loud that you can actually make out exactly what it is they’re saying beyond the odd phrase such as ‘NOT FAIR’.

That’s a pretty fair description of chuntering and it’s a mode of speaking that many people – not just teenage boys – will readily adopt when expressing resentment at the behaviour of an authority figure or bureaucrat who’s being (in their opinion) a bit of an arsehole or a jobsworth but not to the extent where its worth getting into a proper argument over it. It would hardly be surprising, therefore, if this were to be something very close the manner in which Mitchell addressed PC Rowland, not least because just about the only point of agreement between the two when it comes to the question of what was actually said is that the word ‘fucking’ was used by Mitchell.

At this point we need to remember that the default assumption that most people, including the media, have made about this incident is that because Andrew Mitchell spoke briefly to PC Rowland at fairly close proximity, both of them must know exactly what was said during the that brief exchange and that, therefore, the fact that both have given wholly different accounts of the content of that exchange must mean that one of the two must be lying.

But, if we put together the two perfectly plausible observations about Andrew Mitchell’s possible state of mind at the precise time that the incident took place with what we know from numerous scientific studies of memory that it is entirely possible that our default assumption may be completely wrong.

If we accept that Mitchell was somewhat agitated at the time he spoke to PC Rowland then it’s entirely possible, if not likely, that he didn’t give any real thought what he was actually saying at the time and just blurted out whatever the first thoughts were that came to mind without paying too much attention to the actual words he used. His actual memory of the incident, the compressed narrative stored by his brain at the time the incident took place may very well have amounted to not much more the fact that he ‘had words’ with the policeman at the gate over the lack of cooperation during which he swore, using the word ‘fucking’ but otherwise the detail of what he said and the exact words he used at the time may not have registered at all.

That being the case, when Mitchell is later called upon to try to remember exactly what he in response to the allegation that he called PC Rowland a ‘fucking pleb’, his brain will try to fill in blanks from the limited amount of information it stored at the time plus whatever other narrative information it has to hand, which will include, amongst other things, Mitchell’s sense of his own self image and internal beliefs and expectations as to how he would, or perhaps should, behave in situations such as the incident that took place with PC Rowland, which may very well include the belief that he simply wouldn’t be stupid enough to call a police officer a ‘fucking pleb’ to his face and that belief may easily shape his recollection of the incident irrespective of whether he actually used the word ‘pleb’ or not.

In short, even if Mitchell did call PC Rowland a ‘fucking pleb’, his own memory of the incident may well be telling him that he didn’t say anything of the sort and that memory is a real to him as any other memory he possesses. It is, so far as he is concerned, the truth.

Equally, if we look at the incident from PC Rowland’s side then if Mitchell did chunter at him that it is possible that the only actual word that he clearly heard Mitchell say is ‘fucking’ and the rest of the conversation, as he recalls it, is itself a memory illusion, his brain filling the gaps when most of what he actually heard at the time was too indistinct to make out clearly.

Okay, so you might well wonder, if that is the case, why Rowland’s brain hit on the word ‘pleb’ when it was filling in the blanks. Why that specific word and not something like ‘cunt’ or ‘tosser’ or ‘wanker’ or ‘twat’? English is, after all, not a language in which there is a particular shortage of words to which ‘fucking’ can be added to create an insult. Surely, if PC Rowland’s brain is filling in the gaps here then its more likely that it would throw up a fairly commonplace phrase like ‘fucking twat’ or ‘fucking wanker’ than something unusual like ‘fucking pleb’?

That, however, presupposes that it is actually unusual for PC Rowland to encounter people using the word ‘pleb’ as an insult which, as a diplomatic protection officer, may easily not be the case. It may not be a particularly common insult where you and I live and work but that doesn’t mean that the same is true in and around Downing Street or Whitehall or the Houses of Parliament, where PC Rowland presumably spends much of his working life, in which case it would be no leap at all for his brain to the jump from ‘fucking [blank]’ to ‘fucking pleb’ when called up to recall exactly what Mitchell said, even if he had never actually heard Mitchell personally use that word before.

Again, the point here is not to try and untangle the wiring in PC Rowland’s head but rather to note that, irrespective of what he may actually have heard or not heard Mitchell say at the time and how much he may or may not have actually heard clearly, his memory of the incident and of Mitchell calling him a ‘fucking pleb’ may be as clear and vivid as any other memory he possess but still, nevertheless, inaccurate. Even so, to PC Rowland his recollection of the incident will, like Mitchell’s, also be the truth.

So, who’s telling the truth and who’s lying?

Well, although it’s still perfectly possible that only one of them is actually being truthful, it’s also entirely possible that both of them firmly believe that they’re are telling the truth, inasmuch as the accounts they’ve given of the incident are entirely faithful to their own personal recollection of the incident, but that one or even both of them are mistaken as to what was actually said and that their memory of the incident is, itself, faulty. Without an admission from one of them that they have lied or an objective piece of evidence, such as audio recording of the actual conversation as it happened, there is no way for anyone to be sure exactly what passed between on that evening, not even, perhaps, either Andrew Mitchell or PC Rowland.

One thought on “Plebgate and the Illusion of Memory

  1. This is essentially a trivial incident and I think you are spot-on about the cause of intransigence on both sides.

    We did experiments on memory when I did psychology where events were staged and we were asked to recall them later – and there’s a more famous report about a psychology tutor who took written statement of his student’s recollections of how they’d heard of the 9/11 attacks in the immediate aftermath and they were amazed to read back their accounts three years later by which time they clearly ‘remembered’ seeing the towers collapse ‘live’ on TV when in fact they’d caught it later on the news.

    I suspect this is why enquiries about Bloody Sunday, Hillsborough or Mark Duggan’s death are never going to convince both sides. Yes, there’s an official cover up at senior levels, and that’s deliberate, but at the same time actual participants and witnesses ‘remember’ exactly what happened – no matter what the physical evidence suggests.

    Last week’s Blue Bloods was on a similar subject.

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