Conversion Stories, Social Conformity, and the Problem of Memory

Have you ever noticed the way conversion narratives are created? If you’ve ever been a fundamentalist or an evangelical, you know the pressure there to “tell your testimony.” Yet weirdly, these testimonies all seem to conform to the same pattern. It’s like someone handed in an outline and they just filled in the details. What happens when fundamentalists or evangelicals – or anyone, for that matter – swap stories with each other is that these stories change. They become shaped over time to conform to social pressures and even memories themselves can end up changed. I just found an article on this pheonomenon today, and will offer some clips along with commentary:

The reason we’re such consummate bullshitters is simple: we bullshit for each other. We tweak our stories so that they become better stories. We bend the facts so that the facts appeal to the group. Because we are social animals, our memory of the past is constantly being revised to fit social pressures.

The power of this phenomenon was demonstrated in a new Science paper by Micah Edelson, Tali Sharot, Raymond Dolan and Yadin Dudai. The neuroscientists were interested in how the opinion of other people can alter our personal memories, even over a relatively short period of time. The experiment itself was straightforward. A few dozen people watched an eyewitness style documentary about a police arrest in groups of five. Three days later, the subjects returned to the lab and completed a memory test about the documentary. Four days after that, they were brought back once again and asked a variety of questions about the short movie while inside a brain scanner.

This time, though, the subjects were given a “lifeline”: they were shown the answers given by other people in their film-viewing group. Unbeknownst to the subjects, the lifeline was actually composed of false answers to the very questions that the subjects had previously answered correctly and confidently. Remarkably, this false feedback altered the responses of the participants, leading nearly 70 percent to conform to the group and give an incorrect answer. They had revised their stories in light of the social pressure.

The question, of course, is whether their memory of the film had actually undergone a change. (Previous studies have demonstrated that people will knowingly give a false answer just to conform to the group. We’re such wimps.) To find out, the researchers invited the subjects back to the lab one last time to take the memory test, telling them that the answers they had previously been given were not those of their fellow film watchers, but randomly generated by a computer. Some of the responses reverted back to the original, but more than 40 percent remained erroneous, implying that the subjects were relying on false memories implanted by the earlier session. They had come to believe their own bullshit.

Here’s where the fMRI data proved useful. By comparing the differences in brain activity between the persistent false memories and the temporary errors of “social compliance” the scientists were able to detect the neural causes of the misremembering. The main trigger seemed to be a strong co-activation between two brain areas: the hippocampus and the amygdala. The hippocampus is known to play a role in long-term memory formation, while the amygdala is an emotional center in the brain. According to the scientists, the co-activation of these areas can sometimes result in the replacement of an accurate memory with a false one, provided the false memory has a social component. This suggests that feedback of others has the ability to strongly shape our remembered experience. We are all performers, twisting our stories for strangers.

On one level, this is distressing. If we can’t even trust our own memories, what can we trust? But if you’re okay with reality being complicated and with truth being hard to grasp, this becomes fascinating. The article goes on to provide an extremely pertinent example:

This research helps explain why a shared narrative can often lead to totally unreliable individual memories. We are so eager to conform to the collective, to fit our little lives into the arc of history, that we end up misleading ourselves. Consider an investigation of flashbulb memories from September 11, 2001. A few days after the tragic attacks, a team of psychologists led by William Hirst and Elizabeth Phelpsbegan interviewing people about their personal experiences. In the years since, the researchers have tracked the steady decay of these personal stories. They’ve shown, for instance, that subjects have dramatically changed their recollection of how they first learned about the attacks. After one year, 37 percent of the details in their original story had changed. By 2004, that number was approaching 50 percent. The scientists have just begun analyzing their ten year follow-up data, but it will almost certainly show that the majority of details from that day are now inventions. Our 9/11 tales are almost certainly better – more entertaining, more dramatic, more reflective of that awful day – but those improvements have come at the expense of the truth. Stories make sense. Life usually doesn’t.

This is, I think, extremely similar to the way conversion narratives are fashioned. You tell the story over and over again, and each time you watch your audience and you know when they’re bored and when they’re captivated. Your narrative shifts to become more interesting and more in conformity with the expectations of the group. But it’s more than that. These studies show that your memory itself can change

I’ve seen this happen. As an example, my mother has completely rewritten the story of what happened between when I started asking questions and when I left. I’ve checked the story with several others of those involved, and what she says happened is factually wrong on several points. But I honestly think she’s sincere. Somehow her very memory of what happened has changed. And why? Because she has to make sense of what happened. She has to be able to explain it, to understand it, and to do so the narrative – and the memory – has to change.

And that’s not the only time I’ve seen it. When one of my parents’ friends told a story about encountering a demon in the hallway in her house at night, I am fairly certain that that story was shaped and tailored, and what actually happened was enhanced. When my mother told of praying a demon out of a sick child, that narrative was also likely carefully formed to appeal to the group. If you hang around long in a fundamentalist or evangelical church, you will hear this sort of thing again and again as the hum drum facts of everyday life are shaped into a coherent narrative centered on firm religious beliefs.

Am I being to harsh here? I mean, how can I know everyone is doing that rather than just telling what happened? I suppose I can’t, but what I do know is that, growing up in a family that straddled the line between fundamentalist and evangelical, I did it quite frequently. There’s an excitement to shaping random happenings together into a narrative that displays a religious or theological point. There’s something satisfying about telling a story about God’s goodness to others and seeing them nod and say “praise God.”

The weird thing is, I did this at least partly consciously. I remember feeling sometimes that I was making things up, putting things together in a narrative that went way beyond what had happened. I was telling about God’s power, but even as I did, I was conscious of the element of showbiz. Perhaps I was never cut out to be a good Christian.

But there’s something else to remember here. The point of this article was not that religious people shape their memories but that everyone does it. This is the distressing part, but I think knowledge that this takes place is at least better than ignorance. It helps me to remember that even today the narrative I have of my journey from there to here is shaped by a selective memory that picks out some facts while rejecting others.

Where does this leave us? I don’t know. I do know, though, that I no longer have that feeling I used to have when I was religious, that feeling that I was perhaps bullshitting or being misleading when I told my stories of God’s grace or my spiritual journey. Maybe it’s because I no longer feel the same need to make my story fit into a neat little box tied up with a ribbon. It’s not that I don’t feel pressure, when I blog for instance, to make it all out as worse than it was. But then, I am aware of that pressure, and I actively work against it, trying to make sure that I don’t minimize the good for the bad. Maybe, then, it makes a difference that I’m aware of the pressure to make my narrative conform and even to reshape my own memories.

Or maybe I’m just spouting off bullshit. ;-)

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About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.


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