Collective delusion:
A recent article (Remember When? Henry L. Roediger III and Kathleen B. McDermott SCIENCE vol. 333 no. 6038 July 1, 2011 page 47 and Following the Crowd: Brain Substrates of Long-Term Memory Conformity Micah Edelson et al. SCIENCE vol. 333 no. 6038 July 1, 2011 page 108) has added to the already massive evidence concerning the fragility of memory.  It has long been known that sometimes people remember things wrong, and sometimes planting an idea in a person’s mind will cause that person to revise a correct memory and insert a false one. 

The interest of the study was what parts of the brain were activated when this was going on.  In the experiment subjects were shown a short film and then answered questions about what had happened.  They were then brought back after a couple of weeks and quizzed again, but this time they were shown what others were supposed to have said.  However, these other “answers” were in fact generated at random by a computer algorithm.  Unsurprisingly a large fraction changed their minds and now answered in agreement with what they had been told was the group recollection.  Anyone who suspected the cheat was identified and removed from the study. 

Then some changes were worked.  Sometimes they were told that the “answers the others had given” had actually been random and from the computer.  A very large fraction still went with the false new memory.  And more surprisingly, some were even told before the retesting that the other answers were random, that they had no information content regarding the film.  Still a very large fraction, more than 40% were swayed by the computer opinion they knew was valueless. 

I am flabbergasted.  That is not my style.  If a computer makes a suggestion and I know it is just an algorithm I will generally do the opposite out of sheer cussedness. 

The paper went on and distinguished between those that went along with the crowd but privately retained their own judgment.  There were those who were swayed at first but eventually reverted to their true memory.  And some behavior patterns were reflected by different areas of brain activation than other behavior patterns.

But what came down on me like a ton of fish is that for years I have been saying more or less, “If you don’t marry kin your fertility will fall below replacement.  Go long enough with few enough babies and there will be extinction.  And

the authorities are ignoring this.” 

Well egg on my face.  The expected reaction to that logic is, “All right.  I’ll ignore it, too.” 

I thought I was appealing to a bit of a paranoid strain in all of us.  Instead I was throwing the issue to the sheep in all of us.  I try to be even handed.  If I run into a conflict, which is rare, I will let you know.  And I shall continue to try to be fair. 

But I have been warned.  Dramatize what you think is the truth and really soft pedal what seems wrong.  Otherwise people are going to go along with the herd, and that’s suicide.

Drat.  I did it again. 

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