The Rashomon Effect

A concern voiced frequently by my patients has to do with their recall of a particular event that diverges widely from the recollection of someone else who was there. For example, a man I'll call Paul recently came to me for a consultation because he was extremely upset that he had been unable to remember an episode that occurred during a family Thanksgiving gathering two years ago. He and his sister were reminiscing and she mentioned the incident, characterizing it as a "knock-down, drag-out family fight." Paul had no memory of it happening. I encouraged him to check with other family members who were at the dinner to see if they recalled the event. When he next saw me, he announced with amazement—and relief—that virtually every person he spoke with provided a somewhat different account of what actually happened, including a brother who vaguely recalled a "lively discussion."

This form of bias is what I call the Rashomon effect. Rashomon is a classic film that tells the story of a violent crime from the viewpoints of four characters—among them, the alleged perpetrator and victim. Each account is different, reflecting each character's perspective during the event. What this movie renders so 41

powerfully is the reality that memory is not an objective record of an event. What you perceive and remember is profoundly influenced by your unique observational perspective: where you were in relation to the event, how you were feeling at the time, what motivations and expectations you have, and who you are (the various quirks and characteristics that make up your personality). All of these factors combine to comprise a form of observational perspective bias.

An example of observational perspective bias would be that you and a colleague, when sitting on different sides of a table at a meeting, will be looking at different people and things and will come away from the meeting with different memories. You might see an account manager look bored or annoyed, but your colleague might miss this information if the manager's face is out of view. Or even if the manager's face is not hidden, your colleague might focus on different situational aspects, for example, the articulate, well-researched presentation given by another person. It stands to reason that you'd each remember different details from the meeting.

In addition to where you are physically situated, your perspective also depends on your social position. The boss will have a different point of view than a junior employee. A popular guest will have a different take on a party than someone who is not well known or well liked and has trouble finding someone to talk with. So don't worry if your recollection of an event is different from the recollection of someone else who was present. It's normal. Like your fingerprints, your memory is unique, because your experiences and perceptions are unique.

There are other memory problems that become more common with age because of changes in the structure and function of the brain. I discuss them in the next chapter.


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