Sunday, February 8, 2015

How Prototypically We Forget

Brian Williams is stepping down, at least temporarily, from his NBC anchor position. His sin was having misrepresented some of his experiences during the 2003 Iraq War. I don’t want to praise Williams or to bury him, but I'd like to suggest that his difficulties stem at least partly from an involuntary cognitive pattern I call “conflation to prototype.”

The prototype of any category (for my purposes here) is that member which best or most prominently represents its category. The prototypical 1960s band would be the Beatles, the prototypical dictator, Hitler, the prototypical 1950s sex symbol, Marilyn Monroe.

The “conflation to prototype” is a cognitive slip that occurs when an incident or thing or quality is misremembered or misperceived as the prototypical member of its category. Here’s an example from my family tree. My late Uncle John fought in the Battle of the Bulge in 1944, one of the fiercest battles on the Western Front. The most prominent Allied leader in that battle was General George Patton whose fast and aggressive actions helped throw the Nazi forces back into Germany.

According to family lore, repeated almost every time the Battle of the Bulge came up in conversation, Uncle John was in General Patton’s army at that battle. But, it turned out on closer examination, that he was actually in the army of the somewhat less famous (and less prototypical) General Omar Bradley. Uncle John never lied about his action and rarely even spoke about it, but other family members, knowing that he fought at the Bulge, simply conflated his Bradley-led service with the actions of Patton’s famous army. And, by the way, hats off to Uncle John, who was wounded in the battle and received a decoration.

Awhile back, when I spoke to an old friend from Lakeland High School whom I had not seen in decades, I found out that I too had been subject to this kind of conflation. She told me that the word on me from my old LHS classmates was that I was a member of the Weather Underground. The WU was a famous, radical organization of the 1970s that used the bombing of public buildings as an anti-Vietnam War tactic. I was amazed at this news about myself and assured my former classmate that I was never part of a bomb-planting, leftist group.

I was, however, an active participant in and organizer of anti-war demonstrations on my California campus in the 1970s. And I did sport the long hair and pointedly casual attire that went with being a student radical. So on this basis, apparently, my old high school friends transmogrified me into a Weatherman.

We do this kind of conflation all the time. Even our racialized skin color code reflects this. Black and white are basic color terms found in all of the world's languages. In this regard they are different from color terms like mauve, chartreuse, and burgundy. And, when we try to classify people by color, we wind up resorting to prototypical colors like black and white. Actually, if we were more precise in our human color categorization, we would describe black people as dark brown, coffee-colored, beige, and so on. Then we would describe white people as pinkish yellow, beige, dark tan, etc. But we don’t. We conflate our categories to such prototypical colors as black and white – and yellow and red and brown.

Same goes for hair color. If Lucille Ball’s hair color appeared on a paint chip, it would not be called red. It would probably be identified as “metallic sunrise” or some such.

I also had a great great grandfather who was said to have fought at Gettysburg, even though, as I found out through careful research, he never got closer to the Gettysburg battlefield than my house is to Disney World ®. Though I bet some of my out-of-state acquaintances actually picture me as living near Disney World.*

My point is that when we misremember or misconceive, we often simplify by collapsing our information into the most prominent version of a thing or event, the one that most easily comes to mind as representative of its type. I’m guessing that Brian Williams “remembered” having his helicopter downed by enemy fire because he arrived at a battle site in an aircraft shortly after another copter had been forced down by hostile fire. The two events “My copter landed in a site where a battle had recently taken place” and “A helicopter was hit by hostile fire and forced to land at a battle site” collapsed into a single prototypical category leading Mr. Williams to see himself as a war reporter who actually experienced the dangers of war in a prototypical fired-upon engagement with the enemy.

Of course, I won’t deny that ego also had something to do with Brian's faulty memory. Who doesn’t want to see himself or herself in the most favorable or impressive light? Such a longing, though, is perhaps more typical of media icons than it is of the rest of us mortals.

*For the exciting details of Great Great Grandfather Flynn at Gettysburg, click here.