Enda Kenny’s ‘mea culpa’: the science of false memory

Research shows faulty recall is more likely to happen when you are stressed or overloaded

Taoiseach Enda Kenny said he gave details of a meeting with Minister for Children Katherine Zappone which, in fact, never took place. Photograph: Gareth Chaney Collins

Taoiseach Enda Kenny said he gave details of a meeting with Minister for Children Katherine Zappone which, in fact, never took place. Photograph: Gareth Chaney Collins

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One of the most bizarre episodes in a tumultuous week of politics has been Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s admission that he gave details of a meeting with Minister for Children Katherine Zappone which, in fact, never took place.

Last Sunday, Mr Kenny told RTÉ’s ‘This Week’ he had a conversation with Ms Zappone in advance of her planned private meeting with Garda whistleblower Sgt Maurice McCabe, and “I said to her, well, if you do have a meeting make sure you have a thorough account of it”.

In the Dáil on Tuesday, the Taoiseach admitted this conversation never took place.

“I might say mea culpa here,” Mr Kenny declared.

“It actually was her office that consulted with my officials who told me.”

How are we to make sense of this? The Taoiseach has form fabricating conversations, notably his imagined chat with former Central Bank governor Patrick Honohan about the risk of the Army being “put around” banks and ATM machines at the height of the economic crisis.

Mr Kenny later claimed this warning came from Mr Honohan’s officials instead.

The search continues for the infamous man in the pub who stopped Mr Kenny “with the two pints in his hand” complaining about water charges – one of many, anonymous ordinary folk who have been conveniently deployed by the Taoiseach to score a political point.

Could there be a more innocent explanation?

Dr Ciara Greene, Assistant Professor at the School of Psychology at University College Dublin, says false memory is something that can affect all of us.

Research shows it is more likely to strike when you’re stressed or when you’re brain is becoming overloaded by competing tasks.

“Many people imagine that memory operates like a video that can be rewound and rewatched, over and over, with the same events appearing each time in the same order. In fact, that’s not how it works,” she explains.

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“Memories aren’t stored fully-formed in the brain; rather they’re distributed around the brain and are reconstructed from scratch every time we retrieve them.

“This process makes the memory plastic, or malleable – each time we reconstruct a memory it can be subtly altered, and parts of the memory can be added, changed or deleted.

“Another important point is that while we have the subjective sense that our memories are complete, in fact they are often full of holes. We tend to use whatever information is available to us to fill in the blanks.

“Sometimes we can get this information from the way a question is phrased; imagine you have witnessed a car crash and are being questioned by police.

“If I ask you ‘did you see the red car?’, you’re more likely to remember that there was a red car present than if I asked you ‘did you see a red car?’, because my phrasing strongly implied that there was a red car present.”

Could this help to explain Mr Kenny’s “misremembering”? In the RTE interview, presenter Colm Ó Mongain had asked the Taoiseach:

“What did Katherine Zappone tell you and what did her officials tell your officials?”

Is it possible the phrasing of the question led Mr Kenny to conflate in his mind the separate interactions with Ms Zappone and her officials?

Stress can increase false memory

Dr Greene, who is currently researching false memory on a sabbatical in Harvard, says “there is some evidence that stress can increase false memory formation”.

An extra factor is that “both storing and retrieving memories requires additional resources.

“We only have so much of these resources to go around, so if they’re all used up by other elements of your environment or other tasks that you’re engaged in, then your memory may have even more gaps to be filled in than usual, and you might be particularly susceptible to false memories.

“For example, recent research in my lab has shown that people are more susceptible to leading questions when they witness a crime in a cluttered environment.”

Intriguingly, she adds, “people are more likely to falsely recall information that fits with what they already know or believe about the world. Ironically, the more you know about a topic, the more likely you may be to experience false memories about that topic.

“This happens because, if you know a lot about something, or are very interested in it, then you probably have a lot of memory traces related to that topic stored in your brain.

“When you encounter some new information on that topic, it can trigger associated memories and produce a feeling of familiarity.”

Could it be, then, Mr Kenny was so well briefed about the McCabe controversy, and had so many conversations about it, that he lost track of who told him what?

Dr Greene weighs up the evidence, using an alternative scenario:

“Let’s say, for example, that you have had a lot of conversations with various people about a particular person - let’s call them person A - and that you have had a lot of conversations on a range of topics with another individual: let’s call them person B.

“At a later time, you’re asked to remember the details of a conversation that you had with person B about person A.

“It is possible that, even if that specific conversation never took place, you could mix up details of the various conversations you’ve had with B, and all the conversations you’ve had about A, and generate a false memory of an event that never happened.

“Of course, this isn’t the only reason why you might report details of an event that never took place, but it is one explanation.”

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