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​I Remember It Exactly

Blogs Mike Jacka, CIA, CPA, CPCU, CLU Oct 11, 2021

Allow me to regale you with two tales regarding memory — one I read about and the other I experienced.

In the excellent book Being Wrong by Kathryn Schulz, she tells the story of Ulric Neisser. (And this is where I interrupt our regularly scheduled program with an unpaid announcement. Being Wrong is an excellent book that shares information about how we all make decisions. It provides invaluable insights into our profession, our work, and our personal lives. Buy it. Read it.)

On December 7, 1941, Neisser was thirteen years old. For those of you to whom that date does not resonate, it was the date Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. For a certain generation, this is the quintessential "I remember where I was" moment of their lives. Similar such moments occurred on November 22 (the assassination of President Kennedy) and September 11 (the Twin Towers). These are moments indelibly engraved in our memories — where we were; what we were doing; and the sights, sounds, smells, and things we experienced. They are called "flashbulb" moments.

For decades, Neisser vividly remembered that day. He remembered listening to a baseball game. He remembered it being interrupted. And he remembered the announcer describing the attack.

Forty years later, the fallacy in that memory finally dawned on Neisser. (And I'll allow you this moment to reflect and identify the flaw/error/inconsistency in his story. Think of this as that moment before you looked up how Encyclopedia Brown solved the case.)

Baseball is not played in December. His memory could not be correct.

Story No. 2: I was discussing Neisser's story with my mom, and we began talking about our memories surrounding significant events in our lives. When I was growing up, she was a huge New York/San Francisco Giants fan, so we began talking about "The Shot Heard 'Round the World."

Avid baseball fans know what I'm talking about, but for others a quick explanation. In mid-August of 1951, the Dodgers appeared to have the National League championship locked up. However, the Giants put on an improbable run and, by the end of the season, the two teams were tied. There was a three-game playoff and, as these things always seem to happen, the first two games were split between the two teams. It all came down to game three. With the Giants behind 4-2 in the 9th inning and two men on base (spoiler alert), Bobby Thompson hit a home run that put the Giants in the World Series. That home run is affectionately known by baseball fans as "The Shot Heard 'Round the World."

So, my mom was describing her memory of that moment — how she was in the other room, heard the shouting and yelling, and came running in to celebrate. She described the house, the people, everything such events impress in one's memory.

After talking a little longer, we realized some things didn't match. We started checking dates and came to the conclusion that what she remembered could not have happened. The dates she lived in that particular house, as well as other pertinent memories, did not jibe with the 1951 date of the Giants' playoff win.

We think we remember "flashbulb" moments precisely. But the evidence shows this is not true.

Let's return to Ulrich Neisser. He became a psychology professor at Emory University and began researching these kind of memory failures. Prior to that time, conventional wisdom was that people remembered surprising and traumatic events more accurately than their mundane counterparts. However, Ulrich wondered if that theory was only based on how it feels to remember such events. No one had ever tested the accuracy.

In 1986, when the space shuttle Challenger exploded, he got his chance. He surveyed his students regarding their memories of the disaster, then did a follow up three years later. Less than 7% of the second reports matched the initial ones, 50% were wrong in two-thirds of their assertions, and 25% were wrong in every major detail.

After this bombshell, more testing was conducted by more researchers. The erosion of "flashbulb" memories was confirmed.

Nice stories; nice research. But why should internal auditors care?

I'm guessing you've already drawn your own conclusions, but let me give you what I consider to be the two big takeaways.

First, there are a lot of reasons we document so much of what we do. The reasons most often cited are to support the work and to ensure that work is replicable. But the one we often overlook is that immediate documentation ensures we capture, as best as our feeble brains can, what we have actually seen and heard.

I harped on this to my auditors. And I had to mentally bludgeon myself to make sure I got it done. The minute I put off taking notes was the minute the memories of what I had seen and heard began dissolving into that mass of preconceived notions and forgetfulness we call our brains. And, if I took handwritten notes, it was a further necessity for me to transcribe them right away. My handwriting is akin to an uncalibrated seismograph, and my ability to translate those hieroglyphics diminished just as quickly as the actual memories of what occurred.

So, the role of documentation in aiding our ability to correctly recall things we think we remember cannot be overstated.

However, the second takeaway may be the big one. The results of Neisser's research indicates there is only so much weight we can put on the memories of the people we interview. Even when they are doing something as simple as describing the work they do, their recollections of how work is completed – even if it is something they do every day – is filtered through faulty memories. And this is exacerbated when it comes to singular events and situations. Time takes its toll. And anything we hear from our interviewees must be taken with more than a couple of salt doses.

Poet Olin Miller said, "Of all liars, the smoothest and most convincing is memory." Even our most vivid memories are almost assuredly flawed. And the same is true for our clients, interviewees, and fellow auditors. We must recognize and compensate for this potential failure. Listen, document, and understand the associated limitations.

Mike Jacka, CIA, CPA, CPCU, CLU

Co-founder and Chief Creative Pilot, Flying Pig Audit, Consulting, and Training Services (FPACTS), based in Phoenix.