Remembering and misremembering September 11

Personal memories of September 11 

With the tenth anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks approaching, besides the big picture roundups of What It All Meant, people will share what they remember of that day.

Likely they will say they have very clear memories. Mine sure are – the small newsflash at a news site that (incorrectly) said that a small plane flew into a tower of the World Trade Center (no, that was no small plane), followed by memorable (accurate and inaccurate) reports, a call from and to my husband, and interactions with my colleagues.  

More than a century ago, academic psychologists started writing about these kinds of memories.

Back in 1899, Colegrove published a study based on his interviews with people about what they recalled when they heard Lincoln was shot.  Two women recalled:

I was standing by the stove getting dinner; my husband came in and told me.

I was setting out a rose bush by the door. My husband came in the yard and told me.

The thing is, we all think we clearly remember where and how we learned of these big, big events.  Unfortunately, it turns out not to be the case. 

Just one day after 9/11, two psychologists at Duke University asked students to write down where they were when they heard about the attacks.  They then went back to the same people either one, six, or thirty-two weeks later.  And their conclusion: People were very confident in their memories – they believed they recalled them accurately. And the more emotion attached to the memory, the more people thought they remembered clearly. But the later memories were not highly consistent with what they had recalled a day later. 

In other words, human beings rewrite history very quickly.  We embellish and we forget.

Even the most vivid, communal events are often misremembered. What we as individuals present as something we can see oh-so-clearly is often not what occurred.

Update: Pew has a recent poll that casts more light on memories and public opinion of September 11.


Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.