David R. Henderson  

The Real Teaching Moment in Brian Williams's "False Memory"

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Memory experts have argued that NBC News anchor Brian Williams' dramatic fall from grace provides a wonderful "teaching moment" to alert the public about research findings on how flawed human memories are. These experts also intimate that their research suggests that journalists should not be treated harshly for embellished and fabricated news reports--Williams' repeated error. It is a teaching moment, but the wrong lesson is being taught.
This is the opening paragraph of "Brian Williams' Fall from Grace, 'False Memory,' and Incentives," one of the two Feature Articles for April.

Why is this article on an economics site? Here's the third paragraph:

Indeed, there is a larger theme here, one that goes well beyond memory. Researchers often find that human decision making and behavior are constrained, if not determined, by a multitude of bodily and mental limitations (say, genes or the size of the brain), as well as external conditions (say, neighborhood and income). Many of these researchers suggest, on that basis, that people's wayward behaviors can be largely excused, with the implied message: "The offenders are not responsible and not to blame." Many scientists and memory researchers conclude that consequences (or incentives and disincentives) for behaviors will have little or no effect. They too readily conclude that physiological and environmental limitations on people's control of their own behavior (e.g., passing off flawed memories as truth) imply that people are unable to respond to consequences (and have only imagined "free will"). But the economic way of thinking--thinking about incentives, in particular--is relevant here. Even flawed human beings, if they face consequences for their actions--especially harsh ones--will change their behavior. Incentives work.

The author is Richard B. McKenzie, the Walter B. Gerken Professor of Enterprise and Society Emeritus at the University of California, Irvine.

Read the whole thing.


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COMMENTS (3 to date)
Hazel Meade writes:

Of course, there is the whole carrot and stick thing. Do punishments work as well as rewards?

Incentives seem to work very well in an economic context, but we are almost always talking about rewards there. Even a financial loss is often a loss the only exists on paper, a loss of potential future rewards. You have to get to something like bankruptcy before people start to feel a material punishment, and then you have to go far beyond that to homelessness and starvation before actual physical suffering comes into the equation.

If you want to go even further into the realm of criminal justice, I think we may have moved so far from the original context of economic rationality, that our thinking about incentives no longer applies.

LD Bottorff writes:

It is easy for me to understand the confusion that might result from hearing that a helicopter in the area had taken fire. At least Mr. Williams didn't go to jail for his faulty memory - unlike Scooter Libby.
I never understood how a jury could send a man to jail remembering something differently from the journalist. Do jurors really believe that journalists have better memories? Do they believe that taking notes really allows journalists to overcome the biases that they bring into an interview?
As was pointed out in today's Wall Street Journal, the defense attempted to present testimony about the reliability of human memory, but Judge Walton did not allow the testimony.

Toby writes:

That's a very nice article! I am in wholehearted agreement with it.

It also reminds me a bit of Mises' first chapter in Human Action that's also conveniently provided by econlib: http://www.econlib.org/library/Mises/HmA/msHmA1.html

Illuminating this type of situation through economic reasoning really shows the beauty of economics.

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