As regular readers know, I claim that we should be skeptical of some of the stories in the New Testament, in part because (so far as we know) the stories circulated by oral tradition for decades before being written down.
In her Wall Street Journal column of last Friday ($), science reporter Sharon Begley notes a recent study that seems implicitly to confirm a significant issue concerning oral tradition: When people hear something that fits with what they already believe, they tend to remember it -- even after it's later confirmed that what they originally heard was incorrect (hat tip to Salty Vicar).
Funny thing, memory. With the second anniversary next month of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, it's only natural that supporters as well as opponents of the war will be reliving the many searing moments of those first weeks of battle.
The rescue of Pvt. Jessica Lynch. U.S. troops firing at a van approaching a Baghdad checkpoint and killing seven women and children. A suicide bomber nearing a Najaf checkpoint and blowing up U.S. soldiers. The execution of coalition POWs by Iraqis. The civilian uprising in Basra against Saddam's Baathist party.
If you remember it well, then we have grist for another verse for Lerner and Loewe ("We met at nine," "We met at eight," "I was on time," "No, you were late." "Ah yes, I remember it well!"). The first three events occurred. The second two were products of the fog of war: After being reported by the media, both were quickly retracted by coalition authorities as erroneous.
Yet retracting a report isn't the same as erasing it from people's memories. According to an international study to be published next month, Americans tend to believe that the last two events occurred -- even when they recall the retraction or correction. In contrast, Germans and Australians who recall the retraction discount the misinformation. It isn't that Germans and Australians are smarter. Instead, it's further evidence that what we remember depends on what we believe.
This related post provides more examples of people remembering things in ways that fit their beliefs, as well as other ways that memory can play tricks on us -- for example, the story of a journalist who vividly remembers being shot at by a soldier wearing a red beret, even though photographs show that the soldier was wearing a helmet. (Scroll down to "More Examples: The LImitations of Perception, Memory, and Story-Telling." )