Improspectives

Improv skills lead to success

Memories Change Over Time

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Memories of dramatic events seem to be burned into our minds. It seems easy to recall where we were when we learned JFK was assassinated (before my time), Ronald Reagan was shot (middle school gym at the end of the day), Elvis died (in a car near the top of Massanutten Mountain on our way to my grandparents’ place), or on September 11, 2001 (checking email after sleeping late).

It all seems so clear, but how reliable are our memories of the events and the circumstances surrounding them? Not very, especially as time passes and discussions of the events contain information not available at first. For example, a Smithsonian magazine article notes that Karim Nader, a neuroscientist, examined his own memories of September 11 and found he had made some mistakes.

Nader, now a neuroscientist at McGill University in Montreal, says his memory of  the World Trade Center attack has played a few tricks on him. He recalled seeing  television footage on September 11 of the first plane hitting the north tower of  the World Trade Center. But he was surprised to learn that such footage aired  for the first time the following day. Apparently he wasn’t alone: a 2003 study  of 569 college students found that 73 percent shared this misperception.

These changes are normal and expected. You store long-term memories by associating new information with things you already know. As you continue to receive information about an event, it becomes difficult to distinguish what occurred when. That’s why legal experts view eyewitness testimony as unreliable – humans are fallible, our memories especially so.

When you’re an improviser, this fallibility works to your advantage. Long-form shows can run for 45 minutes or more and, given the huge number of choices performers make, inconsistencies crop up all the time. The good news is that your audience wants you to succeed and, unless the error is too big to ignore, they’re almost always willing to go along with the new reality. Not doing so would undermine their enjoyment of the show, so they have an incentive to play along.

This forgiving atmosphere isn’t present in politics and business, at least not for your competitors. They want you to fail and will bring up every instance of you ignoring or, in their opinion, attempting to mischaracterize the past. It doesn’t help when a campaign adviser admits that’s what you plan to do. As reported in a CNN.com article on March 21, 2012:

Eric Fehrnstrom, Romney’s senior campaign adviser, was asked in a CNN interview Wednesday morning whether the former Massachusetts governor had been forced to adopt conservative positions in the rugged race that could hurt his standing with moderates in November’s general election.

“I think you hit a reset button for the fall campaign. Everything changes,” Fehrnstrom responded. “It’s almost like an Etch A Sketch. You can kind of shake it up, and we start all over again.”

Ouch. I anticipate the Etch A Sketch will be a theme in the 2014 and 2016 election cycle. Regardless, the lesson to draw from this incident is the same for both improv and business: Don’t abuse your audience’s goodwill.

Read more: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/How-Our-Brains-Make-Memories.html#ixzz2BfHlkdVx

http://www.cnn.com/2012/03/21/politics/campaign-wrap/index.html

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