I heard about this study on the ride home from work this afternoon and was totally blown away by its significance. Researchers tested the memory of individuals to recount details of a story three days after having heard it. Four days later they were asked more questions about it but were also supplied with details that other individuals remembered about the same event (these details were actually intentional fabrications supplied by the test team). The individuals were then much more likely to alter their own recollections with the new false information as a way to conform to group memory of the event. These findings have strong societal implications about blind conformity, altered historical perspectives and shows just how easy it is to dramatically change someone's beliefs. Great line from the study:
Altering memory in response to group influence may produce untoward effects. For example, social influence such as false propaganda can deleteriously affect individuals’ memory in political campaigns and commercial advertising and impede justice by influencing eyewitness testimony. However, memory conformity may also serve an adaptive purpose, because social learning is often more efficient and accurate than individual learning. For this reason, humans may be predisposed to trust the judgment of the group, even when it stands in opposition to their own original beliefs.
Of course, the findings of this study immediately point to the most famous cases of social conformity, of group misremembering, of propaganda in full effect, of the ability of a group of people to slowly change their story from fact to fiction without even knowing it (and sometimes with some group leaders changing the details purposefully to get the others to conform and believe non-truths). And that, of course, are the wild tales of the major religion's holy books. It is so easy to see how "divine revelation" to some became hearsay upon hearsay upon hearsay where the facts can get so twisted that you end up with things like a talking snake, a man living in the belly of a great fish for 3 days, a 40 day worldwide flood, a virgin birth and resurrection of the dead and all the other tall tales we now regard as holy (even stealing details from other stories and myths and making them your own are results of this). Couple this effect with generations upon generations, millennia upon millennia and you see where things can get tangled up. Conformity of the group, various social pressures from wars and influential dictators to missionaries and proselytizers and other church power to indoctrination of children all allow this process to take hold and manifest into something so wild and bizarre and unbelievable if seen by an outsider, into something held as the utmost truth and most reasonable explanation of what happened by the people within the group. Fascinating study, really eye opening.