FOR 2812 project member Anco Peeters was interviewed last week by Dutch national newspaper Trouw. Topic of the interview was the recent intense debate by politicians in the Netherlands on the supposed memory failure by prime-minister Mark Rutte and coalition-investigators Annemarie Jorritsma and Kajsa Ollongren. During the coalition formation process, a controversy arose when a photograph was taken of a note carried by Ollongren as she hurriedly left a meeting in The Hague, having been tested positively for COVID-19. The note suggested that a party leader had discussed a “position elsewhere” for MP and prominent government critic Pieter Omtzigt. In the parliamentary debates that followed this discovery, those involved initially stated that they did not remember discussing Omtzigt. These statements later turned out to be false as minutes revealed Rutte, Jorritsma and Ollongren did indeed discuss the MP.
Peeters was following the debates late at night on April 1 with much interest. Based on his expertise on the philosophy and science of episodic memory, Trouw asked him whether it was possible that Rutte, Jorritsma and Ollongren did forget their conversations. He allowed for this possibility, drawing attention to a debate between Jorritsma and MP Jesse Klaver. Klaver interrogated Jorritsma about whether it was her suggestion to ‘promote Omtzigt’. She denied, stating that the only reason the MP was a topic of conversation was because of newspaper articles discussing a smear campaign against Omtzigt by his own party. Klaver then seemed to accept this statement and agreement was reached. But Jorritsma’s memory was put under pressure when another MP pointed out the alleged articles were not published until a day after her meetings. Jorritsma is forced to adjust her memory, claiming that, while these specific articles were only published afterwards, there was already discussion in the news about the stability of Omtzigt’s party.
By drawing on research done by the FOR 2812 research unit, Peeters stated it is not surprising to see such a mnemonic adjustment. It might seem suspicious that Jorritsma adjusts her memory so easily, but only if one assumes that memory is a process involving the unaltered storage and retrieval of past events. But, Peeters explains, there is a growing consensus by memory researchers that remembering is a reconstructive process that does not necessarily lead to the same memory every time. In his own research, he argues that memory is best understood as the reconstruction of a past scenario, not as the storage and retrieval of information.
Scenario construction may be informed both by neuronal as well as by environmental resources such as nearby persons or objects. These resources are then put fit in an emerging mnemonic puzzle. According to Peeters, the political debates form an exemplary showcase of this constructive process, as Jorritsma and Klaver navigate the reconstruction of Jorritsma’s memory, which is then adjusted under pressure of Hoekstra intervention. Seen in this light, Jorritsma’s adjustment is not necessarily a malicious act, but illustrates the natural way our memory works. Of course, it’s hard to analyse people’s thought processes from a distance. But the dominant narrative in the news, namely that those involved were deliberately withholding information and only conveniently remember their conversations, is premature.
Peeters has written a brief essay on this case study for Dutch philosophy weblog Bij Nader Inzien (On Second Thought), titled “Why The Hague doesn’t suffer from collective memory failure” (Google translation here).
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