Distortions of Collective Memory: How Groups Flatter and Deceive Themselves
Roy F. Baumeister Stephen Hastings Case Western Reserve University
Like individuals, social groups have important memories that help them define themselves, understand the world, and structure their motivations. Also like individuals, social groups may often find that a literal, objective record of the facts is not always the most helpful way of satisfying those interpretive needs. As a result, social groups (again like individuals) will sometimes gradually distort their memories in systematic ways.
This chapter intends to provide some empirically based theorizing about patterns of distortion in collective memories. At a minimum, the selection of particular memories may serve one's goals and needs. At the other extreme, severely distorted memory can be a potent tool for self-deception. Self-deception is of particular interest to us, and so we focus on how group memory can be manipulated for the sake of collective self-deception.
Most groups, like most individuals, try to maintain a positive image of self. Because the reality of events does not always fit that desired image, it is necessary to choose between revising the image and revising the meaning of events. The latter choice is the one of self-deception, and so it is the one discussed here. But this does not mean groups never revise their self-appraisals in light of the facts.
Indeed, there are examples where groups have acknowledged guilt or wrongdoing. As this chapter was being prepared, the Baptist church issued a statement apologizing for its past support of slavery and oppression against African Americans, and the Pope issued an apology for the Catholic Christian church's record of oppressing women. Some acknowledgments go