By B. Rose Huber
For the study, Coman and his collaborators – Charles Stone from John Jay College of Criminal Justice and Emanuele Castano and William Hirst from The New School for Social Research – recruited 72 participants: Fifty-six percent were female, 44 percent were male and all participants identified as European-American.
Experiments were conducted in two parts. First, in the study phase, participants were asked to read four, 160-word stories about situations that soldiers and fighters were exposed to in Iraq and Afghanistan. Each story contained both atrocities committed by the soldiers and the justifications for those actions. All stories were fictitious but based on true media reports of atrocities that had occurred in Iraq and Afghanistan. Each tale contained "critical items," which included details of the atrocities committed by soldiers and the justifications for these atrocities, and "filler facts," such as the soldiers' fictitious names and hometowns.
Two versions of each story were created – one in which the perpetrator was an American soldier (ex. "Jim Green") and another in which the perpetrator was an Afghan soldier (ex. "Jawid Gawri). Half of the participants read the American version of the story while the other half read the Afghan version. The order of the stories varied among participants, and they had 90 seconds to read each tale. One story included a soldier who hit a prisoner repeatedly with a belt because the prisoner threw food in the cafeteria. Another story depicted a soldier submerging a prisoner's head in water because he was unwilling to speak about an upcoming attack.
IMAGE: A study led by Alin Coman, assistant professor of psychology and public affairs at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School, shows how those justifications actually creep into people's memories of war,...Click here for more information.
Next, in the practice phase, participants watched a video of either a male or female actor selectively retelling only the atrocities from two of the initially studied stories. However, this time, the actors left out the justifications. Coman and his collaborators designed the experiment this way to analyze retrieval-induced forgetting, a phenomenon in which the brain filters out some memories and holds on to others, altering the initially stored memory of an event.
After the second phase was completed, participants then performed what Coman calls a "distractor task," which included filling out a basic questionnaire. This exercise mimicked the natural delay between hearing a story and retelling it later. Participants were then isolated in a room and asked to write down everything they could about the original four stories they read. To jog their memories, participants were given cue words like "Jim Green" and "robbery."
The recall data was then coded based on what participants remembered, and the researchers analyzed and computed the recall scores for the atrocities, justifications and filler facts. Through statistical analyses, they found that atrocities mentioned by the actors were more likely to be remembered by the participants, regardless of whether the perpetrator was American or Afghan. However, they also found that participants were more likely to remember the justifications for atrocities committed by Americans soldiers than for atrocities committed by the Afghan soldiers.
The findings have implications for both policy and journalism, Coman said.
Coman and his students are currently working on a project investigating the effects of socially shared retrieval-induced forgetting, a phenomenon by which individuals synchronize their memories as a result of the conversations they have with one another. In the current study, Princeton students are listening to other Princeton students – as well as students from Yale – remember stories about their own groups.