‘Rashomon effect’ is a way to describe a situation in which facts are described or interpreted by the people involved in different and sometimes contradictory, but plausible ways. What’s unique about this psychological event is that often we don’t deliberately lie or twist the reality of facts, it happens involuntarily, as an effect of the way our mind works.
We asked our Cognitive Scientist, Martina Ratto, to explain...
Where did the term ‘Rashomon effect’ come from?
Back in 1922, Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, regarded as the “father of Japanese short stories”, penned a tale called In a Grove.
Akutagawa’s story is about the murder of a Samurai in a bamboo grove. Seven different people witnessed what happened and gave their testimonies. What's unique about the story is that all the characters report a different version of the facts. That makes it impossible to find out what really happened, as their various accounts seem entirely plausible.
This story inspired a widespread film titled Rashomon in 1950 and since then the word Rashomon has been used to name this psychological phenomenon. Remembering an event differently from others who also experienced it, can have knock-on effects in our lives.
How does a surreal story from the last century relate to the memory of our own lived experiences?
When we live through a situation, the way we perceive what happens around us isn’t the same for everyone. Our past knowledge, experience and our way of thinking all influence the way we perceive events and situations. Even before memory is formed within our mind, the way we process and code information is completely individual and unique.
Reality is always observed by our own point of view, providing a perspective that may be different from others.
What complicates the whole thing is the way memories are retrieved from our minds. This is because our recall is really just reconstruction. Memory is like rewriting reality into a narration with our own words, based on some scattered notes we left in our brain. There may be multiple factors twisting that narration.
First, we may have gained new knowledge and experience in the meantime, making us review the past notes we took in a different light. Also, there may be some involuntary biases affecting the way we build the narration of our past experiences. One of the most common ones is egocentric biases, leading us to rewrite facts in a way that puts us or our actions in a positive light. We’re prone to doing so naturally, so we need to be very self-aware to avoid falling into this - we have all done so, I bet!
Finally, the context in which we retrieve a memory has an influence on what we remember. For example, direct and inquisitive questions may dig a groove within our memory pathways and set a clear direction for the memories we retrieve, leaving out other relevant details. This can have severe implications within the justice system, for example when questioning witnesses. It’s not uncommon, especially in children, to report false memories, produced involuntarily on the basis of the questions asked.
When it comes to remembering, it’s best to let our minds wander and immerse ourselves back into the past context we lived in, with the help of some irrelevant details such as colours, scents and music, that could help us build a more accurate reconstruction without a biased twist.
How can we still rely on our memories? And how can we trust what others report to be fact?
This question leads us to another fictional, but much more recent short story, The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling by Ted Chiang. The story describes a fictional world where all humans could record everything they live through via a device, called Remem, able to reproduce videos of anyone’s past experiences. Characters in the story report the use of the device and the recordings it provides to solve personal and relational matters: let’s imagine being able to show our partner that we were right in that little discussion last night, while their memory was wrong! Satisfying? Maybe. Destructive for our relationships? More probably.
As the story shows, being able to review every single moment of our past with factual evidence could open more conflicts than the ones we’re trying to solve. We all know that somewhere behind our opinions, perspectives and contradictory memories sit real and unquestionable facts. But, when it comes to relationships, bringing to the table our own truth, the different ways we lived the same situations and finding a common truth combining both perspectives is what is most important.
What does this tell us about our memory?
The reason why we can still reasonably trust our memory is that we do not live in isolation. Collectivity is what guarantees the objectivity of our memory. How?
First, by recognising and agreeing that there is a reality of facts out there, beyond individual interpretations and recalling of it. Then, by becoming aware and accepting that our memory and our perspective is just one of multiple possibilities, while others may have different, but still plausible points of view.
Finally, a shared truth can be built together with others, bringing all our memories and perspectives in a common ground and making them work with each other, while staying open and flexible to review our past mental notes based on others too.
To sum up: The Rashomon effect is part of our everyday living and it’s not something we can fully avoid. Being aware that this may happen is important to keep our minds critical about our own points of view and towards what we are told. A ‘reasonable doubt’ is always a good practice for our thinking, helping to open our minds to different perspectives.