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Memory and Bias in American Fiction

Neuroscientists have discovered that when a person recalls a memory, he or she actually

reconstructs the memory instead of perceiving it like a video or archive. This allows for

inaccurate recollection (Eisold). Further, cognitive biases, such as projective, verification, and

blind spot bias, cause memories to be reconstructed in a specific way (National Research Council

53-60). This is reflected in American fiction through unreliable narrators. In turn, this reflects

American societal biases, which are also apparent in media, such as in edited magazine pictures,

tabloid papers, and articles. The fundamental problem of heavily relying on perspective is that

one is never fully aware of the accuracy of the facts presented; it destabilizes any sense of a

common truth due to each point-of-view perceiving the facts in a different fashion, no matter

how minor those differences are. This, in turn, leads people to judge unfairly, act on those

judgments, and view themselves and others in a false manner. Fiction is an excellent way of

reflecting these biases and inaccuracies because fiction itself is a representation of the human

condition. Of course, it is easy to lose oneself in all the details of a story and not notice the

problem of perspective, but if one is able to keep perspective in mind, it can lead to an enriching

experience examining humanitys core tendencies with recollection and biases.

William Faulkners A Rose for Emily is from the point of view of an anonymous

narrator speaking on behalf of an entire town. This is demonstrated through the storys use of

pronouns, particularly our and we. This can be seen throughout the story, such as when the

narrator claims, ...[E]ven when we believed she had fallen (Faulkner 457). However, it

becomes clear it is a single narrator and not the entire town as a collective through some uses of

the word they. For example, when Emily purchases poison, the narrator states, That was over

a year after they had begun to say poor Emily (457). By using they in this context instead of
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we, the narrator is separating him or herself from other people in the town, identifying that he

or she is an individual person. However, other than the fact the narrator has lived in the town at

least since Emilys father died, the reader knows very little about this individual; his or her

gender, socioeconomic status, age, etc. are all unknown. This serves a purpose. While the

narrator is technically a single person, he or she is still speaking on behalf of the town. By

keeping him or her strictly anonymous, Faulkner allows the narrator to serve as a representative

of every person in the town regardless of personal factors. However, despite this, the narrator is

an unreliable source.

The unreliability of the narrator of A Rose for Emily is demonstrated in several ways.

The narrator relays events that happened in the past as opposed to describing events as they

currently occur. This is clearly demonstrated in the beginning of the story, which opens with,

When Miss Emily Grierson died (Faulkner 454) then proceeds to describe events that

happened prior to her death, displaying that the narrator is definitely sharing occurrences from

the past. This is confirmed not just in the beginning but throughout the story as well, such as

when Emily goes to purchase poison and the narrator tells the reader, Like when she bought the

rat poison, the arsenic. That was over a year ago (457). This use of a time frame confirms, yet

again, that the narrator is describing past events. The reader has no way of knowing whether the

narrator accurately reflects these past events. After all, he or she could be recalling events from

false memories. While humans tend to think of memory as something that is static and

unchanging, that is not the reality of how memory works. Neuroscientists have discovered that

every time someone remembers something, he or she actually reconstructs the memory instead of

accessing it like a video tape (Eisold). Even if the narrators recounting of events is perfectly

accurate - which is highly unlikely - the reader is left to question whether the narrator obtains
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this information from reliable, unbiased sources (which is also highly unlikely). Is it not

mentioned that the narrator is present through any of the events of the story besides the search

through Emilys house after she dies. It is therefore implied that the narrator does not actually

witness many of the moments he or she describes, further implying that the narrator finds out his

or her information through other sources which have a strong probability of being unreliable.

This leaves the reader with a story that most likely does not reflect what really happened.

The inaccuracy of the narrators account is further supported by the biases shown in

Emily. The incorrect construction of memory is often caused by cognitive biases (National

Research Council 53-60). The town demonstrates projective bias against Emily, which is

attributing to others ones own beliefs, feelings, or values (60). This bias is shown from the

towns judgment of Emily Grierson, which can be seen throughout the story. At one point the

narrator displays judgment by describing her: She was over thirtystill a slight woman, though

thinner than usual, with cold, haughty black eyes (Faulkner 457). This is not an unbiased

description. Cold, haughty black eyes implies the townspeople, or at least the narrator, see(s)

Emily in a particularly negative way. It also implies that even if she does have black eyes, the

narrator personally believes it is a negative attribute. Judgment is displayed again when the

narrator recounts how the druggist attempts to convince Emily to purchase a poison besides

arsenic: Yes, maam. But what you want is (457). By attempting to change Emilys mind,

it is implied the druggist feels Emily is going to use the poison for an unsuitable reason. He is

therefore judging her choice based on his own beliefs. These kinds of judgments of appearance

and action are shown repeatedly in the story, such as when the narrative notes her hairstyle and

states it made her look like a girl (456), and when the townspeople declare [s]he will kill
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herself (458) upon learning she purchased poison. Judgments like these are common throughout

American media.

Similar to the judgment Emily faces from the town, modern American media conveys

judgment upon women based on societys biases. Pictures of models and actresses are edited so

they meet societys idea of what is beautiful (so they will not have coldblack eyes [Faulkner

457] like Emily), fashion choices are met with criticism (such as when the town decides Emilys

hairstyle makes her appear like a girl [456]), and actions are questioned and criticized (like

Emilys motivations are questioned when she purchases poison [457-458]). This can be seen in

cases such as Kate Winslets edited picture on the cover of GQ (Lebowitz), the tabloid criticism

Lady Gaga has received for wearing unique outfits like her meat dress (Quigley), and the

judgment Jennifer Aniston faces for choosing to not have children (Johnson). Peoples

judgments affect every aspect of their lives, including the way women are viewed, and this is

displayed similarly in both A Rose for Emily and American media in general.

Another story famous for the judgment it displays is The Great Gatsby. The entirely of

the novel is from the first-person point of view of Nick Carraway as he narrates events from the

past. The point of view is immediately made clear by the novels use of first person nouns and

verbs, such as I and am. The fact the events Nick recalls occurred in the past is made clear

through explicit statements. At one point towards the beginning of the novel, Nick refers to his

story as the history of the summer (Fitzgerald). If he was describing events as they happened,

he would not refer to them as history. Towards the end of the novel, Nick explains, After two

years I remember the rest of that day (Fitzgerald). Once again, if the events Nick is

describing had not happened in the past, he would not refer to them as having happened two
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years prior to his narration. Since the story is Nick recalling events, like in the case of A Rose

for Emily, this allows for faulty mental reconstruction based on personal cognitive biases.

Nicks thoughts about himself are initially demonstrated on the first page of the novel,

and they display both projective and blind-spot bias. As a reminder, projective bias is when one

attributes ones own beliefs, feelings, or values (National Research Council 60) to other

people. Blind-spot bias is when someone is unaware of ones own biases (60). Nick describes

himself as inclined to reserve all judgment (Fitzgerald). However, he does share, I come to

the admission that [reserving judgment] has a limit (Fitzgerald). This tells the reader that Nick

sees himself as a relatively nonjudgmental person, regardless of whether it is an accurate

statement which, it turns out, it is not. While Nick claims he is rarely judgmental, his judgment

is seen throughout the novel when he describes other characters, such as when he describes Tom

as having two shining, arrogant eyes (Fitzgerald) and Gatsbys smile as one of those rare

smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance (Fitzgerald). This is an example of at least partial

blind-spot bias. Nick claims he rarely judges other people, but it is clear he does not usually

reserve judgment as he believes he does. He also shows projective bias within his judgment.

When he describes Toms eyes as arrogant, he is conveying a personal dislike of Tom, and

when he describes Gatsbys smile as reassuring, he is sharing his personal fondness for

Gatsby. These personal beliefs on Nicks behalf are confirmed repeatedly throughout the novel,

such as when he describes Tom as having a cruel body (Fitzgerald) and when he declares,

Gatsby turned out all right in the end (Fitzgerald). This is even further confirmed when Nick

does not condemn Gatsby for letting Daisy get away with vehicular manslaughter yet condemns

Tom for cheating on his wife (Fitzgerald). These personal feelings based in bias eventually end

up influencing the way Nick acts.


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Nick acts as a friend to Gatsby and treats Tom cruelly as a result of his personal feelings

and biases towards them. When Gatsby is killed, Nick arranges a funeral for him. He desperately

tries to get people to come to the funeral, going so far as to visit peoples offices and demand

they come, such as in the case of Meyer Wolfsheim. It is difficult to believe that Nick would go

through all that trouble if he did not like Gatsby. The same logic applies when Nick tries to

convince Gatsby to take an extended leave from West Egg so he would not run into trouble with

the authorities. On the other hand, when Nick runs into Tom at the end of the novel, he refuses to

shake Toms hand, telling him, You know what I think of you (Fitzgerald). If Nick had no real

problem with Tom, he would not have refused to shake his hand. Nick is an example of how

ones perception of people shapes the way one treats them. This sentiment is reflected in modern

American media as well.

Treating people differently based on ones perceptions of them is an ideal apparent in

modern American media. For example, when well-liked artists such as Chris Brown, Jimmy

Page, and Dr. Dre commit terrible crimes, people continue to purchase their art because people

like the art they produce (Rolland). People, like Nick does with Gatsby, tend to ignore a persons

flaws and focus on their good attributes if they like the person enough. As David Rolland says in

Miami New Times, So as long as Brown continues producing vocally modulated music...there

will be massive crowds at every Chris Brown show no matter how many more times he

displays violent behavior and then chronicles it in song. Ignoring not just the flaws of others but

ones own flaws is common as well, as displayed by How I Met Your Mothers Ted Mosby.

How I Met Your Mother is a television show focusing on the story of how Ted Mosby

met his wife. The pilot episode of the program opens in 2030 with Ted sitting across from his

children as he starts to tell them how he met their mother. The show then switches to flashbacks
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as Ted continues to tell the story, eventually playing out as if the flashbacks were presently

occurring (Pilot). This pattern continues throughout the shows nine seasons, with the

flashbacks primarily focused on the years 2005-2013. Throughout the series, the viewer is

regularly reminded that the show is almost entirely composed of Teds recollection of the past.

This is done with interruptions in the narrative showing present-day Ted and his children and

through narration over the flashbacks by Ted himself (Bays and Thomas).

By presenting the shows events as the recollection of past events by a single character, at

any point during the show the viewer has no way of knowing whether Ted is recalling events

correctly as a result of memory reconstruction. This is specifically addressed in the show. Teds

inability to remember certain events is most obviously displayed when present-day Ted explicitly

states the inability to remember something. For instance, in the season six episode Oh Honey,

while telling a story to his children, Ted refers to a girl by the nickname Honey because he

cannot remember her name. He acknowledges this fault in his memory, telling his children,

Kids, to be honest, I dont quite remember this girls name (Oh Honey). This fault in

memory is particularly supported by the fact when humans recall memories, they reconstruct

them instead of mentally replaying them like a video tape. While perhaps not the case in

forgetting Honeys name, many of these reconstructions are based on personal biases (National

Research Council 53-60). Ted Mosbys memory is no exception, and the same applies to his core

group of friends.

The biases Ted and his friends experience are acknowledged within the show. Ted

arguably displays verification bias, which is the desire to achieve consistency and reflect self-

evaluation processes (National Research Council 58). For example, up through the middle of the

sixth season, Teds then-girlfriend Zoeys husband has been portrayed as a ridiculous man who
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masquerades as a sea captain, going as far as to nickname himself the Captain. When Ted

begins dating Zoey (while she is still married), he fully believes the Captain is a crazy man,

which allows him to justify dating a married woman (Bays and Thomas). However, when he

runs into the Captain (who is unaware Ted is the person dating Zoey), his perspective shifts upon

hearing the Captains side of the story (Garbage Island). In the Captains mind, Ted is a

scoundrel (Garbage Island) who stepped in and stole his wife despite the fact he begged her

not to leave (Garbage Island). This makes Ted feel incredibly guilty and shifts his

perspective. Later, when recounting this event to his friends, he states, Im the bad guy

(Garbage Island). This shows an acknowledgement of his previous display of bias in projecting

himself as justified in dating a married woman. Unacknowledged bias within the show is a more

complicated matter.

It is arguable that Ted displays verification bias that is not explicitly acknowledged

within the show. For example, with a few exceptions (such as the example from the previous

paragraph), he is usually the good guy in a story. When his then-fiance Stella leaves him on

the day of their wedding, Ted does not act on his anger and maturely lets Stella continue her

relationship with her ex-husband (Bays and Thomas), and when he is given the opportunity to

have sex with his friend Robin, he agonizes over the fact that he technically has not broken up

with his current girlfriend (who he planned on breaking up with the following day before the

opportunity with Robin presented itself). Likewise, every single girl Ted dates is attractive:

Victoria, Robin, Stella, Zoey, and Tracy are all conventionally beautiful women (Bays and

Thomas). While it is never confirmed, due to Teds demonstrated verification bias and the

general human need to portray oneself in a positive light, it makes the viewer question the

accuracy of all of Teds narration. Teds verification bias is the same reason American media
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often attempts to explain its controversial choices in a way that will not portray the broadcaster

in a negative light.

American media often tries to convey information about controversial decisions in a way

that makes them sound less controversial, exhibiting verification bias. In an article about keeping

Johnny Depp in the Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them franchise after he was accused of

domestic violence, J.K. Rowling defends the controversial decision to keep Depp in the cast.

Like Ted Mosby, Rowling defends the decision by pointing out the positive aspects about it

while only lightly touching on the negative. She claims, I accept that there will be those who are

not satisfied with the choice of actor in the [films]. However, conscience isnt governable by

committee. Within the fictional world and outside it, we all have to do what we believe to be the

right thing (Rowling). This shows that while Rowling acknowledges the controversy, she

quickly defends the decision by pointing out all the reasons she feels the decision had to be

made.

Neuroscientists have discovered that memories are often inaccurately recalled. This is because

when one recalls a memory, it is actually reconstructed instead of perceived like an archive or a

video (Eisold). Cognitive biases, such as projective, verification, and blind spot bias cause these

memories to be reconstructed in a specific way (National Research Council 53-60). This is

reflected in American fiction using unreliable narrators like the unnamed narrator of A Rose for

Emily, The Great Gatsbys Nick Carraway, and How I Met Your Mothers Ted Mosby. In these

forms of media, the narrators show the potential for and concrete evidence of unreliable narration

due to the fact they are recalling events from the past and are therefore reconstructing memories.

They also show various forms of bias; in particular, projective, blind-spot, and verification bias.

This is observed from their actions and descriptions. These biases reveal that people tend to
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project their own values onto others, which causes judgment which then affects how people treat

others. These biases also reveal that people tend to cast themselves in a favorable light. In turn,

all of this reflects American societal biases, which is also apparent in media, such as in edited

magazine pictures, tabloid papers, and articles. Heavily relying on perspective leads to a

fundamental problem: one is never fully aware of the accuracy of the facts they are presented.

This destabilizes any sense of a common truth. This reliance on perspective causes people to

judge unfairly, act on those judgements, and perceive themselves and others in a false light.

Fiction is an excellent reflection of these inaccuracies and biases because fiction itself represents

the human condition.


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Works Cited

Bays, Carter and Craig Thomas, creators. How I Met Your Mother. Bay & Thomas Productions,

2005-2013.

Eisold, Ken. Unreliable Memory. Psychology Today, 12 Mar. 2012.

www.psychologytoday.com/blog/hidden-motives/201203/unreliable-memory. Accessed

3 Dec. 2017.

Faulkner, William. A Rose for Emily. Charters, pp. 454-460.

Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. Charles Scribners Sons, 1925. Project Gutenberg,

www.gutenberg.net.au/ebooks02/0200041h.html.

Garbage Island. How I Met Your Mother, season 6, episode 17, CBS, 19 Feb. 2011. Hulu.

https://www.hulu.com/watch/1134907#i0,p15,s6,d0.

Johnson, Zach. Jennifer Aniston Slams the Notion That She Was Too Selfish and Career-

Driven to Become a Mother. 15 Dec. 2014. www.eonline.com/news/606495/jennifer

aniston-slams-the-notion-that-she-was-too-selfish-and-career-driven-to-become-a-

mother. Accessed 6 Dec. 2017.

Lebowitz, Lauren. Kate Winslets GQ Cover is Unbelievable Literally (PHOTOS).

Huffington Post. 14 Oct. 2013. www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/10/14/kate-winslet-

vogue-photos_n_4096789.html. Accessed 6 Dec. 2017.

Oh Honey. How I Met Your Mother, season 6, episode 15, CBS, 7 Feb. 2011. Hulu.

https://www.hulu.com/watch/1134905#i0,p10,s6,d0.

National Research Council (U.S.) Committee on Measuring Human Capabilities: Performance

Potential of Individuals and Collectives. Cognitive Biases. Measuring Human

Capabilities: an Agenda for Basic Research on the Assessment of Individual and Group
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Performance Potential for Military Accession, 2015, pp. 53-60.

Pilot. How I Met Your Mother, season 1, episode 1, CBS, 19 Sept. 2005. Hulu.

https://www.hulu.com/watch/1133821#i0,p0,s1,d0.

Quigley, Rachel. Lady Gaga, Dressed Like a Dogs Dinner! But is Offal MTV Outfit Real or

Fake? Daily Mail, 14 Sept. 2010. www.dailymail.co.uk/tvshowbiz/article-

1311683/Lady-Gagas-raw-meat-dress-But-offal-MTV-outfit-real-fake.html. Accessed 6

Dec. 2017.

Rolland, David. Why Do We Keep Forgiving Chris Brown? Miami New Times, 12 Apr. 2017,

www.miaminewtimes.com/music/why-do-we-keep-forgiving-chris-brown-9268372.

Accessed 6 Dec. 2017.

Rowling, J.K. Grindelwald Casting. J.K. Rowling, 7 Dec. 2017.

www.jkrowling.com/opinions/grindelwald-casting/. Accessed 7 Dec. 2017.