False Memories and Football Opinions

Making his TFN debut, Billy Macfarlane writes about the unreliable nature of football opinions and their mental footprint on the old memory…

Ginola, look at this run by Ginola, oh that is a fantastic goal, another outstanding strike by Ginola, he’s taken on the entire Barnsley defence and left them all standing.

The greatest goal that I have ever seen live. I remember the jinking run, the neat finish, the celebration, the White Hart Lane crowd going berserk and all of the emotions that come with a truly great goal.

Except this memory is false. I wasn’t in attendance when David Ginola scored after that mazy run, one of the finest in Tottenham and FA Cup history. Ginola’s goal wasn’t even scored at White Hart Lane it was scored away at Oakwell, a ground I have never even been to.

The fallibility of memory is much more common than most of us think and it results not only in incidents which can be falsified like the above example but in distorting our views of previous and future events.

There is a tendency to think of our memory as akin to a DVD. Whilst the disc may have a scratch where we completely forget an event, it is commonly held that those memories we do have are a perfect replay of previous events. There is however considerable evidence to suggest that those memories we do have are often flawed, biased, mislead or sometimes entirely false.

Psychologists have long understood the phenomena of false memories. In a series of experiments by Elizabeth Loftus in the 1970s she showed how memories can be altered by changing the question participants were asked about a car crash. She later went on to induce entirely false memories about childhood by getting participants to read a planted account from supposed family members. Loftus’ work has been hugely influential in eyewitness testimony where it has challenged preconceptions about how accurate our recollections of events are.

Loftus’ insights enable us to challenge how accurate our memories are, and how they can be manipulated by events which occur both before and after the memory has been formed.

The construction of false memories can have significant implications for analysing past events. There is a tendency for new information to influence how we view the old, for good teams to be romanticised and flaws diminished. Alternatively the bad is demonised with those insistent that a particular manager had zero good qualities.

Memories of great teams, great footballers and great moments are framed by what happens before and after them. Take Harry Redknapp’s stint as Spurs boss for example; Redknapp saving Spurs from 2 points from 8 games, and certain relegation, and the turgid turmoil that has followed have raised memories of Redknapp’s reign from a good spell to world class.

In many ways, Redknapp’s tenure provided almost a perfect canvas to paint false memories on. The man himself has constantly led us with information that Spurs fans don’t know how good we’ve had it, whilst diminishing any shortcomings through excuses and denials. This leads our memories into augmenting the good side of Knappsy’s tenure and clouding over the poorer moments.

An example within Redknapp’s reign can show how memory can be collectively distorted. Whenever Maicon makes his way onto UK television and gets rinsed by a winger, as his ageing legs inevitably do, there are jokes of ‘Taxi for Maicon’ and discussions of Gareth Bale announcing himself on the world stage with the hat-trick at the San Siro.

However, it wasn’t actually until the return match at White Hart Lane as the Welshman ran the Brazilian ragged once more, this time providing a pair of assists, that the chants really took hold. These two occasions have coalesced into one false collective memory with the chants, hat-trick and sudden demise of Maicon occurring in a single match rather than over two.

Our memories are malleable, distorted by our biases and shaped by events after they were made. When analysing previous events we can never be truly objective. The argument down the pub about the best goal of the season is shaped not only by the biases and preferences of those arguing but of the coverage and discussion they’ve been exposed to after the goal.

The journalist arguing for the best player in Premier League history will have their memories distorted by their encounters with the player. Even the diligent statistician working with cold, hard, objective data will be influenced by their own models when shaping their opinions. Your multi-axial colour coded bar may increase or decrease your expectations of a player and also of previous memories when you have seen them play.

Football is a game of opinions and opinions are a matter of memory. In the future just remember your memories are just as flawed as your opinions.

You can follow Billy on Twitter at @BillyMacfarlane and The False Nine at @The_False_Nine.

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