The 2021 Capital riot was a major event in U.S. history, and yet Democrats and Republicans tend to remember it differently. Findings from a study published in the journal Memory revealed that most Americans endorsed false memories of the riot, and these memories tended to favor their political party.
A false memory is when a person remembers an event that never actually happened or that happened much differently than they recall. Such memories can be biased to support a person’s worldview. For example, evidence suggests that people are more likely to endorse false memories that support their political ideology.
Study author Dustin P. Calvillo and his co-authors wanted to explore how political ideology may have influenced Americans’ recollections of the U.S. Capital riot. On January 6, 2021, a mob of Trump supporters stormed the Capital in an attempt to disrupt the electoral vote count and prevent Biden’s victory from being formalized. Media coverage of this historic event differed drastically depending on the news outlet, with some conservative outlets spreading false claims about what transpired.
“I’ve been interested in false memories for a long time and I’ve been studying real-world misinformation for the last few years,” explained Calvillo, a psychology professor and chair at California State University San Marcos. “My coauthor (and grad student in my lab), Justin Harris, and I discussed some studies about false memory for fake news and we decided it would be interesting to study this in the context of the Capitol riot.”
Calvillo and his colleagues launched a study among 230 U.S. residents who identified as either a Democrat (117) or a Republican (113). Subjects were between the ages of 20 and 76 and were presented with 12 stories about the Capital riot. In a pretest, each story had been identified as either a pro-Democrat or a pro-Republican story. Using a fact-checking website, the researchers had selected half of the pro-Democrat stories to be false and half of the pro-Republican stories to be false.
Each story was two sentences long. For example, one false pro-Democrat story showed a photo of Republican Representative Lauren Boebert standing with rioters before she allegedly gave them a tour of the Capital one day before the attack. One false pro-Republican story claimed that Antifa had taken responsibility for turning a peaceful protest into a riot in order to make Trump supporters look bad. After reading each story, participants rated their recollection of the story and indicated where (if anywhere) they had encountered it.
Participants then completed a cognitive reflection test and a measure of conspiracy ideation. They also answered three questions concerning their engagement with the Capital riot, indicating how often they had listened to traditional media about the riot, how often they had engaged with social media content about the riot, and how often they had discussed the riot with friends and family.
The vast majority of participants (80%) endorsed at least one false memory. While Democrat and Republican respondents recalled a similar number of false memories, the types of memories they recalled differed.
As the researchers had hypothesized, Democrats falsely recalled more pro-Democrat stories while Republicans falsely recalled more pro-Republican stories. Participants’ recollection of true stories was also in line with their political party. Democrats recalled more of the true pro-Democrat stories and Republicans remembered more of the true pro-Republican stories.
“The main takeaway from this study is that different people can have very different memories of the same event,” Calvillo told PsyPost. “People tend to remember details of events that paint themselves and their social groups in a positive light. Accuracy of memory is important to learn from previous events. This partisan bias hinders that learning.”
The results also uncovered individual differences in participants’ endorsement of false memories. Participants who scored lower on the cognitive reflection test reported fewer false memories about the riot. Respondents with higher conspiracy ideation reported more false memories about the riot, and people who were more engaged in the Capital riot reported more true and false memories.
Calvillo and his team say their findings are in line with past evidence suggesting that people tend to endorse false memories that align with their attitudes. Strikingly, the current results show that people can hold very different recollections of the same real-world political event, depending on their attitudes.
“Understanding factors related to false memories of real-world political events is an important step in reducing false beliefs that complicate finding solutions to public policy problems,” the study authors write. “If people do not remember an event similarly, consensus on defining the problem becomes difficult.”
The authors note that it is possible that the results reflect partisan cheerleading rather than politically-biased false memories. Participants may have been responding in ways that they felt would benefit their political party, regardless of their actual memory of the event. “One question that still needs to be addressed is whether this partisan bias really reflects differences in political partisans’ memory or if participants just respond in ways that make them look better,” Calvillo said.
Future research could attempt to limit partisan cheerleading by incentivizing accuracy (i.e., paying participants for correct judgments).
The study, “Partisan bias in false memories for misinformation about the 2021 U.S. Capitol riot”, was authored by Dustin P. Calvillo, Justin D. Harris, and Whitney C. Hawkins.