Charlie Baker’s Teary Fisherman Story Shows the Power of False Memories

Republican candidate for governor Charlie Baker teary story has some doubters.
Republican candidate for governor Charlie Baker teary story has some doubters. –(WCVB-TV)

Blame the essence of how memories are formed — not Charlie Baker — for the mistaken details surrounding the Republican gubernatorial hopeful’s tearful story about a New Bedford fisherman during Tuesday’s debate.

Baker and his Democratic opponent Martha Coakley were asked about the last time they cried. Baker spoke about a conversation he had with a New Bedford fisherman who had pressured his two sons into becoming fishermen, forcing them to give up football scholarships to college. Baker paused several times during the speech, tears welling in his eyes.

That story, Baker would later admit, comes from a 2009 meeting with fisherman in New Bedford. He first told the story during his 2010 bid for governor, and it has been a favorite on this campaign trail ever since.

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In the days since that touching moment, reporters haven’t been able to locate or identify the fisherman who supposedly told the tale. The Boston Globe couldn’t locate the family. Neither could the New Bedford Standard-Times.

That’s because, as Baker admitted on Thursday, the story could be slightly untrue.

“There may be a detail or two that I got wrong,’’ he told The Boston Globe, “but obviously the image and the message from him has stayed with me for a very long time.’’

What were those mistaken details?

“It is certainly possible that this person did not live in New Bedford, and Charlie was mistaken about that five years ago,’’ campaign manager Jim Conroy said. Conroy also said the part about the sons’ football scholarships could have been incorrect.

John Coley, an associate professor of psychology at Northeastern University, took particular interest in the media’s doubts about the fisherman story because it fits into research on memory and cognition.

“Memory is not like a video camera,’’ Coley told Boston.com. “What’s making this look like a problem is that people don’t understand how memory works.’’

Memory is a constructive process, Coley said, that involves focusing on some details and ignoring others. Over time, those details can get confused or adapted. The mistaken fisherman particulars have more to do with the essence of memory than Baker himself, according to Coley.

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“It’s not the case that Charlie Baker is lying. Charlie Baker has this memory, it’s just the case that in everyday life we think of memory as an accurate, permanent recording of an event, and that’s not what memory really is.’’

In any case, Coakley said the memory failures “raise questions’’ about the story, and her campaign issued a press release citing a number of New Bedford locals who were not familiar with a person who fit Baker’s description.

Coakley herself is visiting New Bedford on Friday to meet with Massachusetts fishing industry leaders. Five years from now, we shouldn’t expect her to remember the specifics of those conversations, whether or not they make her cry.

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