Can We Forget and Move On?

The controversies about our new health care legislation will not fade as quickly as Democrats hope, according to an Op-Ed piece in The New York Times:  “While some of the more outlandish rumors may dissipate, it is likely that misperceptions will linger for years . . . .  The reasons are rooted in human psychology.”

The argument by Brendan Nyhan, a political scientist, at the University of Michigan is based on the fact that people essentially seek out confirmation of what they already believe.  They don’t like to change.  (See, “The Fight Is Over, the Myths Remain.”)

That’s true, up to a point.  Our minds are not simply rational;  they don’t automatically replace bad ideas with good ones, or put new ones in the place of old ones.  They tend to stick with the familiar, preferring what’s comfortable and known.

But that’s not the only relevant truth here.  People also forget over time. The retention of old ideas depends on the emotional force they hold for those who believe them.  So if the new reforms retain the heightened charge of fear associated with “socialism” or “death panels,” that person might hold on to his negative judgments for some time.  But if there is less ideological fervor, less anxiety – or possibly, even, some new positive emotions associated with greater security — the person might begin to wonder after a while what all the fuss was about.

Also, much depends on people’s actions, how ideas relate to what people actually do.  New patterns of behavior – like going to the doctor more often or the pharmacy – can make old ideas obsolete.  The actions of filling out insurance claims, developing new habits of health care or balancing household budgets will gradually overwrite past habits of thought.  Moreover, if the behaviors associated with the old ideas are not repeated, they will almost certainly fade away.

As a psychoanalyst, I know that memory is conservative, and it often operates unconsciously, but it is also dynamic.  It ties us to the past, but it’s not fixed.  It can reflect other interests and needs we have as we move on with our lives.