On Thursday, Sen. James Risch (R-Idaho) complimented former FBI Director James Comey on the detailed memos in which Comey documented, among other things, President Donald Trump’s request that he stop a federal investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn.
“I find it concise, and having been a prosecutor for a number of years and handling hundreds, maybe thousands of cases and read police reports, investigative reports, this is as good as it gets,” Risch said during Comey’s testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee. “Not only the conciseness and the clearness of it, but also the fact that you have things that were written down contemporaneously when they happened.”
If you want to remember something accurately, writing out a description of it immediately after it happens is the most reliable way to do so.
In Comey’s case, his status as onetime leader of the FBI makes those notes even more valuable. The New York Times noted in May that “an F.B.I. agent’s contemporaneous notes are widely held up in court as credible evidence of conversations.”
Still, human memory is imperfect.
Writing down memories is a form of what psychologists call rehearsal ― a way to retain information and solidify it in memory by repeating and revisiting it. But the technique has its drawbacks. While you can strengthen your recollection of certain details by writing them out, the details you don’t focus on can end up fading from your memory faster ― a psychological phenomenon known as retrieval-induced forgetting.
“If you see some event and you rehearse parts of it, those parts you rehearse are strengthened in memory, but at the same time, the non-rehearsed parts are weakened in memory,” Elizabeth Loftus, a cognitive psychologist and expert on memory formation at the University of California, Irvine, told HuffPost.
And while it’s standard for FBI employees to keep detailed logs, typically to preserve evidence, according to psychology experts, it’s not necessarily a habit that non-federal agents should incorporate into their lives.
“The world in which we all have to keep memos is a sad world,” Eli Finkel, a social psychology professor at Northwestern University, told HuffPost. “But if you believe that you can’t trust the people around you, the people that you work with, then you need to set all sorts of safeguards in place to protect yourself.”
Notably, Comey did not document his interactions with former Presidents Barack Obama or George W. Bush.
“When trust is badly damaged or compromised, it’s sensible ― in fact, it’s a very good idea ― to put mechanisms in place to protect yourself,” Finkel said.
Sensible, yes ― but it could also be a sign of an unhealthy situation.
In fact, if you find yourself documenting negative interactions with your boss or your partner, or even just thinking that you need to do so, it could be a sign that you should find a new job or think critically about your relationship.
“I think it’s a sufficient cue that trust is badly damaged,” Finkel said. “If you are doing that with your partner, I would say that you should get help in your marriage.”
To be sure, there’s a time and a place for keeping written records. Journaling, for instance, has been shown to help manage anxiety and reduce worry. And group note-taking, such as recording official minutes for a work meeting, can ensure productivity and help an organization run more smoothly.
But those instances are very different from “surreptitiously ensuring that you have your ducks in a row,” as Finkel put it.
Loftus, meanwhile, is worried that all the attention given to Comey’s memos might have a backfiring effect.
“What is it going to teach people?” she asked. “Is it going to teach people to make up notes soon afterwards, in anticipation of somebody telling a different story later on?”
Loftus stressed that she doesn’t think that’s what Comey did. “But,” she said, “I think this whole experience invites us to think about that potential.”