/ 10 June 2024

The impact of recency bias on our perception of historical events and achievements

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Tom Holland, English author and popular historian, poses for a portrait at the Cliveden Literary Festival at Cliveden House on September 30, 2023 in Windsor, England. (Photo by David Levenson/Getty Images)

An ugly term for a nasty practice —recency bias — the tendency to elevate contemporary or most recent achievements above those of the past.  

All that grainy, juddering footage of sports stars of old surely proves just how weak and amateurish they were. They weren’t professionals, they weren’t the one-and-only, all-time greats of today, stuffed to the gills with money and the only heroes that count because they are of the now.

Of course, that footage establishes nothing other than that filming and recording technology has improved. Those celluloid frames provide only an impressionistic view of the greats of earlier days. Those who saw them in their pomp would be able to offer sound comparisons with today’s top players or, as it’s pompously called across several disciplines, evidence-based conclusions.

Brash fans, bloggers and myriad commentators who declare the best-ever and the worst-ever have pitifully limited frames of reference, dominated by the exaggerated imagery pumped up around the contemporary version of games and their chief exponents. 

It’s clear sport has become competitive entertainment, a multibillion-dollar 21st-century variant of gladiators in Rome, the circus part of “bread and circuses” for the compliant masses.

The lack of a long view, as much retrospective as prospective, is ruinous. A famous example of retrograde awareness and foresight is the question-and-answer incident when Chinese premier Zhou Enlai visited France in the early 1970s. Asked by a reporter what he thought of the French Revolution, Zhou replied, “It’s too early to tell.”

By way of contrast, ask tennis fans, football fanatics, Formula One devotees, rugby union supporters, and so on analogous questions about players and teams and you will invariably receive definitive answers that brook no argument. 

This might be an insight into the nature of fans, but it is at least as illuminating on human nature and the Curse of the Now.

Creative arts debates on this terrain are more nuanced, the perspectives wider and deeper. But it’s a shock to run up against recency bias when it comes to history.

Eighty years ago, on 6 June 1944, American, English and Canadian troops landed on the beaches of Normandy as the first step towards driving the Nazi armies from France and reconquering Europe. 

That red-letter day in the defence of democracy is known by its Allied name D-Day, the D standing for (an unnamed) day. 

Celebrations were ultra-poignant this year because the number of living D-Day veterans is very small. Soon, there will be none. But it is to each of the remaining survivors of D-Day and all those who died then, and later, that people alive today who are living in democracies owe an unpayable debt.

In the many commemorations of D-Day in print and on radio and TV, one statistic was trotted out as fact, not reflected on by writers, editors and subeditors, scriptwriters, programme producers and interviewers.  The marine component of D-Day, it was stated unequivocally, was the largest seaborne invasion in history.

Certainly, the overall plan to prise Europe from the Nazi vice required the gathering in England, and concealment, as much as that was possible, of some two million military personnel. The D-Day invasion force itself comprised about 156 000 troops. In that, it fell almost 100 000 short of what was the largest invading army ever assembled and launched by sea, that of the King of Kings, Xerxes of Persia.

In 480BCE, Xerxes gathered and unleashed the martial might of the Persian Empire against the small city-state that invented democracy. 

Athens was an affront to the King of Kings, run by a system directly at odds with the absolutism of Persia. (That’s written fully acknowledging that Athenian democracy and society were imperfect — women did not vote and neither, of course, did slaves; the latter the least democratic component any polity can have.)

An earlier attempt at conquest by Xerxes’ predecessor, Darius, had seen “the singeing of the King of Persia’s beard”, with a Greek victory at the Battle of Marathon. But that was a temporary respite.

As the classicist and historian Tom Holland writes in his superb book Persian Fire, subtitled The First World Empire and the Battle for the West, “Marathon had taught not only Athens but the whole of Greece a portentous lesson: humiliation at the hands of a superpower was not inevitable. 

“The Athenians, as they would never tire of reminding everyone, had shown that the hordes of the Great King could be defeated. The colossus had feet of clay.

“Liberty might be defended, after all.”

Holland draws extensively on the great work by the father of history, Herodotus, whose The Histories is a searching, if often discursive, investigation into the roots and causes of the war between Persia and Greece. (Properly, “Greece”, as the “Greeks” saw themselves first as citizens of their own city-states and only then more broadly as Hellenes. Greece and Greek derive from the Latin names for the country and its people.)

Herodotus sets out his mission and his aim in the first sentence of his work, perhaps one of the most famous opening lines of all time (and, note, not recent). “Herodotus of Halicarnassus, his ‘Researches’ are here set down to preserve the memory of the past by putting on record the astonishing achievements of both our own and other peoples; and more particularly, to show how they came into conflict.” 

There is nothing like reading Herodotus, following the observations, probings, analyses and conclusions of a questing mind, ever restless for facts, oddities, anecdotes and incidents revealing character, motives and decisions. 

Aubrey de Sélincourt’s classic translation is one place to begin; another is Holland’s own version, published a few years ago, and bristling with all the energy and acuity that he brought to Persian Fire.

Indeed, Holland’s account of Xerxes versus The West reads like a thriller, perhaps something like Fatherland by Robert Harris, with its opposition of tyranny and democracy. Take the following:

“Once, they [the Persians] had been nothing, just an obscure mountain tribe confined to the plains and mountains of what is now southern Iran. Then, in the space of a single generation, they had swept across the Middle East, shattering ancient kingdoms, storming famous cities, amassing an empire which stretched from India to the shores of the Aegean. 

“As a result of those conquests, Xerxes had ruled as the most powerful man on the planet. The resources available to him were so stupefying as to appear virtually limitless. Europe was not to witness another invasion force to rival his until 1944, and the summer of D-Day.”

That should be sufficient inspiration to read Herodotus or Holland. And to think, also, of D-Day, when the defenders were the enemies of democracy and the invaders its proponents. 

Without the sacrifices which were made by the Allied troops on the beaches and the airborne commandos who landed behind enemy lines the previous night, Harris’s Fatherland could have been not alternative, but actual, history.

Millions of people around the world might never have tasted democracy and democracies — both flawed still, much as their founding Athenian form. South Africans might not have voted in elections last month. And voters in the US might not have had the opportunity to deny tyranny and choose a lesser evil in their elections this November.