The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why people still think George H.W. Bush didn’t understand a grocery checkout

It’s not just politics. It’s how our memory works.

President George H.W. Bush in 1992. (Luke Frazza/AFP/Getty Images)

In 1992, during his bid for reelection, President George H.W Bush visited the National Grocers Association Convention in Florida. He happened to stop by an exhibit featuring a new type of checkout scanner, which could weigh groceries and read torn bar codes. According to the two-paragraph pool report filed by the lone reporter at the event, Gregg McDonald of the Houston Chronicle, Bush had a “look of wonder” on his face, a detail McDonald himself didn’t bother to include in the story he wrote on Bush’s visit to the convention.

But the New York Times described Bush’s encounter with the electronic scanner in great detail: “The look of wonder flickered across his face again as he saw the item and price registered on the cash register screen.” The reporter also noted, “Some grocery stores began using electronic scanners as early as 1976, and the devices have been in general use in American supermarkets for a decade.” The implication was clear: The president didn’t have a clue about what life is like for regular Americans. He didn’t even know how a grocery store worked.

The story was quickly picked up, and it never went away. Multiple editorials framed the incident as an example of Bush’s extreme disconnect from the real lives and real problems of Americans. Despite immediate pushback from the White House, other journalists and witnesses, as well as numerous debunkings over many years (including a thorough one from Snopes), the idea that the president was so out of touch that he marveled at a common grocery store checkout has persisted in pop culture and political analysis. Even in its obit for the president, who died on Saturday, the Times wrote that “His critics saw him as out of touch with ordinary Americans, pointing to what they portrayed as his amazed reaction during a demonstration of a supermarket scanner,” an inclusion that infuriated numerous conservative commentators.

Why does this portrayal continue to be reintroduced despite evidence and support to the contrary? One reasonable and mundane possibility is that some individuals never saw evidence running counter to that portrayal. Some people didn’t read the debunkings, but they did hear the original story, perhaps multiple times, so they remember it and repeat it. A more sinister possibility is that some people might endorse the story, despite it being unsubstantiated, with the goal of positioning Bush in a less than generous light. Both of these possibilities rely on social motivations that can influence people’s willingness to repeat and believe the debunked events.

At the same time, psychological mechanisms rooted in the everyday operations of human cognition bear some of the responsibility for people’s reliance on the original false story. These mechanisms guide our effective understanding and interpretation of events, but like many cognitive processes can sometimes lead to confusion and comprehension failures. Experimental and observational studies conducted with large groups of participants provide insight into why a debunked claim might continue to be discussed and validated.

The story of Bush’s reaction at the checkout scanner follows a narrative sequence of events that seem plausible and is simple to follow: Rich guy doesn’t buy his own groceries, rich guy has never seen a grocery checkout. This makes it easy to remember and retell. Research studies have consistently shown that people find information that is easy to recall from memory to feel more true compared with information that is difficult to recall. Listening and viewing repeated tellings of a story can enhance the validity of its content, conferring feelings of truth despite information being patently false. Repeated descriptions of the event, including the “look of wonder” being restated in every iteration, contributes to beliefs that the information must be true.

An additional challenge is that when most people learned about the story, they first heard the false narrative (i.e., Bush was “amazed by some of the technology”) before receiving the correct debunking. Even Snopes, in attempting to refute the story, begins with a retelling of how “amazed” Bush was with the supermarket scanner, before declaring it false. That initial information receives more attention and time for consideration in memory than the correction does. When that early information is incorrect, it proves particularly resilient to updating.

Psychological accounts of memory also indicate that even after information has been carefully debunked, people do not, and cannot, completely forget what they learned. Early reports of Bush being “amazed” may seem gone but are not forgotten. Debunkings even help reactivate the earlier, false memories, making them available again for additional consideration.

The problem is further compounded given people rarely tag the different kinds of information they are learning as true or false in a careful or consistent way in memory. Different memories, some indicating Bush was “amazed,” some indicating perhaps he was amazed but not for the reasons suggested, some indicating he was merely expressing interest in his role as visitor to the convention, and a host of other possibilities, can all be invoked in a recollection of the event. This, evidence suggests, can result in interpretations that are confused, and that end up relying on initial stories because, again, they were the first pieces we heard and thus deemed the most reliable. Consider that people likely have difficulty determining which quotes might be attributed to Bush or to comedian Dana Carvey from his impressions of the president on “Saturday Night Live.” Our various experiences with Bush, stories about him and portrayals of him are all fodder for contemplation when we think about the former president. This makes it possible for inaccurate understandings to be readily available even when they shouldn’t be used or are irrelevant.

Despite considerable evidence refuting Bush’s “amazement” in that moment, the story keeps sticking around. Debunkings can be less than effective, not just because of poorly worded refutations or people’s personal motivations toward rejecting them, but also because of the general properties of human cognition. Even when we possess knowledge indicating we should know the truth of a particular situation, we fall back on the falsehood. That’s a phenomenon that goes far beyond the former president.