NORAD Tracks Santa Claus: The Original Story

story-creep

On December 24th 1955, a child placed a call to a phone number advertised in the Colorado Springs newspaper that promised a chance to talk to Santa Claus. The man that picked up the phone was not Santa Claus, but a high-ranking official at Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD), the precursor to the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD). The phone he picked up was supposedly the famed “red phone” that shared a connection to the White House. It was Colonel Harry Shoup who answered the phone and humored the child by telling them that Santa was on his way. More calls poured in that night, and a tradition was born. Now, 1,500 good-natured volunteers staff computers and phones every Christmas Eve to answer queries from curious children from around the world.

That’s one version of the story.

It’s highly unlikely that even one child from (anywhere, really) could have managed to accidentally and successfully reach a colonel in a top-secret missile defense facility. There is no record of the newspaper ad that misdirected local children to a military phone number (the records don’t go back past the 60’s). Somehow we have this tradition of the continent’s largest military defense organization playing along with the myth of Santa Claus, and no one knows the details. Neither the Colonel himself nor his children can agree on a story, and no one has come forward claiming to be the child on the phone.

Stories are told and retold; embellishments become indistinguishable from the original events.

Back in 2013 we provided a rebuttal to an eyewitness statement by closely examining a recollection of driving past the crime scene at 30mph. The witness testified in trial that he saw the defendant walking nearby for a full 10 seconds. A combination of video re-enactment and 3D scene modeling showed the the witness had just two seconds, not ten, to make the cross-race identification. Also, the witness described a person standing in a location that was suggested to him by police investigators, but that was not easily visible from the road.

These are examples of story creep, where fuzzy details compounded over time drastically alter our recollection of events. Colonel Shoup himself stated the first call was from a little girl, while all three of his children seem to remember being told it was a little boy. An eyewitness was convinced they were looking at the defendant for a full ten seconds from a vehicle traveling 30 miles per hour. Stories are told and retold; times stretch, speeds change, and embellishments become indistinguishable from the original events.

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Studies and numerous real-world examples prove that memory is more fluid than we like to admit. Like the game telephone, repeated tellings warp the original statements and it becomes easy to lose track of where details came from. Research shows that repeated recollection of a memory can distort it; our brains will integrate information from recalling a memory and add it to the memory itself. And we know that further retellings only prove to reinforce the falsehoods since our brains are just as likely to accept statements that have been repeated to us as those we have been told are true (i.e., the illusory truth effect). Our memory further tricks us with hindsight bias, where we become more convinced of our conclusions as more “evidence” is uncovered, making us feel like we “knew it all along”.

There are several ways this comes up in Fat Pencil Studio's work. Attorneys need to tell their clients' stories hundreds of times, and to many audiences. Investigators hear multiple accounts of an event from different witnesses (and sometimes from the same witness). Evidence is shared and re-shared in ways that can obscure the original story. The most effective way to eliminate story creep is through documentation. Documenting evidence visually is the best way to find discrepancies and check for completeness. Why? Most humans are visual learners, and the information contained in images is processed much faster than text. Doing this work early in a case gives attorneys, investigators, and other stakeholders more time to identify problems with the story, discuss strategy, and (hopefully) persuade opponents to accept a settlement.

Timing is also important in other ways. After any shooting event, police usually interview witnesses and suspects right away. However, it is currently standard procedure to wait a period of time before interviewing officers that themselves have been involved in a shooting. This is thought to help protect their mental health and allow sleep cycles to help their recall of the events. It's the prevailing practice even though further research has found no advantage to cooling off periods prior to officer interviews. One could argue that this only serves to further drive a wedge between law enforcement and the public, as officers are presumably given a chance to “get their stories straight” before answering for their actions.

Our example from 2013 goes to show how easy it is to be carried away by compounded misinformation. The prosecution ended up basing their case on a verifiably inaccurate statement. It took us “painting the picture” of the scene to effectively demonstrate the specific reasons the opposing council’s story was wrong.

According to the Innocence Project, eyewitness misidentification played a role in more than 70% of convictions later overturned by DNA testing. Ronald Cotton was famously convicted of rape in 1985 after being picked out of a photo lineup by the victim only hours after the incident. At the time, she was not certain that he was her attacker but grew more confident as the months passed. Her resolve was strengthened when other “evidence” connected him to her attack. By the time he was exonerated through DNA, Ronald Cotton had spent more than 10 years in prison. More than 75,000 eyewitnesses identify criminal suspects in the US per year. That’s a lot of opportunity for error.

Story creep begins with fuzzy details, and persists through hindsight bias and the illusory truth effect. It’s not something we have explicit control over, just weapons against. So we document, model, strategize, and visualize in hopes of sticking as close to the truth as possible.

For more info, check out these links:

NORAD Tracking Santa: A Cold War History

Hindsight Bias

Illusory Truth Effect

Is eyewitness testimony too unreliable to trust?

Humans are visual creatures

Study: "Cooling-off periods" don't help cops remember officer-involved shootings.

The Innocence Project

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Jannine Hanczarek is a Technical Illustrator at Fat Pencil Studio.