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Self-Serving Memory

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Above: the invention of the wildly popular "Fishsticks" joke.
Below: Cartman's memory of the event.
"Never underestimate the ability of a human being to rationalize the truth."
— From the very short list of so-called Moscow Rules used by the CIA when operating in the USSR

A Self-Serving Memory is a Flashback that is blatantly altered to serve the needs of whoever is remembering it. More often than not, it is played for comedic effect, though it is used a decent amount for dramatic purposes by arrogant jerks.

At the lowest level, it is mainly used for dramatic purposes by a Consummate Liar to suit their needs or manipulate other characters. When cranked up, however, it can result in wildly fantastic scenarios which, more often than not, are impossibly unrealistic. Depending on the believability of the character dreaming this up, it can be quite funny, both as a standalone gag or even as a plot point.

As psychologists, police officers, and lawyers can attest, this is Truth in Television: only people with photographic memory don't have self-serving memories. Memories are not so much recalled as they are reconstructed (created anew from mental scraps) and framed by the words used to express them. Factors including general mood, ambient temperature, and word choice influence memory reconstruction.note  Over time, self-serving bias is capable of completely erasing, changing all content within, or creating false memories.


See also Flashback Fail and "Rashomon"-Style. Compare Unreliable Voiceover, The Münchausen, Theory Tunnel Vision and Crazy Memory. May be related to I Reject Your Reality and can go hand-in-hand with Believing Their Own Lies and Never My Fault. May overlap with Once More, with Clarity! if the accurate version is shown after the self-serving version.

Example subpages:


Other examples:

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    Films — Animation 
  • The Incredibles: While Syndrome guilts Mr. Incredible into thinking he was wrong to have rejected him as a sidekick, his flashback conveniently omits all the problems he caused that night. The scene of Mr. Incredible telling Buddy that he works alone is a particularly interesting example: In the actual events, Mr. Incredible was struggling against a supervillain named Bomb Voyage while trying to both apprehend the villain and convince Buddy to leave the dangerous situation. In Syndrome's flashback, Mr. Incredible's pose and tone is far more condescending and dismissive, and Bomb Voyage is entirely absent, making it seem like Mr. Incredible was pushing Buddy away for no reason at all.
  • In Meet the Robinsons, the Bowler Hat Guy informs Lewis how his life was never the same after he failed to catch the ball in the baseball game and that his classmates all hated him. The truth is, though, Goob's classmates were still pretty friendly to him after the game and Goob allowed his bitterness and resentment of Lewis to fester over twenty years.
  • Megamind: When Titan battles Megamind, he claims the latter "stole [his] girlfriend." Of course, Roxanne was never interested in Hal and was visibly off-put by his attempts to ask her to be his girlfriend.
  • Mickey's Twice Upon a Christmas : After Pluto accidentally wrecks the Christmas decorations, Mickey orders him to stay in the doghouse until he returns from shopping for new decorations. However, Pluto's mind warps it into Mickey blaming him for ruining Christmas and telling him to go away.
  • In Shark Tale, Angie gives Oscar a pearl heirloom of hers to pawn for the money Sykes needs. Later, when he goes to the racetrack to meet with Sykes to give him the money, he gets the idea to bet the money on a seahorse that's racing there and flashes back to Angie's words to him from earlier, only now she's telling him to bet the money.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • A downplayed example: in the made-for-TV Babylon 5 film In the Beginning, Londo says that he cared deeply for all his wives. When a fan pointed out that the evidence from the series painted a very different picture, J. Michael Straczynski replied: "We remember what, and how, we choose to remember."
  • The Duellists: After dueling each other for nearly 15 years, Feraud has long forgotten the original cause of his quarrel with d'Hubert (who hasn't), which was Feraud feeling insulted when d'Hubert arrested him for another duel while Feraud was enjoying the company of a female host at her salon. When he's reminded of this by d'Hubert through an intermediate, he actually rewrites his own memory to make d'Hubert an outspoken anti-Bonapartist.
  • In The Hangover Part III, Alan's father's last words to him before he died were to berate him for his immaturity and selfishness. At the funeral, Alan claims his father's last words were, "I'm proud of you, son. Don't ever change."
  • In Knives Out:
    • Both Linda and Walt have nearly identical flashbacks of their families surrounding Harlan when his cake was present to show their closeness with him. It's unclear which flashback is accurate or if they were even at Harlan's side to begin with.
    • Richard recounts a scene at the party where he warmly beckons Marta over to the cheerfully partying guests where she eagerly joins in. A more extended scene is shown later that actually, he summoned her to use as a prop for his racist argument in a heated debate and Marta was extremely uncomfortable the whole time.
  • Marvel Cinematic Universe:
    • In The Avengers, Loki accuses Thor of throwing him into the wormhole at the end of their movie. In reality, he let go after their father Odin refused to accept attempted genocide as proof of what a good son he was.
    • Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2: When they meet up again, Nebula claims Gamora left her to die on Ronan's ship in the previous movie. What actually happened was Gamora asked Nebula to work with her against Ronan. Nebula refused, sliced her own wrist off to get away, and fled in a stolen spaceship.
    • Spider-Man: Far From Home features a flashback to Tony Stark demonstrating the Binarily Augmented Retro-Framing technology in Captain America: Civil War, with the audience laughing at the name to the dismay of Quentin Beck, the actual inventor of the device. However, the actual scene in Civil War has a silent audience and Tony admitting he needs to come up with a better name, demonstrating just how petty and self-serving Beck's grudge against his former boss is.
  • The comedy Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates opens with a montage of the title characters at various events, laughing, hanging about, having a good time, and everyone around them enjoying their antics. When their parents tell them of how "you two ruin" every family gathering, they're baffled as they relate how everyone loves having them around. In answer, their parents show a video of the real events where the brothers end up causing massive property damage, ruin the party and often lead to major injuries of guests. Mike and Dave are honestly surprised by this, asking "where are the epic tracking shots of smiling faces" that they remember.
  • In Quick Change, Bob Elliot's highly-ineffectual bank guard character becomes a whole lot more heroic when recounting the events of a robbery to the police.
  • This is the entire premise of Rashomon, where the witnesses all have irreconcilable versions of who killed the victim and why. Interestingly, all of them (except for the woodcutter) claim to be the murderer but still paint themselves in a more sympathetic light than in others' stories.
  • In The Ref, Caroline has a very strong Nostalgia Filter in place regarding the days when she and her husband Lloyd were a young couple living in New York City, and she'll go on and on about it, especially when she's had enough to drink. Towards the end of the movie Lloyd finally calls her out on said nostalgia, her memory, which is definitely this trope, and the way she more or less blames him for everything that has gone wrong in their lives since the New York days.
    I told you what moving here could mean, but you were the one who said we should consider it! Not the actual moving, just the considering. The actual moving in part was left to me! Why? Because you didn't know what to do. You were... confused, you didn't know if it was the right thing. But you were sure as hell sick and tired of living in a one-bedroom apartment in New York City, so don't hand me that 'it was the best of times' bullshit! You didn't want to work anymore and you didn't want any help with the baby because you wanted to do it all by yourself! And you hated New York because we weren't as rich as your college friends were to enjoy it! We couldn't afford a bigger place, and you were miserable being around people who could! AND... we were up to our EARS in debt!
  • In Second Hand Lions, Garth's recollection of saving Hub is tinted in a manner to impress Walter and make him sound badass. Walter doesn't believe it for a second and gets him to tell the truth: Hub did all the fighting while Garth spent the entire encounter struggling to draw his sword.
  • Played for Drama in SHAZAM! (2019) where Billy's memory of the day at the fair was bright and happy and his mother doting and affectionate because it was seen from the perspective of a young excited boy. His mother's recollection of the same day is shown to be much duller and realistic and the mother being worn-out and frustrated.
  • Inverted example in Spider-Man 3, in that the misremembered memory goes against the favour of the person recalling it - when Peter discovers the truth that the real murderer of his beloved Uncle Ben was Flint Marko, who recently escaped custody, while the alleged killer from two years ago, Dennis Carradine, was merely an accomplice. Peter starts feeling the guilt over the latter's death, recalling how he threw Carradine out of a window in a Deliberately Monochrome flasback — but in the actual scene from the first film, Carradine accidentally killed himself by tripping over a pipe and falling backwards through a window, and Peter has nothing to do with his demise.
  • Star Wars: The Last Jedi shows both Luke and Kylo Ren engaging in this with Kylo's Start of Darkness. Luke portrays it as if Ben just turned on him out of nowhere, while Kylo makes it out like Luke attacked him in his sleep like a maniac. The truth turns out to be somewhere in the middle; Luke went to Kylo's room to discern what was troubling him, only to read his future and get a vision of all the death and destruction Kylo would cause. In shock, Luke instinctively pulled his saber as if to kill Kylo, but caught himself and went to put it away... but Kylo woke up and only saw his master standing over him, weapon ready to strike.
  • In The World's End, Gary has a "very selective memory" regarding the group's youth.
  • Zombieland: Tallahassee tells Columbus about how he hated to lose his puppy, Buck, with a cute flashback of him doting on this sweet, smart dog. Later on, while stoned, he admits that Buck was really his son. The same flashback plays, replacing the puppy with a little boy, not more than three years old.

  • An article in Dragon about writing in-character journals of your Dungeons & Dragons adventures suggested this as one of the styles ("Conceited"). Anything the party achieved was all down to your character, any deduction or discovery was something your character had suspected all along, and anything your character couldn't have done (such as cast a spell if he was a fighter) had been done on his instructions.

    Multiple Media 
  • MonsterVerse: Mark Russell.
    • Implied in Godzilla: King of the Monsters. He rants about how Godzilla is responsible for his son's death in the San Francisco battle, whilst never making any mention of the MUTOs who actually instigated the destruction before Godzilla stopped them. (Notably, even when he admits that he needs to let his grudge against Godzilla go, he never actually admits that he was wrong to blame Godzilla to start with.) The implication is that Mark was so desperate to have something living to hate over Andrew's death, that he projected all of his rage and blame at the Titan who ended the disaster instead of taking comfort in knowing that the MUTOs which really started the destruction were also dead by dawn.
    • Played Straight in the Godzilla vs. Kong novelization, where Madison mentally observes that Mark seems to have wilfully forgotten all about how she committed some of the greatest acts of heroism out of the entire cast during the previous movie, in favor of viewing her as what he wishes she was and ignoring what she's clearly proven herself to be in reality.

    Pro Wrestling 
  • Most heels run on this mindset, either whining about losses and complaining about actions that faces took when actions they took were way worse but somehow unsuccessful. For example, after the 2014 Survivor Series, Triple H blamed the loss of Team Authority on the debut of Sting. However, it was clear that Sting wouldn't have needed to get involved in the match had Triple H not interfered on the behalf of Seth Rollins by attacking Dolph Ziggler and numerous referees, and presumably paying off The Big Show to attack John Cena and leave the match. None of these occurrences were mentioned except for Sting's debut. Distressingly sometimes commentators and even production seem to agree with the heel. Eugene cost Triple H his world title shot against Chris Benoit? No one bothers to mention Evolution interfering on the behalf of Trips first, no video package of the event even show it, just Eugene bashing Trips with a folding chair.
  • In this promo from the July 4, 1995 ECW Hardcore TV about Stevie Richards and Raven defeating The Public Enemy for the ECW World Tag Team Titles. Stevie claims that he pinned Flyboy Rocco Rock and made it sound like he won the match all by himself. In actuality, the referee got knocked down and The Gangstas (New Jack and Mustafa Saied) ran in and attacked TPE and threw Stevie on top of Johnny Grunge for the pin.
  • Kimberly's short-lived tag team with Leva Bates involved dressing up as Things. After a loss to Made in Sin, Kimberly attacked Bates and later took and ripped the head off of one of Bates's Thing dolls. Kimberly then went searching for "her" lost doll and was shocked when she found the doll had lost its head. The doll apparently told her Leva had ripped it off after Kimberly sewed it back on. So Kimberly aimed to avenge it. Leva explained this sequence, along with Kimberly's other "quirks" as being symptoms of delusion, psychopathy and narcissistic personality disorder.
  • During the Shine title reigns of Ivelisse Vélez, Mia Yim, and Santana Garrett, Allysin Kay complained relentlessly about how she hadn't gotten a title shot, seemingly forgetting that she got one against Velez and lost right before Mia Yim then defeated Velez for the belt, logically putting Kay in the back of the line until she won enough to get shot against Garrett, who had defeated Yim...and Kay lost again!
  • Paul Heyman turned on CM Punk, after Et Tu, Brute? wears off, Punk realizes he should have seen it coming and is angry with himself for it. He also moves on. Paul Heyman then needlessly antagonizes Punk, saying that Punk ungratefully turned on him, going so far as to claim he had "fathered" Punk. Thus begins CM Punk's Roaring Rampage of Revenge against Paul Heyman.

    Web Animation 
  • Camp Camp: When the Wood Scouts recall their disastrous attempt at sabotaging Camp Campbell, each of them has different quirks to their story. Pikeman remembers himself without acne or braces (which are on everyone else), and the other Wood Scouts treating him with reverence. Snake remembers being a veteran soldier leading three green recruits on a suicide mission. Petrol remembers everyone taking in grunts and being honest about their feelings. And Jermy remembers the other Wood Scouts wearing medical clothes and being respectful of his various ailments.
  • FreedomToons: In "Bernie Hates Women" Elizabeth Warren's story about Bernie Sanders saying a woman could never be president grows more and more ludicrous, from Bernie being insulting and mocking, to vandalizing her house and accepting a call from his "Best Friend Donald Trump" who joins him in mocking and calling Warren names.
  • Strong Bad of Homestar Runner claims to have less a photographic memory, and more a "doodle memory." This is punctuated by a comparison between the actual events of the Jumble Caper (Strong Bad and the Cheat got caught by Homestar because they knocked over a lamp while trying to steal the jumble section of his newspaper) and Stong Bad's memory of it (a crude drawing of Strong Bad and an inexplicably serpentine The Cheat escaping a vault holding a massive gem and a roast turkey, and preparing to steal some subwoofers).
  • In If the Emperor Had a Text-to-Speech Device, the Emperor initially considers Astral Knights to be an idiotic name and Chapter in general, but when he hears about their Heroic Sacrifice, he claims that he totally created them.
  • Red vs. Blue has Sarge do this at the start of season seven when he recalled how they deleted the record of the Blues from Command's computer, with his modifications including killing Grif and Simmons turning into a motorcycle. When Grif calls him out on this, citing his not being dead, Sarge tells Simmons to transform and run over him.
  • In Smashtasm, Super64, realizing he's in trouble, remembers 1337f0x saying "If you ever need me, just call." Link (who is not the actual Link, just a roleplayer convinced he is) takes notice of this and reminds him that 1337f0x said no such thing. Super64 shoots back by pointing out that Link wasn't there at the time, so how could he possibly know what 1337f0x may or may not have said? Link's response ("Duh! I'm the Hero of Time!") doesn't answer anything. And 1337f0x does come to save Super64 anyway.
  • In the Sonic In X Minutes parody of Sonic Adventure, the game's plot is told in "Rashomon"-Style as the cast explain to the GUN Commander how Station Square came to be flooded. Sonic and Tails each portray themselves as hypercompetent, and the other as a bumbling idiot; Knuckles portrays himself as a Film Noir Hard Boiled Detective; Amy portrays herself as a Secret Agent, and interprets Sonic's terrified screams as coded messages; and Eggman portrays himself as an innocent victim of bullying and harassment. All of them gloss over the various instances of Chao abuse they committed to provoke Perfect Chaos' rampage in the first place.
    • Inverted by Big, who (in a reverse of how the series usually portrays him) seems to actually be the intelligent, cultured biologist he portrays himself as, but is dismissed as an idiot before he can actually say anything.
  • The TOME short "Rockoon's Modern Strife" gives the title character A Day in the Limelight and features a self-serving memory where Rockoon tries to justify why Doubling abandoned him. Ironically, Doubling is present during Rockoon's recount of this event and is actively trying to make amends, but both of their egos get in the way of actually being straightforward and talking it through.

  • In BlazBlue Alter Memory Abridged, Noel reflects on her time at the military academy with Makoto and Tsubaki. Specifically, she remembers Tsubaki complimenting her on being so smart (even though she also remembers getting questions wrong), and both Jin and Makoto commenting on her pleasing breast size. Makoto then reminds her of the accurate account - Tsubaki gave up on trying to tutor her, and Jin gave her nothing but Death Glares. Cut to Tsubaki, reflecting on their academy days with Noel and Makoto as mumbling idiots who couldn't learn the simplest information, and Jin asking her to 'tutor' him in his dorm later.
    Tsubaki: Those were the days.
  • Girl Genius: Castle Heterodyne wantonly attacks Castle Wulfenbach as it hovers over Mechanicsburg. Agatha scolds the castle for this blatant act of war, only to learn that the Castle remembers getting cheerful permission from Agatha herself. Agatha then recalls what really happened:
    Agatha: I'm going to have to think twice about everything I say to you, aren't I?
    Castle Heterodyne: It'll be fun!
  • Early in Goblins, Minmax has a "flashback" of drawing his sword before battle in an attempt to get himself out of a game mechanics joke.
  • Unsounded: Inverted with Duane, who remembers everything with perfect, merciless clarity since he became undead. He's badly shaken when he recounts a story of his military service and realizes how much bleaker the reality is than the memory his living brain had constructed from it.
  • In Weak Hero, Ben assures Rowan that he could probably become the No. 1 of his class if he tried. Rowan's recollection of his words is a little more biased than that:
    Ben: You have the potential. Destroy Phillip with your amazing ultra elbow skill, and become the king of Class One!
    Note: Never said anything like this.

    Web Videos 
  • In Cobra Kai, Johnny sits down with Miguel and tells him about how he and Danny LaRusso became mortal enemies, when LaRusso swept into town, seduced his girl, and hounded him and his friends at every opportunity. Those of us who watched The Karate Kid might have a different view of events, but the scene makes it tragically clear that Johnny isn't embellishing or consciously trying to make himself look good; that is genuinely how he remembers the events.
  • Mentioned in Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog:
    Buddy: You idiot! You almost killed her!
    Captain Hammer: I remember it differently.
  • It's a Running Gag in SF Debris's reviews of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine that Gul Dukat regularly rewrites his own memories to better serve his own self-image: a tragically misunderstood hero, who is deeply respected and admired by the DS9 crew, especially Sisko and Kira.
    Dukat: (after Kira throws a glass at his head) No, not now Major, I'll accept your offer to have a drink with you later, if you wear something nice.
  • In To Boldly Flee, Terl blames The Nostalgia Critic for destroying his home planet Psychlo at the end of the Battlefield Earth review, even though at the time he was well aware that the Critic had nothing to do with it.
  • In TomSka's "First date", Tom remembers his first date as an awesome action sequence when in reality he spent his first date playing Inversion.


Video Example(s):


A Hat on a Hat

When Mike hears the Chess Match is called "Judgment Day", Mike relates a story about his fight with Trevor Berbick, and how Trevor wanted to call it "Ultimate Judgment Day", causing Trevor Berbick's ghost to appear to correct him.

How well does it match the trope?

5 (6 votes)

Example of:

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