On Human Memory and Eyewitness Testimony

by Jamison Koehler on September 8, 2010
U.S. Capitol building

Many years ago, as a student at the University of Freiburg in Germany, I went with an American friend to West Berlin to sightsee.  We went to a bar one night in which we were taken for some money by the bar’s establishment.  The two of us were so embarrassed by the whole thing (we couldn’t believe we had fallen for the trick) that, on the bus ride back to Freiburg, we swore ourselves to secrecy.  We agreed that we would not tell our mutual American friends.  We had separate circles of German friends in Freiburg, however, and we were free to tell them.  Which we each did, many times, entertaining our friends with the story of our gullibility.

There was a big get-together of all the American students toward the end of the school year, and, after a few beers, my friend and I decided that it was finally time to tell our American friends what had happened.  I was no more than a sentence or two into the story when he jumped in to correct me.  We finally agreed that I would tell the story my way and he would then re-tell the same story the way he remembered it.  With both of us there to keep the other honest, what surprised us both was that we told almost two completely different stories.

To this day, I have no idea what actually happened that night.  I was there, I experienced it directly, and I have a vivid mental image of everything that happened. But I couldn’t tell you today what part of my memory is based on truth and what part is based on distortions introduced by multiple re-tellings.  The mind tends to change things or fill facts in to rationalize, to explain things or to account for discrepancies and inconsistencies.

This is the same thing that goes on every day in every single criminal court in the country.  Eyewitnesses with no agenda or axe to grind testify to things that they not only swear to be the truth; they also firmly and honestly believe it.  Because of the fallibility of human memory and recollection, such testimony should always be suspect.

That the mind plays tricks us on was reconfirmed by yet another study, this one carried out by a group of psychologists in 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology:  Shattering Widespread Myths About Human Behavior.  As excerpted on eSkeptic (with thanks to Gideon for linking to the article on Twitter), the study challenged the popular perception that “human memory works like a video camera”:  “Today, there’s broad consensus among psychologists that memory isn’t reproductive – it doesn’t duplicate precisely what we’ve experienced – but reconstructive.”  What we recall is often a “blurry mixture of accurate and inaccurate recollections, along with what jells with our beliefs and hunches.”

In fact, the study continues, researchers have even created memories of events that never happened.  In one experiment, for example, the researcher instructed a 14-year-old’s family member to provide the boy with a made-up story about how the boy had been lost at a shopping mall at age 5.  The boy was instructed to write down everything he remembered.  The boy initially remembered very little about the fictional event.  After two weeks, however, he had a detailed memory of it by filling in the details with his mind.

Write the researchers: “It’s true that we often recall extremely emotional events, sometimes called flashbulb memories because they seem to have a photographic quality. Nevertheless, research shows that even these memories wither over time and are prone to distortions.”  About 36% of us, the study continues, believe that our brains preserve perfect records of everything we’ve experienced, with even many psychotherapists believing that memories are fixed more or less permanently in the mind.

Anyone doubting the results of the study should talk to Raymond Buckey, a man who spent 5 years in custody awaiting trial in the McMartin preschool case of the 1980s. In 1983, the mother of a two-and-a-half-year-old boy reported to police that her son had been sexually abused by Buckey at the preschool run by Buckey’s mother Peggy McMartin.  Using suggestive questioning techniques on creative and easily impressionable children, the investigation that followed led to scores of other children coming forward with allegations of hidden tunnels, satanic rituals, sexual orgies, and the killing of animals.  After seven years of trial, all charges against Buckey and his mother were dropped in 1990.

One juror from the trial pointed out how “easily something can be said and misinterpreted and blown out of proportion.”  Some of the children who testified eventually recanted their testimony, admitting that they had lied to pacify the expectations of the adults.  Other children undoubtedly believed that they were telling the absolute truth because at the time they testified the falsehood had become the truth.

All of this is something to think about the next time you are called for jury duty — assuming you can remember the stories correctly.

One Comment on “On Human Memory and Eyewitness Testimony

  1. Wait until you’ve been blogging for a few years, then go read an old post about something that you think you still remember clearly. I’m sure you’ve seen it happen with witness statements, but you’ll be surprised how much your memory differs from the contemporaneous account in your blog post.

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