Eyewitness Testimony and the Failings of Memory

Eyewitness Testimony and the Failings of Memory December 9, 2013

Sharon Hill has an article in the Huffington Post about the many failings and misunderstandings of how our memory operates and the implications for the use of eyewitness testimony in criminal trials. She starts with a fact that is now very well-established in science:

If there is one fact that I wish we could all accept early in life, I would vote for drumming in the idea that memory is not like a tape recorder. If we learn this truth about the human mind, we could avoid so much trouble.

Memory is constructed. Pause a moment and let that sink in.

Memory is not objective, it is constructed by our own brains. It is not burned, or ingrained, or seared into it, as much as we would like to think that is the case. The truth is less precise, uncertain, and disturbing.

It’s also very susceptible to changing over time and being influenced by those who seek to probe our memories, like therapists and police interrogators. This has become the textbook example:

Some of the most egregious examples of memory failure (and worse, fabrication of false memories) was during the time in America’s history known as the Satanic Panic period of the 1980s. Many people were accused of heinous crimes relating to Satanic ritual abuse in homes, day care facilities, and schools. Scores of innocent people were convicted on testimony from witnesses who felt certain they were telling the truth about being tortured or seeing torture of others. These convicted people went to jail for decades. Their lives were destroyed. Their families were decimated.

It is too difficult for me to imagine sitting in jail, convicted of a terrible crime that just didn’t happen and not being able to do anything about it. Witnesses lied — they didn’t even know they lied. They believed those false memories really happened due to manipulative psychotherapy procedures that created a story out of whole cloth. It is too easy to warp a memory into something different, wrong or fantastic, but this is done repeatedly, daily, and can cause great harm.

She links to an article about Elizabeth Loftus, whose work on the fallibility of memory is starting to have an effect on how criminal cases are handled in some places. We need much more of this.

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