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Eyewitness testimony: Can you really trust your own eyes?

We all like to think that we have good memories for events and that if we were to be witness to a crime or incident that we would be able to recall in detail the events of the day. However our memories are not that reliable at all.  This has implications on many levels, but especially in the courtroom and with the police.

For example:

“Some researchers in Bologna demonstrate the spectacular hopelessness of memory. One morning in 1980, a bomb exploded in Bologna station: 85 people died, and the clock stopped ominously showing 10.25, the time of the explosion. This image became a famous symbol for the event, but the clock was repaired soon after, and worked perfectly for the next 16 years. When it broke again in 1996, it was decided to leave the clock showing 10.25 permanently, as a memorial. The researchers asked 180 people familiar with the station, or working there, with an average age of 55, about the clock: 173 knew it was stopped, and 160 said it always had been, ever since 1980. What’s more, 127 claimed they had always seen it stuck on 10.25, ever since the explosion, including – fairly excellently – all 21 railway employees. In a similar study published last year, 40% of 150 UK participants claimed to remember seeing closed circuit television footage of the moment of the explosion on the bus in Tavistock Square on July 7th 2005. No such footage exists”. [From Bad Science via Folens Psychology Blog]

A further example this can be seen here in this video where students at a US University are part of a staged theft. Watch and see how accurate they are and how our perception of an event can be molded so easily be events following an incident.

picture-14Loftus & Palmer have put forward the Reconstructive Hypothesis which suggests that our memory is a combination of both things that happen at an event but also can be distorted by events after – either other memories and events or more malicious leading questions during interegation.

They found that events following an incident can have a dramatic effect on a persons memory of that event.  As we saw in the video above one of the student’s memories of the offender was distroted by something as simple as the teacher saying that he had a ‘funny nose’.

How can we ever rely on courtroom testimony if this is the case? Can we really trust memories or are they too fallible?

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11 Responses to “Eyewitness testimony: Can you really trust your own eyes?”

  1. Jonathan June 30, 2009 at 10:53 pm #

    This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently. Some of my friends recount events that we were both involved in many years ago in ways that are different to how I remember them. Sometimes only subtly or with rose-tinted embellishments, but other times their descriptions are totally skewed with people saying things they never said or even confusing separate events as if they occurred together.
    I’ve always been sure I remember events very accurately , but my recent thoughts have been dwelling on the possibility that my above opinions of others’ memories may sometimes have been incorrect. I mean, how do I know for sure that my versions are right and theirs are not, with nothing to rely upon but my own memory? Why do I trust my own memories above those of others?

  2. George August 12, 2009 at 12:43 pm #

    I remember this little study dome by some scientists that showed that people have a tremendous ability to look but not see – they had a guy ask some stranger for directions, then when the stranger wasn’t looking, they changed the guy – and the stranger didn’t even notice!

  3. farouk August 15, 2009 at 2:18 pm #

    this is a very interesting post, i guess the police should not put a very high weight to eye witnesses if this is the case

  4. Picture Scanner September 12, 2009 at 9:39 pm #

    This is pretty remarkable when you first notice it (or..DON’T notice it). But when you start thinking about it, you realize how there are SO many things you do, see, or hear everyday, but they never register on to your memory.

    I remember back in school, we were once told to write down the National Anthem (I’m not from the US). Now all of us were so used to hearing the National Anthem that we thought we could just do it in one second. Surprise surprise..when the results came out, just ONE guy could get the whole anthem right..something we heard everyday was something we didn’t remember a word of.

  5. georgia September 30, 2009 at 4:05 pm #

    hi – just wondered where the video was?

  6. Mike Dz April 15, 2010 at 1:30 pm #

    Check this out – BBC programme about eyewitness’. Looks like they’ve tested it.

  7. Wall Street Journal Subscription August 2, 2011 at 5:15 am #

    There are good acting perform by the kids. here so the totally reaction of the accident ….

  8. London Counselling September 5, 2011 at 6:30 pm #

    To see is to believe, that is what an author said. Indeed true! But it’s not at all times, for the reason that the memory has a tendency to imperfectly remember things, depending on the importance. I mean, anything that is perceived by the eyes are genuine but can also be forgotten to a certain extent.

  9. Psicologos Barcelona January 16, 2012 at 8:42 pm #

    Hello. My name is Jordi and I am a psychologist in Barcelona. The memory of people is not objective, is subjective. Trust or not trust the memory of a person depends on the situation and context. In my opinion we can not completely rely on the memory of people, but we can not distrust it. I think each case should be studied to assess it properly.
    Sorry for my English.

  10. Josue July 17, 2012 at 6:19 pm #

    That is the reallity, and the difference about what we see and how we percept the facts and interpret the all

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