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.
“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.
Loftus & 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?