The Problem with: Memory

[needs an introduction]

Memory errors fall into two classes. People can either:

  1. Have an inaccurate recollection, or
  2. completely fail to recall an event

Most would agree and understand that complete failures to recall an event is common, often because they themselves have found themselves to be able to recall an event. However, when people can’t remember an event – we are generally all too willing to use what we think we know and fill in the games, and accept them as accurate without investigation, or thought as to if this is reliable.

In the courtroom, it is understood and accepted that memory can be inaccurate, incomplete, or in some cases devoid of any reality – thus, cross-examination is used to corroborate stories from multiple witnesses to build a “most-likely scenario” model of an event.

Inaccurate Recollections

Inaccurate recollections can lead to the acceptance of an inference without being a witness to an event. ie: An event occurs that is obscured, and either prior to, or after the event an inference is made about what transpired. Rather than accepting that the event was not witnessed, a substitution is made and the inference that was imagined becomes memory.

“I remember it like it was yesterday…”

Australian eyewitness expert Donald Thomson appeared on a live TV discussion about the unreliability of eyewitness memory. He was later arrested, placed in a lineup and identified by a victim as the man who had raped her. The police charged Thomson although the rape had occurred at the time he was on TV.

They dismissed his alibi that he was in plain view of a TV audience and in the company of the other discussants, including an assistant commissioner of police. The policeman taking his statement sneered, “Yes, I suppose you’ve got Jesus Christ, and the Queen of England, too.”

Eventually, the investigators discovered that the rapist had attacked the woman as she was watching TV – the very program on which Thompson had appeared. Authorities eventually cleared Thomson. The woman had confused the rapist’s face with the face that she had seen on TV. (Baddeley, 2004).

Other examples of such memory failures include eye witness testimonies.

When Eyes Deceive – Eyewitness Testimony

More on this can be found at Eyewitness Testimony Psychology
and from Eyewitness Memory is Unreliable.

Further Reading:


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