Digital rendering of a key in the mind.
The fifth sin of memory is suggestibility. It can show up in ways that are dangerous and destructive. In a seminal study, Wells and Bradfordi showed research subjects a film of a crime staged for the experiment. They then asked them to identify the gunman from a lineup of photos. None of the pictures were of the actual suspect. Half of the subjects were not given any feedback on their choice; they told the other half that they made the right selection. Then they asked the subjects to provide details they recalled from the film.
Compared to those who didn’t receive feedback, those who were falsely told that their identification of the criminal was correct were more confident about their recall of details. Moreover, they believed they had a more unobstructed view of the perpetrator and were even more sure about the features of the gunman’s face. It’s important to restate that they had failed to identify the gunman from the lineup of photos. Just imagine how many people have been falsely accused in our judicial system because the police overtly or subtly encouraged the identification of an innocent person in a lineup.
The sixth sin of memory is our biases. This form of memory distortion deceptively inhabits every facet of our lives. If a robbery happened in the dead of night, someone who is prejudiced against blacks or Hispanics would more likely pick a person of color out of a lineup than a person who is white, even though it had been too dark to accurately perceive the color of the person’s skin. At a time when we’re grappling with the insidious nature of racism in our society, we must all become vigilant about our unexamined biases and the ways they get expressed in our personal and business dealings.
The final sin of memory involves persistence. Memories can circulate in our minds for years, plaguing us to the point of creating mental and physical illness. Soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan suffering from PTSD will tell you that their life is a living hell. One soldier we interviewed as part of a documentary film told the story of taking fire in Iraq from an old wall. He returned fire and hit the assailant. When they got to the wall to see the fighter, staring back at him, dying, was a young boy not more than nine or ten years old. This child was the same age as his son. Even though more than two years had passed, he couldn’t get this memory out of his head. He’d wake in the morning seeing this child’s face, and it would be the last thing he’d think about before going to sleep. That’s persistence in spades. To some degree, all of us experience recurring memories of events that can limit and even debilitate us.
A neuro-physiological process helps to explain this phenomenon. Some refer to it with the moniker, “neurons that fire together wire together.” Once a memory is wired in, our stories of that event can persist for a lifetime. Even if the recollection is inaccurate, as far as our body is concerned, it’s real.
While you may not be an expert in memory after reading the above, you may now be as well-equipped as someone who spent the night in a Holiday Inn Express to be an authority or even an expert witness asked to testify in a criminal case. How is that possible? In 2014, Annika Melinder and Svein Magnussenii tested several psychological experts in how the memory of the past works. Would they provide a jury with accurate knowledge about memory as it relates to crimes such as early childhood abuse? Here are the questions they asked. Take the quiz, and then we’ll tell you how the psychologists fared in comparison to your knowledge of memory. The answers are in the endnotes.iii
- Is a person’s confidence in their memories a good predictor of the accuracy of those memories?
- Is it true that eyewitness testimony reflects not just what a witness originally saw and heard but also other information obtained later on from the police, other witnesses, etc.?
- Is a witness’s ability to recall minor details about a crime an indication of the accuracy of their identification of the perpetrator?
- Does intense stress at the time of an event impair the accuracy of the memory of that event?
- Can their attitudes and expectations affect a person’s memory of an event?
- Does the presence of a weapon tend to impair a witness’s memory for a perpetrator’s face?
- Does most forgetting tend to occur soon after an event?
- Do children have better memories for events than adults?
- How far back into their childhood can most people remember?
- Are traumatic memories from childhood that are “recovered” in therapy (having never before been recalled) likely to be false?
- Are dramatic events more or less likely to be forgotten?
- Is it possible for a perpetrator to have forgotten their criminal act because they’ve suppressed that specific memory?
If you scored similarly to the public in this study, the psychologists performed better than you on question 1, but everyday people outperformed the professionals on items 6 and 7. Regarding the issue of repressed memories, Magnussen and Melinder wrote: “Repression is not among the mechanisms of forgetting acknowledged by current memory science, and the available evidence does not support the idea of repression.” Most of the studies of childhood abuse demonstrate that children don’t repress these events. Their memory of them is excellent.
Perhaps what is most concerning about this study is that all too often, expert testimony can be the deciding factor in whose story is believed by a jury. We can only wonder how many people have been convicted wrongly due to a psychologist misrepresenting how memory works.
Next Week: The Play of Time and Space in Our Memories
i Wells, G. L., & Bradfield, A. L. (1998). “Good, you identified the suspect”: Feedback to eyewitnesses distorts their reports of the witnessing experience. Journal of Applied Psychology, 83(3), 360-376.
ii Annika Melinder & Svein Magnussen (2015) Psychologists and psychiatrists serving as expert witnesses in court: what do they know about eyewitness memory?, Psychology, Crime & Law, 21:1, 53-61, DOI: 10.1080/1068316X.2014.915324
iii The answers: 1) No, 2) Yes, 3) No, 4) Yes, 5) Yes, 6) Yes, 7) Yes, 8) No, worse, 9) to the age of three to four years 10) Yes, 11) Less, 12) No