Eyewitness Testimony Reliable? Essay

Declan Geraghty 11/21/11 Perception Cognition The Manipulative Mind of Humans Ron Cotton, a 22 year old man, sat in his cold, dark, 6 by 8 cell with his face engulfed in his thin pillow as he sobbed and wished for the company of his family and friends. Eight days earlier Ron Cotton was living his everyday life, working, and going to school until somehow Cotton found himself in a police identification lineup for the rape of Jennifer Thompson, a 22-year old college student. On the night of July 28th, 1984, a large male broke into Jennifer’s house pinned her down and began raping her.

Remarkably, Jennifer’s first instinct was to observe specific characteristics about the individual in order to identify the man if she made it out alive. Cunningly, Jennifer escaped the grips of the rapist, determined to punish the man who raped her she went straight to the police and conducted a composite sketch. Three days later the police presented Jennifer with a facial composite lineup of possible suspects, and within five minutes Jennifer chose a picture of Ron Cotton with one hundred percent confidence.

The eyewitness identification proved to be sufficient enough to convince the jury of Cotton’s guilt and sentence him to life in prison. After 11 years of rotting in his cell Ron Cotton was exonerated with the help of DNA evidence. The numbers of exonerations are on the rise and this poses the question whether eyewitness testimony is truly reliable? Research in cognitive psychology exposes major flaws in retrieval of long-term memory and studies exhibit how easily malleable our memories become when manipulated.

The study of the human mind is a never-ending source for exploration for psychologists, and although there have been many ground breaking discoveries in our understanding of the human mind it is still a very mysterious and poorly understood subject. In relation to false memories and eyewitness testimony it is crucial to understand how long-term memory works. In order to properly grasp how long-term memory operates psychologists divide the brain’s functions into subgroups. The broadest subgroups of long-term memory are the implicit and explicit memory groups.

Implicit memory is expressed unconsciously through performance as opposed to conscious recall. Explicit memory differs from implicit memory primarily because it is the conscious recall of knowledge or events. Explicit memory is divided into semantic and episodic subclasses. Semantic memory deals with storage and retrieval of information, for example, multiplication tables or naming state capitals. Episodic memory is storage and recall of autobiographical events, for example, what a person had for breakfast. Episodic and semantic work together in many instances but there is sufficient evidence that they work as separate entities.

It is a rare instance but DeRenzi (1987) discovered an Italian female who provided evidence for this separate entity theory. The Italian woman could not go grocery shopping because she lacked the semantic ability to remember food words but amazingly could rattle off past episodic memories from months and even years prior. Her episodic memory was fully intact but she exhibited deficits in semantic memory. Although it is evident that semantic memory plays a role in forming memories, the episodic subset of LTM is more relative for examination of eyewitness testimony.

Eyewitness testimony relies on retrieval of long-term memories; unfortunately, the retrieval process for LTM is a system that is very susceptible to error. Schemas and associations are factors that cause people to unknowingly produce false memories and fabrications. The human memory system is comparable to giant library in which all the information is available; the problem presents itself in locating and retrieving the proper material from the vast archives of the library or in this case the human mind.

In order to recover memories rapidly, our brain automatically forms retrieval paths and associations to help form shortcuts to the desired memory. Although these shortcuts shorten the duration of recovery, they also make the human mind very vulnerable to error. Schemas organize our knowledge and assumptions about something and are used for interpreting and processing information. Schemas develop from experience and causes individuals to assume something based on how it has happened in the past. An example of schema could be going to a Bull’s game.

Having gone to many games before, the usual trip to a Bull’s game consists of a list of typical steps: driving to the city, parking, picking up the tickets at will call, watching the game, and finally driving home. False memories happen when the schema differs from the actual occurrences but our brain still follows the schema anyway. Schemas usually cause people to unconsciously add detail to their stories or even change key facts. Therefore, it is dangerous to put so much power in eyewitness testimony where even minor details can be critical in juries’ final deliberations.

In the article False Memories for Missing Aspects of an Event, Gerrie, Belcher, and Garry explore the effects of schemas and further their experiment to test if importance of details makes a difference in recall. In the first experiment subjects watched a short video of a woman making a PBJ sandwich. The experimenters determined the most important steps for making a PBJ sandwich. The subjects were then divided into two separate groups and each group was shown a video with three different steps removed.

Subjects returned the following day for a recognition test in which the researchers presented 12 clips of PBJ making some old clips that they had seen the day before, and some missing clips that were not in the video at all the day before. The subjects were then asked to determine if they had seen the clip before, and to rate their confidence from 0 (not confident) to 5 (very confident). The results of the experiment showed that 90% of the old clips were recognized, and 58% of the missing clips were recognized as being in the original video.

The results provide strong evidence for the theory of schemas because over half of the missing clips were recognized. The subjects unconsciously associated the missing clips with the normal schema for making a PBJ and it caused a false memory to arise. The second part of the study tested whether importance affects false recognition. Gerrie, Belcher, Garry (2006) rated 11 clips for making a sandwich based on importance, four clips were unanimously decided as most important. Experiment one was replicated and the amount of important steps varied to see if importance was a significant factor in recognition.

Results showed that subjects were more likely to recognize old important steps (100%) than old unimportant steps (82%) and the subjects were more likely to recognize unimportant missing steps (69%) than important missing steps (46%). The second experiment proved that it is more likely to remember important details rather than small less significant details. It furthers proof of a schema creating false memories and although it does not produce the most dooming evidence against eyewitness testimony it definitely places retrieval of LTM under extreme speculation.

Another study that is highly applicable to the recollection of LTM is the study that Williams and Hollan (1981) conducted that focused on how of free recall effects fabrications. The study tested capacity of long-term memory and how free recall effected memory retrieval. In order to test free recall they had adults who graduated from high school attempt to name as many people as possible from their graduating class. Most adults were able to name around 40 people their high school graduating class and after 40 they would give up.

Williams and Hollan (1981) simply tested what would happen if you told the subjects they had to keep naming. Surprisingly the subjects were able to keep going and started making connections like history class or who was homecoming king, etc. The retrieval pathways aided the subjects in continuing their naming of the high school students but unfortunately pushing for more names also caused the number of fabrications to rise proportionally. The results of the study can be applied to the interrogation process that eyewitnesses go through.

Interrogators are always searching for what they want to hear and will sometimes be over persistent to get what they want to hear. Although the questions asked by the interrogator may not be leading and may not possess a framing effect, pushing for more answers causes a rise in fabrications. Falsified memories or fabrications almost always become a trade off when asking people to remember specifics about a sequence of events. It is human nature to push our minds to their limits, but sometimes pushing our minds to their limits effects retrieval in a negative way rather than a positive way.

The short video Eyewitness Testimony by Taylor and Howes (2009) exemplifies how malleable and subjective the mind can be. The experiment focuses on how much details people can recall in short high intensity situation. A group of students are instructed to watch a short video, in which a man robs a large purse from an innocent woman. The students are then asked questions to test how much they could recall. They are asked to describe the scene and the action that took place. The explanations vary a great deal from student to student, some students even claiming the solo robber has an accomplice.

The experimenters then aim to test if framing of a question or leading a question can produce fabrications or false memories. The experimenters ask the students about the weapon the robber was carrying, insinuating that the robber possessed a weapon when in fact he did not. The results are highly significant 33% of said the man was carrying a knife, 33% couldn’t name the weapon agreed he had one, and the final 33% said the robber didn’t have a weapon on him. The results show just how easily our memories can be manipulated just by the wording of a question.

Humans tend to second guess their own memories and seem perfectly content in believing others. Individuals tend to feel comfortable filling in gaps in the story to make it coherent so they reinvent false details unconsciously to complete an event. The human mind is an easily influenced entity as exhibited in perhaps the most groundbreaking study of its time. Loftus and Palmer (1974) conducted a study to test whether the framing or suggestibility of a question can cause false reconstruction of the event in each persons mind. In their experiment Loftus and Palmer (1974) showed forty-five students videos of a crash.

After watching the videos, the students were asked to fill out a questionnaire answering a series of questions about specific details of the accident. The students were asked the question “How fast were the cars going when they hit each other? ” In order to test framing effect, the word used to describe the accident was changed from more severe to less severe words. The results showed that the more severe words such as smashed elicited a response indicating higher speeds at impact, while less severe words such as contacted elicited a dramatic decrease in speeds perceived by the students.

The study produced significant evidence that changing something so minute within a question could substantially influence the reconstruction of the event for each person. If manipulating something so small can have such large implications on reconstruction of memory is it fair to rely so heavily on eyewitness testimony of the malleable human mind? False reconstruction of even small details of memory can be damming for an innocent defendant fighting for his freedom.

Is it morally responsible for the judicial system to place so much trust in a majorly flawed system for reconstruction of memory? Thousands of cases each year are being decided solely on eyewitness testimony and the numbers of exonerations have skyrocketed to numbers that call for immediate action. The human memory system is an amazing entity but unfortunately it is a very imperfect system that is vulnerable to factors that can cause false memories. Research by psychologists has opened our eyes up to the cognitive deficits that cause improper reconstruction of memories.

Incorrect retrieval is not a substantial problem in everyday life where small incorrect recoveries of memories are not a life and death situation. On the other hand, the production of an incorrect memory by an eyewitness in court can have enormous implications for the fate of the defendant on trial. The testimony of a witness can adversely affect an innocent defendants life forever. Some of the cognitive deficits in retrieval of memory like schemas, biases, and filling in stories are unavoidable for humans.

The aspects that we can address to reduce false memories as it relates to eyewitness testimony can start by shoring up interrogation tactics to eliminate framing of questions and suggestibility of interrogations. In the end, no matter what actions are taken false memories never going to be eliminated because of the human mind is a malleable and easily manipulated entity. Therefore it is our obligation to take proper action to reduce the weight jurors give to eyewitness testimony for the determination of guilt of defendants in the judicial system.