- Published: November 7, 2012
Wise, Fishman, and Safer (2009)’s article aebout the accuracy of eyewitness testimony begins with a chilling anecdote about what happens when our memories lead us astray. Even though Jennifer Thompson made an exerted effort to remember every possible detail of the man who raped her, 11 years after she gave an ideal eyewitness testimony that secured her attacker’s place in jail, it came out that her attacker was actually innocent. In fact, another man in jail confessed to raping Jennifer, and Jennifer was forced to live with the fact that she condemned an innocent man to jail for 11 years. Especially since Jennifer made such a conscious effort to memorize the details of her attacker, this story provides a strong example of the malleability of our memories and the consequences of the legal system relying so heavily on eyewitness testimony.
When considering what might be the best strategy to maximize the accuracy of eyewitness’ memories, one might assume that an immediate rather than delayed recall of the event would be preferred. Interestingly, Chan, Thomas, and Bulevich (2009) found contradictory results. They showed subjects a 40-minute episode of the TV show “24”, gave half of the subjects (those in the test condition) an immediate cued-recall test about details of the episode, had all subjects listen to an audio narrative describing the video, and finally gave all subjects a cued-recall test. Surprisingly, subjects in the test condition answered fewer questions of the final recall test correctly and more incorrectly than the subjects who were not given an immediate recall test. This raises interesting questions about the possible negative ramifications of immediately recalling details of a crime, which eyewitnesses are very likely to do. As Jason Chan, the leader of the study, points out, "In a real-life situation, if you're an eyewitness, the first thing you're going to do after you witness an event is call 911." In those first moments when an eyewitness is dialing the police, are they already putting their memories in jeopardy?
Still, there have been a number of conflicting results; other studies have found that an immediate self-administered interview increases the accuracy of memory for reported events (e.g. Gabbert et al. 2012). While more work probably needs to be done to better understand the factors that influence eyewitness memory, the legal system perhaps needs to focus less of its attention on eyewitness testimony and more on other, more reliable pieces of evidence.
Callaway, Ewen. "Brain quirk makes eyewitnesses less reliable." NewScientist. 05 2008: n. page. Web. 7 Nov. 2012.
Chan, Jason, Ayanna Thomas, and John Bulevich. "Psychological Science." Psychological Science. 20.1 (2009): 66-73.
Gabbert, F., Hope, L., Fisher, R. P. and Jamieson, K. (2012), Protecting Against Misleading Post-event Information with a Self-Administered Interview. Appl. Cognit. Psychol., 26: 568–575.
Wise, Fishman, Safer (2009). How to Analyze the Accuracy of Eyewitness Testimony in a Criminal Case. Connecticut Law Review.