- Published: November 7, 2012
A person’s memories are not typically one hundred percent accurate recollections of an event, or anywhere close perfect. An article by Daniel Shacter identified “The Seven Deadly Sins of Memory.” Four of the sins involved the formation of memories: bias, persistence, misattribution, and suggestibility. The other three sins are connected to the forgetting of memories: blocking, transience, and absentmindedness. Environmental, personal, and a multitude of subconscious factors impact our brain’s ability to encode and recall information. What does the memory have to do with the law? Eyewitness testimony, which is purely based on memory, is common form of evidence.
An experiment by Loftus and Palmer looked to see if the simple act of altering the wording of a question could affect a person’s testimony. The subject would watch a brief clip of a car accident. He or she would then be asked a variant of the question “How fast were the cars going when they hit each other?” The verb choice alternated between five options, one of which being smashed. A week later the subject was asked if they saw any broken glass in the clip. It was found that certain verb choices led to higher speed estimations. Additionally, if the verb “smash” was used, the subject was much more likely to report seeing broken glass.
From the Loftus and Palmer experiment alone, it is evident that memory is susceptible to be influenced by questioning techniques and can be altered by information learned retroactively. The way a police officer interrogates a suspect could play a role in the person’s ability to recall the event. Lawyers could bias a witness’s testimony by varying the wording of their questions. Memory plays an important role in the legal system. Perhaps the weight of eyewitness testimony should be reevaluated in light of scientific findings about the susceptibility of memory to outside influences.
(1) Schacter, D. (1999). The seven sins of memory: Insights from psychology and cognitive neuroscience. American Psychologist , 54(3), 182-203. Retrieved from http://psycnet.apa.org/journals/amp/54/3/182.pdf(2) Loftus, E.F. & Palmer, J.C. (1974). Reconstruction of auto-mobile destruction: An example of the interaction between language and memory. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behaviour, 13, 585 -589