- Published: November 12, 2012
Eyewitness testimony has recently found itself in the spotlight as we realized just how malleable the human memory really is. According to one article, each year “more than 75,000 eyewitnesses identify criminal suspects in the U.S., and studies suggest that as many as a third of them are wrong” ("Is eyewitness testimony," 2011). This is frightening enough, considering the amount that we rely on eyewitnesses in the courtroom. Yet, what is worse is that the witnesses are often questioned, and the very questions they are asked can influence the memories they claim to have; their memories are subject to change right up until the very last second.
One study examined participants’ memories of automobile accidents (Loftus & Palmer, 1974). The experimenters sought to examine the concept of leading questions, questions in which the witness is directed to a certain answer based on a question’s form or content (Loftus & Palmer, 1974). In this case, participants were shown “films of traffic accidents and then they answered questions about the accident” (Loftus & Palmer, 1974). They were specifically asked to estimate the cars’ speed right before the crash, however the experimenters worded their questions in multiple ways (Loftus & Palmer, 1974). Some were asked how fast the cars were travelling when they “hit” each other, others heard the word “smashed” instead of “hit,” or “collided,” “bumped,” or “contacted” (Loftus & Palmer, 1974). Mean responses varied by as much as 9 mph depending on which verb was heard (Loftus & Palmer, 1974).
In a follow-up one week later, participants were asked if they saw any broken glass even though there was none (Loftus & Palmer, 1974). Those who had heard a word like “smashed” were the ones who had estimated that cars were travelling at higher speeds; broken glass is often a component of high-speed accidents, and those who heard the word “smashed” were twice as likely to say broken glass was present (Loftus & Palmer, 1974).
In a controlled laboratory study, these results are harmless; however, the implications for the courtroom are massive. If changing one word in a question can literally create new elements of a memory out of thin air, the possibility for manipulating a witness is too great to ignore.
Is eyewitness testimony too unreliable to trust?. (2011, November 04). Retrieved from http://theweek.com/article/index/221008/is-eyewitness-testimony-too-unreliable-to-trust
Loftus, E., & Palmer, J. (1974). Reconstruction of automobile destruction : an example of the interaction between language and memory.Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, (13), 585-589. Retrieved from https://webfiles.uci.edu/eloftus/LoftusPalmer74.pdf