This post is part of a series of guest posts on GPS by the undergraduate and graduate students in my Science vs. Pseudoscience course. As part of their work for the course, each student had to demonstrate mastery of the skill of “Educating the Public about Pseudoscience.” To that end, each student has to prepare two 1,000ish word posts on a particular pseudoscience topic, as well as run a booth on-campus to help reach people physically about the topic.
False Memories, False Convictions by Jake Glazener
Eyewitness testimony is a crucial aspect in the justice system of the United States. In many cases, a person’s guilt or innocence may be decided almost solely on the testimony of a witness who reportedly saw the act take place. Many people believe that having a witness is as good as it gets as far as providing evidence goes, including many who have a significant influence on the court system in this country. In fact, U.S. Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan Jr. wrote that
There is almost nothing more convincing than a live human being who takes the stand, points a finger at the defendant, and says, ‘That’s the one!’
But are these witnesses as reliable as many believe them to be? It turns out that as you are reading this, there are potentially hundreds of innocent men and women who are being held in correctional facilities across the country based largely on inaccurate eyewitness testimony.
The Innocence Project , a non-profit organization that aims to help those who have been wrongfully convicted of crimes by utilizing DNA testing, has been able to exonerate 311 people since they were founded in 1989. The statistics provided by the organization report that eighteen of the individuals who were exonerated served time on death row, and the average time that was served by each of the individuals who they were able to help exonerate is 13.6 years. According to the Innocence Project, inaccurate eyewitness testimony has contributed to over 70 percent of wrongful convictions that they have been able to help overturn using DNA evidence. In the majority of those cases, these witnesses did not intentionally provide false testimony (which would be considered perjury). In fact, most of the witnesses who provided testimony regarding the cases that were overturned maintained the belief that they had identified the correct individual in the case, even in the face of indisputable physical evidence.
So, why are so many of these witnesses incorrectly remembering the events that they saw take place? There are several possible memories why this can occur. Things like particularly strong emotion (during the assassination of JFK, or the Challenger space shuttle tragedy, for example) age, stress, and visual acuity are a few of the more obvious reasons why someone may not be able to accurately recall events that they saw take place. However, something that may not be as obvious to some is how the questions that are being asked are presented to the witness. Elizabeth Loftus is one of the leading researchers in the field of memory. In the course of Loftus’ experiments, she has found that it is surprisingly easy to distort the detail of memories based on how questions are presented. She has also found that we can actually lead people to remember things that did not take place at all. Daniel Wright, a psychologist at the University of Sussex, found that on average, one third of individuals who were subjected the misinformation effect either partially or completely accepted a false memory as being accurate. The two biggest reasons that we are so willing to recall information that did not occur is due to our suggestibility and the misattribution of information. Kathy Pezdek conducted a study designed to test the accuracy of the memory of a group of participants on the events of September, 11, 2001. Among other questions, she asked “on September eleventh, did you see the videotape on television of the first plane striking the first tower?” 74% of the participants responded yes to this question. That seems like something that most of us would have seen, as I’m sure almost everyone was glued to their televisions during the news coverage of the attack. However, none of us saw that footage, as it was not aired until a couple of days after the attack took place. This is just one example of how we may remember seeing something that we could not have actually seen.
I think the reasons why this is an important issue are pretty clear. Imagine losing ten to fifteen years from the middle of your life, and how that would impact you, even after you were proven innocent. So, how do we keep this from happening? Other than placing less importance on eyewitness testimony in criminal trails, it does not appear that we can keep it from happening. We are all susceptible to suggestibility. However, the state of Texas, along with a couple of other states, are attempting to minimize the occurrence of these wrongful convictions by introducing new legislation in the last few years that is designed to prevent these types of wrongful convictions from occurring. The bill, which was approved by a house committee in 2011, was meant to streamline eyewitness identification procedures across all of the states’ law enforcement agencies, in an attempt to minimize the chance that a member of one of those agencies may inadvertently provide an outside influence on the witness through the way they present questions to the witness, or the way they process the identification of the suspect. This is a step in the right direction in preserving the integrity of the justice system in this country, but until more states follow suit with laws of their own, the problem will still exist. However, even if every state were to use a similar procedure, we will never be able to eliminate false memories from influencing what an eyewitness remembers.