To What Extent Do False Memories Affect Eyewitness Testimonies?

Eye witness testimonies form the bedrock of most judicial processes around the world. They make a solid impression on a jury, which has the exclusive role of ascertaining the credibility and veracity of the testimonies and make a verdict based on the truth they hold. This is because perjury is criminal and can subvert the integrity of a trial. Recognizing how fallible witness memories are, is paramount for those involved in the judicial process since trials circulate around factual determinations of whom to believe.

The human memory has a propensity to recall erroneous events and even details that did not happen. An experiment performed by Elizabeth Loftus, showed that a third party can introduce false memory altered by false cues. Subjects viewed a slide of an accident involving cars. Some were later asked to describe the speed of the cars before they smashed into each other, others were asked the same question, but using the term hit instead of smash. In their responses, those questioned using the term smash were more likely to state that they saw broken glass, though that was false.

Most often, eyewitnesses are unwilling to reconsider their initial understanding once they state facts in a particular way or identify a particular individual as the perpetrator of a crime. This is basically due to memory reconstruction. In a study conducted by Barbara Tversky and Elizabeth Marsh on the vulnerability of human memory to bias, showed that participants recalled a story they were narrated to, based on their biased views. Neutral participants made few mistakes and elaborations in their retelling. Retelling affects the memory, and one seldom tells a story in a neutral fashion. Tailoring a story to a listener distorts the construction of memory regardless of misinformation from a third party. Prosecutors in a court of law, refrain from refreshing the testimony of one witness to another, since that may distort witness memory, thus the testimony would be innately suspect.

Eye witness testimony is fickle and often inaccurate. Individuals with particular antisocial personality disorders are always at a heightened risk of false identification by eyewitnesses. Moreover, the belief that memory works like a tape recorder is a popular misconception. The mind cannot play back an exact replica of events recorded in memory. Many researchers have managed to create false memory in normal people who remain certain of the realty of their memories. This breeds false memories in witnesses.

False memory largely affects the witness testimony. Furthermore, the very act of constructing memory creates distortion making it difficult to verify a person’s statements. Although confidence correlates to accuracy, misleading information may be presented as truth. Therefore, the jury should critically analyze the testimonies bearing in mind their fallibility.


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