Eyewitness testimony and the fallible mind

Byharry

Eyewitness testimony and the fallible mind

A fascinating area for those researching memory is eyewitness testimonies. Witnesses giving evidence are notoriously problematic, given the great fallibility of the human mind. But eyewitness accounts are also very persuasive and we place a lot of emphasis on them. Why does our memory get things so wrong so often?

While our brain is constantly monitoring and recording goings on only a tiny fraction of that is consciously registered. In order to prevent overload, our senses are selectively filtered. Only the important observations are passed through whereas others we acclimatise to – like new parents sleeping oblivious to alarms or car horns but wide awake at the slightest whimper of their baby.

So we notice the big things but don’t sweat the smaller – we would notice if someone we passed on the street didn’t have a shirt on, but not what colour it was. We are more likely to remember things that relate directly to us – such as if they were wearing the exact same shirt as us. In most cases, slightly misremembering an event has little or no consequences. Whether that person had a blue or red shirt doesn’t matter.

Until the fate of an accused suspect hangs on whether the shirt was blue or red. At the time it didn’t matter so you didn’t make any sort of mental note of it. Under pressure and after the fact people are susceptible to suggestion or simply make the best guess they can.

Under stress memories can be distorted and input from different senses can be muddled. Hearing a gunshot can make people think they saw the gun being fired. A gun being pulled focusses the attention and other details about the scene aren’t noticed or remembered.

The research being done has helped make sense of all the ways eyewitness testimony can be flawed. Witness interviews have new techniques to help people recall events with as much accuracy as possible.

MessageMia can’t help you with your eyewitness testimony but can help you remember your great ideas.

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