Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Manufacturing memories

According to this article in the new issue of Scientific American, researchers at the University of California, Irvine, were able to manufacture memories for 25% of the subjects in a memory study. The ability to "create" memories of events that never took place places further doubt about the reliability of identification testimony by eyewitnesses.

In the study, Drs. Elizabeth Loftus and Jacqueline Pickrell gave test subjects written accounts of four incidents that took place during the subjects' lives. Three of the accounts were of actual events the occurred and the fourth was made up. Researchers made up a tale of the test subject being lost at a shopping mall at a young age. To make it more "authentic," a relative provided details about the mall. Surprisingly enough, 25% of the test subjects said they remembered the incident -- even though it never happened.
The act of remembering, says eminent memory researcher and psychologist Elizabeth F. Loftus of the University of California, Irvine, is “more akin to putting puzzle pieces together than retrieving a video recording.”
Unfortunately jurors put great weight on identification testimony, even though the eyewitness may be testifying about an event that took place years before. Jurors place even more weight on the testimony if the witness claims to be very confident about the identification (even though studies have indicated that the confidence of the witness has very little to do with the accuracy of the identification).

The barring of expert testimony regarding the fallibility of eyewitness identification lends additional credence to identification testimony, as courts seem loathe to allow testimony regarding laboratory studies on memory. Yet, according to The Innocence Project, 73% of the people exonerated as the result of DNA testing were convicted largely on eyewitness testimony.

When considering eyewitness testimony, just remember that old experiment where someone ran into the room while the teacher was lecturing. Do you recall how many people had different memories of the incident? Just imagine what would happen when you add the stress of witnessing an actual criminal event.

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