The reliable eye witness

The lawyer approaches the stand and asks,

“Mrs Doogood, did you see a tall slender man running into the alley with the TV”

“Yes I did”

“Is that person in the room today?”

“Yes, he is sitting right over there”

Implanting memories is not as difficult as you might think. We never have a perfect representation of the world, and our brains are very good at making sense of what we see. We see the whole, even though some of the parts are missing (we see the “gestalt”)

Leading, suggestive questioning, or vivid imagery is enough to implant memories, and this is especially easy to do with young children, but adults are also susceptible; much work has been done in eye witness testimony and in claims about early childhood abuse.

Suppose I tell you that I went out to lunch, finished my meal and left. And suppose you’re then asked, “did he pay the bill”, you may very well say yes because we tend to fill in the blanks with what we know (based what would be the normal thing to do) or because you believe I’m an honest person (based on what we expect a certain person to do).

An eye witness who is asked “did you see a broken window” is less likely to fabricate an answer than someone who is asked “did you see the broken window”. The “the” implies there was a broken window and so we say “yes I did see a broken window”.

Implanting memories is even easier under hypnosis. For starters, people who undergo hypnosis are willing to co-operate, and in the state of hypnosis we are even more willing to co-operate. So under hypnosis, leading questions are even more likely to result in memory implants.

There have now been cases of children suing their parents for sexual abuse, and the parents suing the psychologists for implanting the memories. There have also been cases of people admitting to crimes they did not commit because they were convinced, under intense leading questioning that they did indeed commit the crime.

In the end, our memories are fragile. We do not commit to memory everything we see, and we do not remember everything we have committed to memory. And we can never say that we are sure of a memory, and being sure of a memory is no guarantee that it is the way it really happened.