Home > Memory > Think You Remember Something? It’s Probably Inaccurate.

Think You Remember Something? It’s Probably Inaccurate.

The instances of discrepancies between people’s memories of the same event are numerous. I bet that as you read that sentence, you remembered a moment where you fought with a friend or family member about the actualities of a past experience—both of you adamant that your account was correct. However, the likely case is that you are both misremembering some details. The alteration of the details of memory does not matter much in a petty argument, but it matters a great deal in the situation of eyewitness testimony.

Is your truth accurate?

Memories are edited and distorted constantly, resulting in inaccurate remembering. Along with being in place for the storage of your childhood memories and everyday experiences, your memory is also a system to help in making future decisions and drawing on past experiences for the present. The entire memory system is a reconstructive process. By reconstructive, I mean that there are consistent rebuilding and molding of memories after the event. If you think of the details of memory as playdough building blocks, you can envision those details being squished into new shapes and shifted around. As seen in the image to the left, one person’s “truth” may not be the actual truth. Daniel Schachter introduced the concept of the 7 sins of memory (Schacter, Guerin, & St. Jacques, 2011). These sins describe how our memory can “fail” us when we forget things, misremember events, do not encode, or incorporate incorrect information into a memory. Each of these sins results in distorted memories. When you retrieve a memory, it becomes susceptible to change.

While this can be a little disorienting to realize and inconvenient for everyday memories, the reconstructive nature of memory is especially dangerous in the situation of eyewitness testimonies. Many court cases and investigations rely on the accounts of witnesses for evidence against the potential perpetrator, yet studies of memory have revealed them to be unreliable due to the memory editing possibilities. Stereotypes, leading information, and the construction of the investigation can all result in the alteration of the witness’ account (Leippe, 1980). 


It’s all about the phrasing of the question

The sin of suggestibility—the incorporation of outside information into memory due to others’ accounts, leading questions, etc.—in particular, is a major factor in the editing of eyewitness’ memories. For instance, if the investigator asked the witness, “Did you see a knife in his hand,” then it would plant the idea in the witness’s mind that there was a knife involved. Questions such as this direct the witness to a particular answer through subtle suggestions. Looking at the image to the right, it is clear that the phrasing of a question can mislead people. Listening to others’ accounts of the event could also skew the witness testimony, as those details discussed with others could become incorporated into the witness’ account. When discussing the crime after the fact, misleading or inaccurate information can be woven into the witness’ memory trace, distorting it; however, the witness will remain unaware of this new manipulation and continue to believe in their recollection.


The confidence from firmly believing in their own recollection further convinces the judge and jury of the validity of the testimony despite being subject to suggestibility as well as bias. Confident witnesses are more likely to be believed, but it has been found that high confidence does not necessarily correlate with high accuracy (Brimacombe, 2014). The result is that the testimony is taken as accurate while, in reality, it may be quite inaccurate due to the malleable nature of memory. Along with the phrasing of questions, the construction of other portions of the investigation can boost confidence without raising accuracy. During a lineup for the witness to identify the suspect, the investigator could give cues such as eye contact or verbal confirmation that affirms the choice that the witness made. This is just another instance of the potential for the eyewitness testimony to not be as accurate as believed.


Studies have also found that participants genuinely believe in seeing things that were just suggested to them prior to them being asked questions about the event (Zaragoza & Lane, 1994). These misleading suggestions were integrated into the actual memories, causing a sort of false memory that can be ascribed to the source misattribution effect. The source misattribution effect is when the person recalling the detail misidentifies the origin of the memory and creates a false memory to explain it. As a result, the accuracy of eyewitness testimonies should be believed with caution. If the investigation incorporates methods shown to help reduce memory editing, then the validity of the testimony increases. For instance, to remedy the confidence boost discussed earlier, if the witness is shown each potential suspect one by one rather than in a lineup with the investigator unaware of the true suspect, the possibility for suggestibility and confirmation bias is lessened substantially. With this double-blind setup, the investigator is unable to give any cues to the witness as to who the suspect is; moreover, in a lineup, the witness could feel pressured to choose one of those people—even if they do not see the suspect there—so showing the witness the people one by one can help to ease that pressure. In the case of question phrasing, avoiding including any elements—such as a weapon—in the question can assist in not suggesting answers to the witness. 


Now, when you’re arguing with a friend or family over the accounts of previous events, try to remember that memories are finicky things that are susceptible to the incorporation of other details and the alteration of current elements. You could try to settle for a compromise, recognizing that both accounts could be partially inaccurate. And more importantly, when thinking about eyewitness testimonies, ponder the potential for memory editing in testimonies that could result in skewed recollections. The work done on memory editing that reveals the inaccuracies of recollections poses important questions regarding if we should believe or rely on eyewitness testimonies in court and criminal cases. 


Works Cited

Brimacombe, E. (2014, December 22). Social Influence and Eyewitness Testimony [Video]. TED. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rzpgyIKBS40&feature=emb_title

Leippe, M. R. (1980). Effects of integrative memorial and cognitive processes on the correspondence of eyewitness accuracy and confidence. Law and Human Behavior, 4, 261-274. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF01040618.

Schacter, D. L., Guerin, S. A., & St. Jacques, P. L. (2011). Memory distortion: an adaptive perspective. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 15(10), 467-474. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tics.2011.08.004 

Schacter, D. L. (2001).The Seven Sins of Memory: Seven different ways that memory can mess with your head and your life, and ways to identify them. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/articles/200105/the-seven-sins-memory

Zaragoza, M. S., & Lane, S. M. (1994). Source misattributions and the suggestibility of eyewitness memory. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 20(4), 934–945. https://doi.org/10.1037/0278-7393.20.4.934


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