Eyewitness Testimony: Can You Really Trust Your Own Eyes? (Part 4)

Can you really believe your eyes? Probably not, and you can’t believe your mind either!


Welcome back! Thanks for joining The Kronzek Firm for the wrap up of our discussion on eyewitness testimony and how unreliable it actually can be when recalling suspects and crime scene details. In the previous three articles we talked about the scientific community’s research on eyewitness testimony, and how the court’s opinion is slowly evolving to reflect that. Moving on, we are going to be looking at how studies that show how easily a memory can be affected by a third party.


In the mid-70s, Elizabeth Loftus, a cognitive psychologist, performed experiments which demonstrated the effect that a third party can have on memory recall. Specifically, she proved that by introducing false facts into the narrative, one can successfully change the way a person recalls information. This study was one of the first of it’s kind, and was revolutionary in showing that the way that police interview witnesses can have a huge impact on how they recall events and individuals. Criminal defense attorneys refer to this as a tainted interview.


In the study, subjects were shown a picture of a car at an intersection. For some participants the intersection had a yield sign while for others it had a stop sign. Experimenters asked the participants questions afterwards. For participants who had seen a yield sign, experimenters mentioned a stop sign, and vice versa. The result was that subjects ‘remembered’ seeing what the experimenter had referred to in the post-questioning session, as opposed to remembering the actual image they’d looked at. The attorneys at our firm have successfully show this very same thing to criminal juries in Michigan during trials.


In another part of the study, participants were show a picture of a car crash. Later on, some subjects were later asked how fast the cars were going when they “hit” each other, while others were asked how fast they were going when they “smashed” into each other. Subjects questioned using the word “smashed” were more likely to say that they recalled seeing broken glass in the picture, where in fact there was no broken glass.


Many experiments over the years have proven the same theory again and again


Similar experiments conducted by Barbara Tversky and Elizabeth Marsh, both psychology professors, corroborate the theory that human memory is vulnerable to bias.  In one such study, participants were told a “Roommate Story,” which was nothing more than a collection of tales about a roommate that they didn’t even have. In other words, a completely fictitious roommate invested for the purpose of the study, which the participants knew wasn’t real. The experimenters labelled the events “annoying”, “neutral” or “cool” (on a social level).


Later, the participants were asked write a series of letters from a neutral perspective. One as a letter of recommendation to a fraternity or sorority, and one to the office of student housing requesting a “roommate” removal. Most of the letters were considered to be more biased than neutral. When asked to recount the original stories at the end, participants who had written biased letters recalled more of the annoying or “cool” incidents featured in their letters. They also included elaborations not present in the original, that were consistent with their bias.


All in all, these studies and many others like them, have revealed that the human mind can be easily swayed in how it recalls information. Neutral information can be recalled with a bias when recounted for a person with a perceived bias. Also, information can be falsely recalled after only a single word suggestion from an outside source. When taking these facts into consideration, one has to realize that it is critical that here in Michigan, law enforcement officers be carefully trained to interview witnesses without affecting the way they recall information. A feat that may well be impossible, given how fickle our memories really are.


We hope this series has been helpful and informative for you. We have certainly enjoyed compiling it for you. However, with regard to crime scenes and recall of suspects, if you have been accused of a crime in Michigan and are considering the implications of a criminal trial, please contact us immediately at 766 866 5245. A highly skilled defense attorney is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to take your call. Don’t delay! The sooner we are able to step in, the sooner we can start creating a unique and personalized defense on your behalf.


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