The question of memory distortion has particular importance in the courtroom. Each year thousands of people are charged with crimes solely on the basis of eyewitness testimony, and in many trials an eyewitness’s testimony is the main evidence by which juries decide a suspect’s guilt or innocence. Are eyewitnesses’ memories accurate? Although eyewitness testimony is often correct, psychologists agree that witnesses are not always accurate in their recollections of events. We have already described how people often remember events in a way that fits with their expectations or schema for a situation. In addition, evidence shows that memories may be distorted after an event has occurred. After experiencing or seeing a crime, an eyewitness is exposed to a great deal of further information related to the crime. The witness may be interrogated by police, by attorneys, and by friends. He or she may also read information related to the case. Such information, coming weeks or months after the crime, can cause witnesses to reconstruct their memory of the crime and change what they say on the witness stand.
American psychologist Elizabeth Loftus has conducted many experiments that demonstrate how eyewitnesses can reconstruct their memories based on misleading information. In one study, subjects watched a videotape of an automobile accident involving two cars. Later they were given a questionnaire about the incident, one item of which asked, “About how fast were the cars going when they hit each other?” For some groups of subjects, however, the verb hit was replaced by smashed, collided, bumped, or contacted. Although all subjects viewed the same videotape, their speed estimates differed considerably as a function of how the question was asked. The average speed estimate was 32 mph when the verb was contacted, 34 mph when it was hit, 38 mph when it was bumped, 39 mph when it was collided, and 41 mph when it was smashed. In a follow-up study, subjects were asked a week later whether there was any broken glass at the accident scene. In reality, the film showed no broken glass. Those questioned with the word smashed were more than twice as likely to “remember” broken glass than those asked the question with hit. The information coming in after the original event was integrated with that event, causing it to be remembered in a different way.
This study, and dozens of others like it, shows the power of leading questions: The form in which the question is asked helps determine its answer. Our memories are not encapsulated little packets lying in the brain undisturbed until they are needed for retrieval. Rather, people are prone to the misinformation effect the tendency to distort one’s memory of an event when later exposed to misleading information about it. Eyewitnesses’ testimony can be tainted and altered by information they hear or see after the critical event in question. Therefore, in court cases one must carefully consider whether the testimony of an eyewitness could possibly have been altered through misleading suggestions provided between the time of the crime and the court case.
The problem of determining whether memories are accurate is even more difficult when children are the witnesses. Research shows that in some situations children are more prone to memory distortions than are young adults. In addition, older adults (over 70 years of age) often show a greater tendency to memory distortion than do younger adults.
Even though psychologists have shown that memories can be distorted and that people can remember things that never occurred, our memories are certainly not totally faulty. Usually memory does capture the gist of events that have occurred to us, even if details may be readily distorted.