The criminal justice system relies on eyewitness testimonies and that is something that is considered to be a concrete piece of evidence during a trial and has been known to help put people in jail, but what if what the witnesses are remembering is not actually what happened.
According to Roediger, a false memory is when you “remember events that never actually happened, or remembering them quite different than the way they actually happened.” This subject has caught the attention of many psychologists because these things have a large effect on our everyday lives and can even effect the lives of others.
In Roediger’s study, Creating False Memories: Remembering Words Not Presented In Lists (1995), he looked at this topic of false memory and he tested it by using a word recognition task. He compiled lists of a lot of words and after the subject had a chance to look at them then he would ask them to see if any of the next set of words were in the previous list. The first list he produced would have a bunch of words related around a similar concept, such as sofa or sweet, then he would place words similar to that concept in the second set of lists. The participants were very confident with the words they picked and that they were in the first list.
What creates a false memory then. How do we think that something happened to us but it really didn’t, or it didn’t happen they way we thought it did. Another researcher that has been studying this field of psychology is Elizabeth Loftus, and she has been studying the creation of false memory through the power of suggestion and that after time passes, the memory that they created gets stronger and more vivid. Our memories naturally begin to change as time goes on as well as we incorporate new information about the words and have new experiences.
In the case of the criminal justice system, people are sent to jail based on eyewitness testimony, and annually too many people are found out to have been misidentified as the culprit after physical evidence turns up, however, the eyewitnesses are convinced that they have identified the right people.
Texas was the first state to pass legislation to try and stop this problem of faulty convictions. They are having the police department use techniques that have been proven to have better results and that researchers have developed to be a better way.
False memory happens to everybody and most of the time it is harmless and doesn’t effect anybody, however, it can also have serious consequences and can change somebody’s life. If you hear a story over and over again, it can eventually make its way into your brain and you can think that it happened to you. Of if you see faces in a photo array in a police station and all of the faces have similar features then you have a higher probability of picking the wrong one. More scientists have been focusing on this are of psychology and hopefully there will be ways in which we are able to limit the amount of wrongful convictions by using better techniques.
I really enjoyed your article because it touches on something I agree with: that eyewitness testimonies are far too heavily relied on. We as people cannot remember all the details that would be expected of us, and critical to the courtroom. If our justice system is so focused on “proving” someone guilty, through undeniable evidence, then why are we relying so heavily on what people saw in the first place? We cannot replay people experiences on a video (although how awesome would that be?). In the sense of false memories, it is very easy to be caught up in something completely else at the time of a crime, and subsequently not being able to pay attention to the details that were important. If you weren’t paying attention, you can miss a lot of things that you thought you saw. In addition, your brain could try to “fill in the gaps” with the false memories you spoke of. Great post, thanks for sharing.