The concept of Eyewitness Inaccuracy is a troubling one. So often people are accused of crimes based on the memories of someone who was at the scene and thinks they witnessed what occurred. I remember some time in high school I watched an episode of Brain Games and was shocked at how sure people were about incorrect details.
In this episode of Brain Games, they had a bunch of people witness a crime and then tested them through various different manners to see if they really remembered the correct details of what happened in the crime. They tested the viewers as well to see how often I could catch the mistakes that the eyewitnesses in the show were making, since I have studied memory and how malleable it can be, I feel like I was overall more observant.
One of the scenarios was a police lineup to see if they could properly identify a suspect. I was hesitant to select one of the men because I really didn’t get a good look at their faces, or if I did it wasn’t something that I was sure of. The majority of participants in the show ended up picking a man who was in the crowd with them, rather than the man who committed the crime because the guy in the crowd seemed more familiar to them although not for the reason that they thought he was. If the police were planning on using that method alone to figure out who to arrest, they would have ended up accusing a man who could be placed at the scene of the crime but was innocent.
Another scenario had a bunch of the witnesses together on a panel to recount what had happened. They planted a couple of actors in the mix to try and distort the witnesses memories and the witnesses quickly picked up details that weren’t there. The actor would say one of the suspects was in a red coat and immediately people were agreeing or disagreeing with him and even some of the disagreements were incorrect. Everyone was so sure of the false details they thought they remembered. The actors were able to alter important components of the crime, including what was stolen.
Eyewitnesses are so important to figuring out what occurred in a crime. It is very disheartening to learn just how inaccurate those memories can be. There are studies to suggest that even the way that someone asks a question can alter a memory (i.e how fast was the car going when it crashed into the other car vs. bumped into the other car).
I do think that arguments about memory are important to think about in aspects of criminal justice because all of this shows that people’s memories are not always a good representation of an event especially in a high-stress situation. This is a good argument for having body cams on police because it will lead to less differences in opinions later because it is clearly documented through this Brain Games that even if people don’t mean to lie they ended up not really telling the real story through no real fault of their own
Brain Games Episode
Other Brain Games clip that discusses word choice
Elizabeth Loftus Ted Talk about Memory