Issues in Interdisciplinarity 2018-19/Truth in memory: the reliability of eyewitness testimony

Introduction edit

Living in a “post-truth” society [1], where objectivity is overruled by emotions and personal belief when shaping public opinion, evidence-based truth seems to be endangered. Our society is dominated by individual truths in the form of shared experiences through social media. Those individual truths, due to the limits of personal judgements, are only hypotheses based on generalisation from personal experience and lack of solid proof.[2] However, memory, as a representative of individual truth, is widely used as witness testimonies in courtrooms to supply the application of law, an evidence-based truth system.

Memory in the Courtroom edit

Truth and Law edit

Law is associated automatically with "the search for truth" [3], however, in this discipline, truth is ‘not an explanatorily useful concept’ [4] implying that there is no need for veracity to plea someone guilty. The legal system relation’s with truth is lacking of definition and ambiguous in the sense that it searches “formal legal truth” which is dictated by laws and not by veracity [3]. In other words, if it has been proven by facts, including faulty eyewitness testimonies, the guilt of a party, then the die is cast. Witness's narrative truth comes from their reconstruction of events, which the court considers solid evidence.[3]

Real-life Cases of False Memory edit

In the United States, 300 people where convicted of crimes they didn’t commit and spend years in prison before DNA testing could have proven their innocence. Of those 300 , three quarters were victims of prosecutors' or witnesses' false memories.[5] 19 year-old, Holly Ramona started seeing a psychiatrist for her bulimia and depression problems. With the help of sodium amytal, a drug normally used to treat short-term insomnia – also known as the « truth drug » due to its capacity to restore lost memories – remembered being sexually abused by her father as a child. Prior to seeing her psychiatrist, she didn’t recall any such thing. She then went on to sue her father, Gary Ramona, who himself sued the psychiatrist for having induced false memories to his daughter's brain.[6] False memory syndrome is more common than one might think. Psychologist, Elizabeth Loftus, specialised in false memories, compares it to a wikipedia page : «you can go in there and change it but so can other people ». She conducted different studies proving that misinformation coming from another person can alter one's memory.[7] In Canada, a study [7]made subjects believe that, as a child, they were attacked by a vicious animal and half of them actually "remembered" this episode. Forensic psychologist, Scott Fraser, studies how humans remember crimes. During a TED talk, he elaborates on the case of 16-years-old Francisco Carillo convicted of murder after being recognised by witnesses. He spend 20 years in prison before one of the witnesses (the son of the victim) confessed it was a false memory and that he never saw the face of the murderer.[8] Steve Titus was also wrongfully put in jail for a rape allegations due to the victim thinking it was him.[9]

When giving a testimony, witnesses are under oath : “I swear by Almighty God that the evidence I shall give shall be the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” [10] How can involuntary false memory be explained?

The Process of Remembering and Altered Memory edit

Influencing factors on witnesses edit

The accuracy of memories could be affected, due to it being selective and susceptible to influence, by many psychological factors during the three forming stages of memory, namely perception, retainment and retrieval. The perception process is affected by events factors, i.e. the interaction between cases and observers and individual factors, meaning witness’s character and mental conditions. For example, the more violent an incident is, the worse it is remembered. The retainment is the most changeable process since it could be influenced by up to 12 separate aspects, for instance, post-event information, enhancing memory and guessing. Particularly, enhancing memory influence suggests that after-event discussion could shift the memory towards this event. Meanwhile, memory could also be created based on deduction from guessing which matches more to social favours of an image of comprehensiveness. In terms of the retrieval,the environment and type of retrieval, questioning, questioners and other two factors have effects on it. Specifically, studies[11][12] among college students demonstrate that memories are better recalled at the place where the event happened rather than at an unfamiliar place like a police interview room.[13]

Memory Retrieval and Social Suggestions edit

The psychological process of remembering can be understood through Frederic Bartlett's seminal "The War of Ghosts" study[14] as a process of reconstruction. When asked to recall the Native-American story, participants were found to change, to "westernise", to shorten, specific details having been forgotten, and overall distorting the story by adding previously inexistent details or projected emotions. Bartlett’s study shows how the act of remembrance is not a passive action but rather an active one, unconsciously distorting reality.

The courtroom does not provide a space where memory is not subject to change : persuasive language, prejudices , roles of “good and bad” displayed as “prosecutor and defendant”, the formal setting. When confronted to a police line-up, studies[15] show that participants posing as witnesses believe that those on the other side of the mirror, even if innocent, are guilty, due to social construct. 40% of police lineups end in the prime suspect getting picked but, more interestingly, up to 20% end up in the filler (innocent person with similar traits to the suspect) getting picked; demonstrating the effects that expectation and societal bias, have on memory.[15] Thus, sociocultural factors, such as the society (e.g western) they were raised in or their moral bias routed in the location (e.g police line-up), affect the participants perception of the events. Cultures have a direct impact on memories and on the perception of self.[16]

Memory and trauma edit

The negative impacts of traumatic experiences consist usually on that memory being repressed meaning that it isn’t present in the conscious mind but can still be accessible through therapeutical procedures due to its presence in the hippocampus, centre for long-term memory [17]. According to psychiatrist Bessel A. Van der Kolk [18] traumatic experiences affect one’s memory in four ways : Traumatic amnesia (Unconscious of the event until a stimuli triggers the memory), Global memory impairment (More susceptible to suggestions) , Disassociation (Memory is fragmentary), birth of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).Eyewitnesses are directly exposed to stressful traumatic experience, thus generating memory alteration.

Conclusion edit

Loftus’s study[15] demonstrates that, for the same case, when no eye-witness testimony is given only 18% of the participants judged the defendant guilty opposing to 72% when eye-witness testimony is given. The reliance of the legal system on eye-witness testimony, heavily influenced by psychological and neurological factors, is currently being supported by technological and scientific advances, such as DNA testing. "We see that science also rests on a faith; there simply is no science ‘without presuppositions".(p.5) [19] Nietzsche's reluctance on scientism poses the question : Should we trust science when seeking truth?

References edit

  1. Harari Y.N ; Are we living in a post-truth era? Yes, but that’s because we’re a post-truth species. Ideas.Ted.Com. 7 September 2018; Available : [Accessed : 7 December 2018]
  2. Taylor W.S., Is Truth individual or social, Journal of Social Psychology, Vol. 6, Iss. 3, Aug 1, 1935. p. 348.
  3. a b c Fernandez J.M; An Exploration of the Meaning of Truth in Philosophy and Law’', Australia 11 The University of Notre Dame Australia Law Review 53 ; 2009 Available from : [Accessed : 7th December 2018]
  4. Patterson D., Law and Truth , 1st edition, USA : Oxford University Press, 1996
  5. Torgovnick May K., The fiction of memory, TedGlobal, 2013 Available from: [Accessed: 8th December 2018]
  6. August Piper Jr., M.D. Is there a truth serum?, December 2013, Available from: [Accessed: 7th December 2018]
  7. a b Loftus E.F., How reliable is your memory?, TedGlobal2013, 2013 Available from: [Accessed: 7th December 2018]
  8. Fraser S., Why eyewitnesses get it wrong, TEDxUSC2012, 2012 available from: [Accessed: 7th December 2018]
  9. Henderson P., Looking back at Titus case,1981, Available from: [Accessed: 7th December 2018]
  10. Pigott R., Motion to end Bible oaths in court defeated, BBC News, 19 October 2013, Available from : [Accessed : 9th December 2018]
  11. Abernathy, E.M., ‘The effect changed environmental conditions upon the results of college examinations’,10,Journal of Psychology, 1940, p.293-301
  12. Feingold, G.A., 'The Influence of environment on identification of persons and things’, 5, Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology 1914, p.39-51
  13. Loftus E.F., Wolchover D.and Page D., 'General Review of the psychology of Witness Testimony'.Witness testimony : Psychological, investigative and evidential perspectives , Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2006, pp. 8-17
  14. Bartlett F.C., Remembering: A study in experimental and social psychology, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1932
  15. a b c Wright D.B and Loftus E.F, Eyewitness memory. In : Cohen G., Conway M. (eds.) Memory in the real world Psychology Press, 3rd edition, 2008, p.95-97
  16. Williams H.L., Conaway M.A. and Cohen G., Autobiographical memory. In : Cohen G., Conway M. (eds.) Memory in the real world Psychology Press, 3rd edition, 2008, p.71
  17. Lynn S.J and McCconkey K.M, Truth in memory , The Guilford Press, 1998, p. 331-332
  18. van der Kolk B.A. & Fisler R., Dissociation and the Fragmentary Nature of Traumatic Memories:Overview and Exploratory Study, 1995 Available from : [Accessed : 7th December 2018]
  19. Cristy R., "“Gay Science” as a Conditional Will to Truth", Princeton University Available from : [Accessed : 9th December 2018]