False memories

New York Times/Rich Docherty
New York Times/Rich Docherty

The American justice system is based on eyewitness testimony. We bring people into court to tell the finder of fact what happened. This is often supplemented by documents, computer records, and these days, video recordings and genetic testing.

We still use eyewitnesses to help us understand what happened. The problem is that our minds work in such a way that witnesses often get things wrong. The New York Times recently published a story titled “Witness Accounts in Midtown Hammer Attack Show the Power of False Memories.” You can find that story here. You can find about the attack here, here, and here.

Our psychologist friends aren’t surprised that eyewitnesses often miss facts. Even mice may have false memories! The Times quotes several psychologists who say that false memories are very easy to make. The Times even speaks to an eyewitness who described the scene but when compared with the video, the witness observed things that didn’t happen.

Our minds are wonderfully complex machines. They have to make hundreds, if not thousands of decisions a second to help protect us from the myriad stimuli that we experience every moment of our lives. We think we know what we saw, heard, felt, or read, but the reality is those things have been filtered for us. And as the Times’ article explains, our recollections not only err on what we saw, but a significant portion of the time, our minds invent facts that weren’t shown to us.

Have you experienced a witness or a client with a false memory? How was that memory shown to be false? Did the witness understand the falsity of the memory when shown a document or video that showed a different reality? Please share your experiences.

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