TED Talk: How Reliable Is Your Memory?
What do you truly remember? Are your memories as accurate as you believe? Should your memory be used as an accurate piece of evidence in the courtroom?
We often think of our memories as fixed, something we can depend on. But what if someone told you that your memory may not be as accurate as you thought? What if someone told you that your memory may be entirely fabricated?
Recently, I watched a TED Talk by Elizabeth Loftus, a psychological scientist who studies memory. Rather than studying memory loss, Loftus focuses on false memories. These are memories our minds have altered from what actually occurred and memories our minds have created about events that never occurred at all.
Loftus began her talk with Steve Titus’s story. Titus was a man who was on his way back home, after a romantic meal with his fiancé, when he was pulled over and arrested. The reason being that his vehicle and physical appearance were similar to that of a man who had recently committed a rape in the area. The victim looked at a photo lineup and told police that Titus looked “the closest” to the man who had raped her. However, by the time trial came around, that same victim altered her story and testified that she was “absolutely positive that’s the man,” referring to Titus. Based on this testimony a jury convicted Titus. Though Titus was eventually exonerated after a journalist tracked down the real rapist, Titus had already lost his fiancé, his job, his savings, and all faith in the judicial system. Titus had become obsessed with what the system had done to him, and he began working day and night to fight the system that had wronged him. The stress from this fight caused a stress-related heart attack, killing Titus at the age of 35 years old.
This is what sparked Loftus’s curiosity and made her question how the victim’s memory went from ‘closest’ to a ‘positive’ identification?
Loftus has found that many people believe that their memory works like a recording device, where you can call it up and replay it; when in reality this is far from true. She goes on to say that memory works, “A little bit like a Wikipedia page: you can add and change it, but so can other people.” Misinformation is everywhere, that should come with no surprise to anyone. We receive this misinformation by leading questions, talking to other witnesses, or media coverage about some event we may or may not have experienced. When someone is fed misinformation, their memory can be distorted, contaminated, fabricated, or even completely changed.
So what do we do with eyewitness testimony then? At its most basic form, eyewitness testimony is when a person witnesses a crime or a portion of it and later gets up on the stand and recalls from memory for the courtroom all the details of the witnessed event. When an eyewitness stands up in front of the courtroom and describes what happened from his/her own perspective, it can be extremely compelling to the trier of fact. It’s a way that counsel can paint a picture in the jury’s mind without doing it themselves. Although defense attorneys everywhere try to attack the credibility of these witnesses during a trial, it is difficult for the trier of fact to take an eyewitness’s testimony with a grain of salt.
So, if the science is out there, why do we put so much weight on eye witness testimony, which is dependent on memory?
We as a society still place eyewitness testimony as one of the most persuasive forms of evidence presented in court. But, just think about it, if individuals are prone to recalling distorted, contaminated, fabricated, or changed memories, how accurate can eyewitness testimony be? These false memories come with some hefty consequences in courts everywhere, where the stakes are unbelievably high.
So what does this all mean? Unfortunately, false memories feel just as real as those which actually happened. That is because our minds tend to fill in any gaps for us. When it comes to memory, be cautious. If it’s not backed by concrete evidence, maybe take it with a grain of salt.