by Jordan Arizmendi
What did you eat for breakfast this morning? Most of us could answer that question – with a good deal of confidence in the accuracy of the answer. But what if, on a particular morning, instead of drinking orange juice like you do every breakfast, you drank grapefruit juice? Or what if you ate scrambled eggs instead of sunny-side-up, as you do every morning? A new study published in PLOS One – conducted by scientists in the Netherlands, U.K., and Canada – reveals that our memories are shaped, almost immediately, by our preconceptions.
The study questions the accuracy of our memories, particularly in court cases that have been decided based on the deeply flawed memory of a single account. Many of these flawed memories stem from long-term memory. Few people could recall the shoes they wore on their first day of kindergarten. Anyone claiming to remember such a trivial detail would certainly be doubted. However, the study examined the reliability of short-term memory, which is typically not similarly doubted.
“This study is unique in two ways, in our opinion. First, it explores memory for events that basically just happened, between 0.3 and 3 seconds ago. Intuitively, we would think that these memories are pretty reliable,” said lead author Marte Otten, a neuroscientist at the University of Amsterdam, in an email to Gizmodo. “As a second unique feature, we explicitly asked people whether they thought their memories are reliable – so how confident are they about their response?”
The study utilized hundreds of volunteers over the course of four experiments. The subjects would review certain letters and then be immediately asked to name a highlighted one. Among these letters, scientists included backward letters. For example, did you just see a or a C?
The scientists discovered that the subjects often misremembered the letters. However, the inaccuracy rates for backward letters were much higher than those for regular letters. Additionally, the longer the subjects waited before being asked to recall, the greater the number of wrong answers given.
“It is only when memory becomes less reliable through the passage of a tiny bit of time, or the addition of extra visual information, that internal expectations about the world start playing a role,” Otten explained.
When a witness answers a question, all of us – including the witness – tend to assume that the answer is the truth. However, there is much more happening in the brain regarding memories than we are currently aware of. According to this study, even short-term memory may be compromised by our assumptions. As a result, people may be confident about the authenticity and accuracy of a false memory. Naturally, this has enormous implications for eyewitnesses in criminal investigations and prosecutions.
As a digital subscriber to Criminal Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.
Already a subscriber? Login