This year, I spent Thanksgiving in Santa Fe. After our meal, my companions and I went exploring. Our first stop was at SunRise Springs, 69 acres of quiet beauty. (Click to see some short video clips.) Later we wandered over to Madrid, a town charmingly and solidly stuck in the '60s.
A woman dressed in black walked along Madrid's main street—and that is all I know, because she escaped my notice. But the reports from the two people with me about what the woman looked like and how she was dressed varied tremendously. Because I am very interested in the unreliability of eyewitness testimony, I am not surprised.
How timely that an article just appeared in the New York Times explaining why my two companions did not have the same story about the woman in black. From "The Certainty of Memory Has Its Day in Court":
[S]cientists have long cautioned that the brain is not a filing cabinet, storing memories in a way that they can be pulled out, consulted and returned intact. Memory is not so much a record of the past as a rough sketch that can be modified even by the simple act of telling the story.
For scientists, memory has been on trial for decades, and courts and public opinion are only now catching up with the verdict. It has come as little surprise to researchers that about 75 percent of DNA-based exonerations have come in cases where witnesses got it wrong.
Rather than the centerpiece of prosecution, witness testimony should be viewed more like trace evidence, scientists say, with the same fragility and vulnerability to contamination.
Why is a witness’s account so often unreliable? Partly because the brain does not have a knack for retaining many specifics and is highly susceptible to suggestion. “Memory is weak in eyewitness situations because it’s overloaded,” said Barbara Tversky, a psychology professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College in New York. “An event happens so fast, and when the police question you, you probably weren’t concentrating on the details they’re asking about.”
How about you? For those in the US, would you and the people with whom you spent last Thursday give reports about the events that were similar? Why don't you ask them and see?