North Carolina’s criminal justice system may find the results of a new study daunting: The researchers found some interesting and surprisingly consistent patterns in the way people remember things. And, as both defense attorneys and prosecutors know, nothing will undermine a witness’s or suspect’s credibility faster than a change in his story.
The study shows, though, that it is almost impossible not to modify a memory every time you recall the event. Why? It seems that the act of remembering an event affects the memory of that event.
In physics, there is something called the observer effect. The mere act of observing a phenomenon changes it. It’s a little like the Prime Directive in “Star Trek” — participating in an activity you haven’t participated in before will change that activity. Memory, it turns out, is the same way: Every time you remember something, you are coloring it with everything that was going on the last time you remembered it.
The most recent study and others like it have come up with the same result time and time again. A memory may be fairly accurate the first time, but the second time the event is slightly distorted by the act of remembering. One way the researchers measured this was by following participants’ brain waves: When they were asked to put objects back the way they’d seen them the day before, their brain waves indicated that they were not drawing on old memories, they were making new ones.
While the theory is fascinating, the reality may be more terrifying. We know from other research that interrogation techniques can plant enough doubt in a suspect’s mind that an innocent man will begin to believe he’s guilty. This new research may help to prove that confessions under those circumstances cannot be relied on, but it also adds to interrogators’ arsenal of tactics.
Source: Northwestern University, “Your Memory is like the Telephone Game,” Marla Paul, Sept. 19, 2012