Psychological research reveals a lot of deeply troubling facts about human perception and memory that should make us very skeptical of eyewitness testimony. Of course, we don’t need science to tell us that if we witness something from too far away, or if it’s too dark, or if we’re intoxicated, then our testimony is not going to be very reliable. That just seems like common sense. But common sense may also lead us astray when it comes to the reliability of eyewitness testimony, and that is what a lot of the research on this topic is telling us.
What is it
The criminal justice system often relies on the testimony of eyewitnesses to get convictions. Yet more and more, psychological science demonstrates how unreliable eyewitness reports can be. Moreover, jurors have all kinds of cognitive biases and unconscious influences, and they rely on dubious folk psychological theories when assessing evidence. So, how should psychological science be used to improve our justice system? Is there a way to figure out whether a particular eye witness report is reliable? Or for a truly just system, must we forbid all testimony that depends on the capricious faculty of memory? John and Ken take the stand with Daniel Reisberg from Reed College, author of The Science of Perception and Memory: A Pragmatic Guide for the Justice System.
Increasing amounts of research are pointing to the unreliability and fickle nature of human memory — can we trust it in a courtroom? Ken expresses serious worry about the use of eyewitness accounts in court when the stakes are so high. John responds by accusing him of being an alarmist. He insists that despite some inaccuracies, witnesses remain a indispensible part of the criminal justice system that cannot be completely disregarded.
John and Ken are joined by Daniel Reisberg, Professor of Psychology at Reed College. Reisberg discusses several examples of the malleability of memory that he has come across in his research, including how his team were able to plant false memories of entire episodes that never happened. He goes on to explain how similar false memories could inadvertently be created in an eyewitness's mind through police questioning. To shed light on how one should judge the reliability of a memory, Reisberg leads John and Ken through the evaluation of a hypothetical eyewitness account.
The first question from the audience asks how we can be better eyewitnesses ourselves. When identifying a face, Reisberg explains how focusing on memorizing key features is actually unhelpful; the best method is surprisingly much more holistic. Other questions point to the future of the criminal justice system, the effect of personal beliefs on memory, and whether modern technology has affected our memory. The episode ends optimistically, with Reisberg claiming that despite the complications surrounding memory the criminal justice system is nevertheless headed in the right direction and slowly improving.
- Roving Philosophical Reporter (seek to 7:27): Shuka Kalantari speaks with Angel Gonzalez, who spent 20 years in jail because of a false eyewitness identification.
- 60-Second Philosopher (seek to 46:14): Ian Shoales muses over the many ways that the mind's eye is also easily swayed.