Our last blog article, "All we want are the facts..." sparked some discussion about the reliability, or lack of reliability, of eyewitness testimony and the importance of verifying statements made by eyewitnesses.
As a private investigator you need to understand the theory of “Reconstructive Memory”. We often think that when we recall an incident we observed, it is a like a video playing in our mind, or a photograph. Our memories of incidents we observe are not that accurate.
The theory of reconstructive memory is our memory recall is influenced by our individual perceptions, social influences, and our knowledge (past experiences and how we interpret information). In addition, our memories are influenced by the stress we feel at the moment, our biases, information inputs we experience during and immediately after the event, and our past experiences.
Watch this news video about eyewitness testimony.
When we witness a stressful event such as a vehicle accident, or an assault, our mind captures some of the information, not all of it. Our view of an incident is impacted by the existing lighting at the scene, sounds we hear, what others at the scene may be saying.
For example; a car drives by and a large bang similar to a gunshot is heard. Others nearby may start yelling, “He’s got a gun!!”. We look at the vehicle and see the driver with their arm hanging out of the window. Our minds, using the information we have received from others, our vision, we now see the driver holding a gun. We run for cover only to learn that the vehicle was backfiring.
Where there are gaps in what we see, hear, or smell, our mind begins to fill in the gaps. Our experiences may be from television, previously witnessed events that are similar. In our example, the stimulus of hearing others shout “He’s got a gun!!!” makes us see a gun in the individual’s hand. We may even think we saw a muzzle flash similar to a movie scene we have watched.
The manner we are asked to recall the information can influence our memory recall. Asking a witness leading questions is one example. “You saw a tall man robbing the store clerk?” Now we have the added the memory stimulus that the suspect was tall.
Our experiences immediately following an incident influence what we recall as well. Consider you are with a group of friends that witness a vehicle accident. Everyone begins to talk about what they saw. Your mind starts to fill in gaps with what you hear others saying they saw whether accurate or inaccurate.
The method in which our mind works to help us recall incidents is impacted by several psychological and neurobiological influences that can reduce the accuracy of our recall about a specific incident. Keep in mind, to the witness, what they recall is the truth because it is what their mind is telling them they saw. As an investigator, you need to be aware of these potential influences. Look for secondary sources to verify what witnesses state they observe as they may not be always accurate.
Still not convinced, watch this video for more information about eyewitness testimony.
As a private investigator, you are responsible for sorting through eyewitness testimony and identifying factual information from reconstructed memory information. Again, it is important to remember that the eyewitness is not being untruthful, only repeating what their mind has reconstructed as a memory in their mind.
Pro PI staff
Experienced professionals and trainers.