The Memory Manipulator

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You know how in crime shows/movies, they always have the sketch artist sit with the witness and ask them to describe the face, build and other physical features of the suspect? This has always fascinated me. If I’m ever a witness, I doubt I’ll remember the person’s face, especially in such a high anxiety situation. Makes you wonder whether the memory the witness is recalling might be distorted or even false, right?

Eye-Witness Testimony

For those that aren’t aware of what an eye-witness testimony is, it’s a legal term that refers to an individual’s firsthand account of an event (crime) that they witnessed. The validity and accuracy of such a testimony has been widely discussed and debated by the psychology community as well amongst the law community. One such psychologist, Elizabeth Loftus, doubted the accuracy, and attributed it to the misinformation effect.

The Misinformation Effect

The misinformation effect occurs when information that is gained after the event interferes with the memory of the original event. This interference of new information is called retroactive interference, and is extremely common in our everyday lives. This leads to a distortion in the original memory and/or can even creat false memories.

elizabeth loftus (@Loftusmemory) | Twitter

Loftus had conducted a very famous experiment to prove the misinformation effect. Participants were shown a video of a traffic accident, and then were interrogated exactly the way they would be as a real witness. The researched asked the question, “how fast were the cars going when they hit each other?” But, at times, they would change their wording and say “smashed into each other”. The subtle change of wording impacted the way the participants remembered the accident. For example, when the participants were asked a week later whether they had seen broken glass, most of them correctly denied seeing any glass. However, those that were asked the “smashed into” version of the question, believed that they had seen the glass.

The Contributing Factors

  • Time: Like with any memory, there is a certain critical time frame required to fully register it. But within that time frame, if new and misleading information is presented, that latest piece interferes with the old and becomes more accessible. This leads to a blurred memory or false additions to it.
  • Other Perspectives: Perspective means your point of view, or how you perceive things. It’s highly subjective in nature because you use your biases and person judgement in the act of perceiving. So, for example, if a crime/event takes place, and there are multiple witnesses, let’s say. Then each witness will have his own version of what happened. Now, if they discuss their views with each other, there will be an exchange of different information influencing the original memory. The same goes for news channels. Each news channel reports the same story in different ways, which then is perceived by viewers in different ways, leading to a game of Chinese Whispers.
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The misinformation effect is a part of our daily lives, and no one can avoid it completely. But in a high risk situations or conflicts, it’s best to take everything you hear with a grain of salt!

Until next time,


(M.A. Clinical Psychology, PGD Counselling)

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