A new study of 1,800 respondents shows that 60% disagree with almost unanimous expert opinion regarding the unreliability of human memory. Simons DJ, Chabris CF (2011) What People Believe about How Memory Works: A Representative Survey of the U.S. Population. PLoS ONE 6(8): e22757. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0022757.


Sample Q & A’s from the survey:

  • Video Memory: 63.0% agreed that “human memory works like a video camera, accurately recording the events we see and hear so that we can review and inspect them later.” All 16 experts disagreed.”
  • Unexpected Events: 77.5% agreed that “people generally notice when something unexpected enters their field of view, even when they’re paying attention to something else.” 13 experts disagreed and 3 agreed.”

     The popular idea that eyewitness memory is trustworthy is a major problem in jury trials.   It means that jurors have a natural tendency to accord too much credibility to eyewitness statements.

     Should judges allow lawyers to instruct jurors that memory is fallible?   Should felony trials require corroboration where the inculpatory evidence comes from only one eyewitness? Probably so, but this is a slippery slope.  We already have instructions about credibility, bias, and motivation to commit perjury.  And legislation that proposed to decrease the odds of obtaining criminal convictions would have little chance of passage.

     [In a curious example of the variability of memory, eyewitnesses diverged recently in their respective recollections of the physical appearance of a murderer. Some accounts of the perp described one identical twin wearing a white beanie, while others remembered seeing the black beanie worn by his brother.  Both siblings were present at the shooting but only one of them fired a gun killing the victim.  The Long View tweeted:  "No #DNA and indistinguishable #Eyewitness ID’s of identical Nembhard twins at #Murder: Both twins should walk free. http://nyti.ms/rnI6uX"]