I’ve been doing some reading recently on the reliability of witness testimony, an issue that has fragmented our research for decades. For reference on the subject, I would heartily recommend Sherry Fiester’s new book Enemy of the Truth – which contains a detailed professional analysis of just what you can and cannot expect from ear and eye witnesses. Sherry draws on her career in criminology and forensics for this and we really need to pay attention to her.
But beyond what we can expect from first hand witnesses, the other major issue is the time factor. In one classroom study, the instructor staged an impromptu incident and asked his class to record what they had seen happen over the course of a minute or so. The incident actually involved someone running in and firing a gun at the instructor, with blanks – well hey, data is good but you need to stay around for the study. The students immediately recorded their impressions and the results were actually quite good in terms of accuracy and similarity of observations. However, when asked to write down their observations within only a week of time passing, all sorts of changes began to show up – number of shots fired, dialog heard, and the clothing of the instructor and assailant. Not only did the individual descriptions start to change significantly but there was no longer general agreement among the witnesses.
In 1986 a psychology instructor performed a similar experiment following the Challenger disaster, a test of what is referred to as “flashbulb” memory. He then filed their responses for three years and repeated the same questions with the students. In comparing the two sets of responses, a quarter of the class did not have a single memory a year later that matched their initial response. In some instances students became quite irate, admitting that there was an issue but aggressively defending their current memory over their original statements.
Clearly this must be a caution for all historical research. While many of us have long stressed first day evidence, we should probably be more candid about first day memories. We have a host of interviews with witness beginning days, weeks, months and years later. The real question is if they were not on record as of Nov 22 or possibly Nov 23, can we really rely on them, especially without some sort of independent corroboration?
PS…the Challenger study was done at Emory University by Professor Ulric Neisser