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Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Unreliable Memory

It is one thing to forget. It is quite another to remember, but remember wrongly. Everyday experience reveals how commonly people remember things wrongly. Discuss with most anybody what each party said in a past argument or controversy, and it typically happens that people remember things differently. Somebody has to have it wrong. Such "false memories" commonly contaminate eye-witness reports of accidents and crimes.

This possibility came up in a recent a court case in Massachusetts, where a Catholic priest was convicted of sexual molestation of a child. The accuser, now an adult, ostensibly had suppressed the memories, which surfaced later in psychological counseling. On the basis of this resurrected memory, the priest was convicted and the conviction was upheld on appeal by the Massachusetts' Supreme Court. Scholarly literature supporting the notion that real memories can be suppressed and later retrieved provided the basis for believing the charges against the priest.

However, there is other scholarly literature, apparently not persuasive in this case, that asserts that this is "junk science" and that false memories are common. I concur with the news release's statement: "Experiments have shown that false memories can be created that feel just as valid as real ones and cannot be distinguished from real memories."

Our legal system has not really come to grips with false memory. But there is a growing trend to be skeptical of eye-witness testimony. It is increasingly hard to get a conviction if the only evidence against the accused is a single eye-witness report. Perhaps, in the interests of justice, that is best. There is a whole scholarly literature on false memory, including books, and I reviewed much of this in my memory book.

So, the real issue in court cases like this is that the resurrected memory may or may not be true. If there is no other evidence and it is only one person's word against another, how can you tell what the truth is? The same problem exists when people have differing recollections of something that happened in the past. Somebody got it wrong. Who got it right?

Source: UPI press release,


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