Fuzzy Memories: Can people consistently recall reasons for their behaviour?
Abstract (via Kaasa, Morris, Loftus)
We explored how consistent individuals are over time in their recall of the reasons why they engaged in a past behaviour. The study was inspired by a research survey submitted in a copyright infringement case. Study participants listed the reasons why they acquired a particular CD, and repeated the survey several months later. We assessed the consistency of responses across time overall and at the individual level. Results indicate that both forgetting and memory distortion were common. Different types of inconsistencies were identified, and these responses were predicted by characteristics of the original memory and of individuals’ preferences towards the CD. Implications for the legal field are discussed.
The current study explores the consistency of people’s recollections of the reasons for their behaviours using two different contexts inspired by real legal cases. The first context relates to group memory trends, and was inspired by a copyright infringement case against the rap musician Eminem. The second context involves memory consistency over time at the individual level, such as might relate to the insider trading charges brought against Martha Stewart.
Human memory can play a number of roles in the legal system. For example, witnesses recall information about crimes or other legal matters that is used during investigations, and may also be asked to testify at trials about their memories for events. Witnesses and defendants may be interviewed several times over the course of an investigation and trial, and the legal process may span months or even years. Thus, the issue of memory consistency becomes important for determining the quality of this memory evidence (Brewer, Potter, Fisher, Bond, & Luszcz, 1999; Peterson, Moores, & White, 2001). Additional memory evidence may also be presented to the court in the form of original research (e.g. survey data) conducted on an issue central to the case at hand. The first example concerns the consistency of a specific individual’s memories over time, while the second relates to general trends in memory performance.
Although consistency cannot simply be used as a substitute for accuracy (Blair, Lenton, & Hastie, 2002; Brewer et al., 1999; Coluccia, Bianco, & Branimonte, 2006; Fisher & Cutler, 1995; Peterson et al., 2001), research in legal settings has shown that lawyers, judges and jurors often interpret greater consistency as an indication of greater accuracy (Brewer et al., 1999; Fisher & Cutler, 1995). The importance placed on the consistency of memory reports has spurred literature on memory consistency for objective details of observed or experienced events (e.g. Neisser & Harsch, 1992), but less research has been conducted on the consistency of introspective memory processes. For example, we know little about the consistency of individuals who repeatedly recall their own thought processes regarding a certain event (e.g. if asked to recall why they performed a certain behaviour).
Conclusion: (via Kaasa, Morris, Loftus)
In conclusion, human memory may be treated as evidence by the legal system, with significant consequences, such as monetary awards and criminal convictions. Therefore, it is important that any assumptions made by the legal system about memory processes be scientifically tested. Our study explored two contexts in which memory is used as evidence, and our findings suggest that some of these assumptions may be unsupported. Just like eyewitness memory for faces or actions, memory for our own mental processes is prone to inconsistency. Though we offer suggestions for approaches that may limit the impact of distortion and decay, such as recording all initial interviews for comparison to later (and perhaps more consistent) interviews, our study is only an initial examination of memory for reasons behind behaviour. We encourage further research to clarify remaining issues and offer additional guidance for the legal system.