Psychological research into memory and eye-witness testimony

'It is clear from psychological research into memory and eye-witness testimony that accounts of eye-witnesses are entirely unreliable.' Critically consider some relevant psychological research (studies and/or research) and the extent to which such research supports the view in the quotation. Eyewitness testimony (EWT) refers to the descriptions given in a criminal trial by individuals who were present at the scene of a crime. This includes identification of perpetrators, important details and peripheral details There have been many studies done by different psychologists into memory and forms of forgetting; some of these can be used in the argument for whether or not eyewitness testimony is reliable.

The reconstructive nature of memory is related to the schema theory. A schema is a package of memory that is organized and developed throughout our lives. Schemas are stored in long term memory. Most people have similar schemas and this was recognized by Bower, Black and Turner (1979) when they asked several people to recall the schema for the most important things they do when they go out to a restaurant for a meal. They found out that most people put the same main aspects in their schemas.

As early as 1895 J.M Cattel reported a study indicating poor recall for frequently observed events. In one study Cattel asked his students about the previous weeks weather. It had snowed, however only 7 out of 56 mentioned this. One study done by Bartlett (1932) on reconstructive memory backs up the view that eye witness testimony is unreliable. Bartlett's aim was to see how peoples schema's (mental files) effect the way they recall stories and events, by maybe adding peoples own interpretations to them or by filling in gaps.

Bartlett's theory of Reconstructive Memory is crucial to an understanding of the reliability of eye witness testimony (EWT) as he suggested that recall is subject to personal interpretation dependent on our learnt or cultural norms and values- the way we make sense of our world.

In other words, we tend to see and in particular interpret and recall what we see according to what we expect and assume is 'normal' in a given situation. Bartlett tested this theory using different stories to illustrate that memory is an active process and subject to individual interpretation or construction.

He used a story called 'The war of the ghosts' (North American Indian story) this was told to English participants, it was unusual to them as it was from another culture and so would not fit their schemas. He tested the memory in two ways, by repeated reproduction where the participant was asked to retell the story over and over again. The other way was serial reproduction where one participant would tell it to another and they would tell it t another and so on (like the game Chinese whispers) he then noted down how the story was retold and the differences it had to the original or earlier versions and the number or words recalled.

The participants recall distorted the content and the style of the original story. The story was shortened and the phrases were shortened to become more similar to our own language. Over periods of time up to a year Bartlett asked his participants to keep recalling the story and found that the distortions increased the longer recall went on. Bartlett found that the reproductions of memory just kept on evolving and memory was forever being reconstructed. Some parts of information were forgotten and others were exaggerated.