The purpose of this essay is to discuss whether eye-witness testimony draws upon the same kinds of memory representations as are used for recalling other scenes or events? In addressing the relevant points it will be necessary to firstly look at what is meant by "Eye Witness Testimony" and understand the different issues such as events witnessed versus expectations. An understanding of representations is then necessary in order to link the two components.
It is also necessary to understand schemas and their contribution to memory, plus the different levels of processing involved in memory and issues such as repression which may also have a bearing. Different studies of Eye-witness testimony, memory and schemas will help broaden the discussion and enable a summary to be made which addresses the question as to whether eye-witness testimony draws upon the same kinds of memory representations as are used for recalling other scenes or events? Our legal system assumes, until proven otherwise, that an eye-witnesses memory of events such as an accident, will not be distorted.
But any such report of events can be influenced significantly by the manner in which questioning takes place. Talented Barristers for example ask leading questions suggesting a particular version of events. Certain words like "smashed" when used in the context of a car accident, carries the connotation of high speed. Substituting the word "bumped" implies an entirely different version of events. The use of different words within the context of leading questions could affect what the witness says he or she saw, but they would probably believe that their memory of events would remain unchanged.
However studies by Loftus et al challenge this belief. Studies by Loftus et al (1974-1979) questioned participants who had watched a short video of two cars colliding head-on. Participants were split into two groups, both asked to judge the speed on the two cars. One group were asked "when they smashed into each other", the other group "when they hit each other". One week later they were asked whether they had seen any broken glass – when in fact there was no broken glass visible in the video they had watched.
Nevertheless 32% of participants in the 'smashed' condition reported seeing glass, compared to 14% of participants in the 'hit' condition. Other similar studies by Loftus highlighted that leading questions not only produce biased answers but they also may distort memory. Loftus (1975) also looked at testing the theory that new information is integrated with pre-stored memory representations. Specifically testing whether people's memory of an event they have witnessed can be influenced (falsified) if they are later given misleading information about the event.
In terms of defining eye-witness testimony, it would seem natural to suggest that it refers to an event which is witnessed by a third party – although not necessary in a visual way – it could for example be by sound alone – but nevertheless witnessed in one form or another. But on that theme we are all witnesses to some or many events in our daily lives whether they be at home, work or as we go about our daily business – although in the vast majority of times we do not consider ourselves as eye-witnesses.
Perhaps then, memory does not become defined as 'eye witness' until someone starts to cross-examine the rememberer or when it becomes important that events are recalled – such as in a legal or court situation. It is now necessary to gain an understanding of different memory functionality plus schemas and representations. Schemas or representations are integrated packages of information about the worlds events, people and actions. Bartlett (1932) put forward the notion that what we remember from stories and events is also determined by our store of relevant prior knowledge in the form of schemas.
This is also very much relevant when comparing different cultures with their different experiences. These differences have a bearing on memory recall since memory representations of unusual or never-seen-before events would have a high impact on recall ability – whether it be in a negative or positive way. Theories of memory generally consider both the structure of the memory system and the processes operating within that structure.