Thursday, February 5, 2015

You Have No Idea What Happened

...Our misplaced confidence in recalling dramatic events is troubling when we need to rely on a memory for something important—evidence in court, for instance. For now, juries tend to trust the confident witness: she knows what she saw. But that may be changing. Phelps was recently asked to sit on a committee for the National Academy of Sciences to make recommendations about eyewitness testimony in trials. After reviewing the evidence, the committee made several concrete suggestions to changes in current procedures, including “blinded” eyewitness identification (that is, the person showing potential suspects to the witness shouldn’t know which suspect the witness is looking at at any given moment, to avoid giving subconscious cues), standardized instructions to witnesses, along with extensive police training in vision and memory research as it relates to eyewitness testimony, videotaped identification, expert testimony early on in trials about the issues surrounding eyewitness reliability, and early and clear jury instruction on any prior identifications (when and how prior suspects were identified, how confident the witness was at first, and the like). If the committee’s conclusions are taken up, the way memory is treated may, over time, change from something unshakeable to something much less valuable to a case. “Something that is incredibly adaptive normally may not be adaptive somewhere like the courtroom,” Davachi says. “The goal of memory isn’t to keep the details. It’s to be able to generalize from what you know so that you are more confident in acting on it.” You run away from the dog that looks like the one that bit you, rather than standing around questioning how accurate your recall is.

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