Eyewitness testimony is defined as, “an area of research that investigates the accuracy of memory following an accident, crime, or other significant event, and the types of errors that are commonly made in such situations.” Much emphasis is placed on the accuracy of eyewitness testimony as often-inaccurate eyewitness testimony can have serious consequences leading to wrong convictions. Eyewitness testimony is a powerful tool within any field, particularly that of justice, as it is a readily accepted form of evidence that allows for convictions. However, tests conducted by Loftus have shown an enormous swing from a non-guilty verdict, to guilty within the same case, simply through the introduction of an eyewitness. This alone displays the importance of eyewitness testimony, and accentuates the theory that jurors tend to over believe, or at least rely heavily on such accounts. In this essay I shall discuss the work and research contributed by Bartlett, and Loftus as to whether accuracy plays a vital role in eyewitness testimony compared to other aspects of memory use.
Retrieval failure is an everyday experience for many of us. We also often experience problems with storing new information. This usually occurs because simply the person concerned is not paying attention. Perhaps more importantly memories can become scrambled, in the process of retrieval; as a result the scrambled memory is recalled-along with mistaken details instead of your original memory. In the case of eyewitness testimony, this may lead to wrongful convictions. The history of the United States justice system, like those of other countries is littered with wrongful convictions. For example, Rattner (1988) reviewed 205 cases of wrongful arrests and found that in 52 percent of cases, this was due to mistaken eyewitness testimony. Huff recently estimated that about 7,500 people arrested for serious crime in the United States were wrongly convicted in 1999. He further noted that the rate is thought to be much lower in Great Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and other countries, especially those that have established procedures for reviewing cases involving the potential of wrongful conviction. Ronald Cotton was convicted in 1986 of raping a 22 year old college student, on the basis of her testimony, Cotton was sentenced to prison for life. DNA testing, 11 years later proved Cotton as innocent. Another man, Bobby Poole, pleaded guilty to the crime. (Ref: Egeth, H. E. What do we not know about eyewitness identification?) This case shows, as I mentioned earlier, how much jurors rely on eyewitness testimony, yet it is possibly the most unreliable source of evidence in the first place.
A key reason for memory distortion is that witnesses pick up information from other sources, a combination of memory from different experiences. Much research shows that memory more closely resembles a synthesis of experiences. Bartlett (1932) carried out research on reconstructive memory. He claimed that in order to make sense of an event we go through a process called “ effort after meaning.” Instead of storing an exact replica of the event, we combine it with elements of existing knowledge and experience to form a reconstructive memory. Bartlet investigated the effects of unfamiliarity on the recall of a folk story. Participants heard an unfamiliar story. After 20 hours, participants were asked to recall as much of the story as possible, and many times following the first. The recalled story was distorted in a number of ways. Participants used language that originated from their own culture and background. Distortions became increasingly resembled to an ordinary English story. He concluded that the reconstruction made the story more coherent and so more easily remembered by the participants. Bartett claimed that we store memories in terms of our past experiences, these he named...
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