One important application of research into memory is eyewitness testimony (EWT). EWT is used as evidence in criminal trials in countries all over the world. Juries tend to pay extra attention to eyewitness testimony and generally see it as very trustworthy and convincing. However, a great deal of research in cognitive psychology tells us that, in general, people's memories are fairly fallible. This section examines some of the psychological factors that can affect the accuracy of EWT. It is split into two main sections: • • Reconstructive Errors & Leading Questions Weapon Focus and Violence Distraction
Many people believe that memory works something like a videotape. Storing information is like recording and remembering is like playing back what was recorded, with information being retrieved in much the same form as it was encoded. However, memory does not work in this way. It is a feature of human memory that we do not store information exactly as it is presented to us. Rather, people extract from information the gist, or underlying meaning. In other words, people store information in the way that makes the most sense to them. We make sense of information by trying to fit it into schemas, which are a way of organising information. Schemas are general purpose 'packets' of knowledge that correspond to frequently encountered people, objects or situations. They allow us to make sense of what we encounter in order that we can predict what is going to happen and what we should do in any given situation. Schemas are a very effective way of processing information. Besides making the world more predictable, they remove the need to store similar information more than once. For example, if you think about a kitchen, you will probably find that your idea of kitchens includes features like a cooker, a fridge, cupboards, work surfaces and so on. Your schema for 'kitchen' includes these features, because you have discovered through your experiences that most kitchens have them in some form. Now, suppose you visit someone's house for the first time, and they ask you to get something from the kitchen. You may not know where the kitchen is, but you would be able to recognise it when you found it because it would contain all or most of the things that feature in your 'kitchen schema'. Additionally, when you got there, it would not be necessary for you to store information about its contents, because you would already know most of what was in there due to your having a schema for that particular type of room. Three different kitchens, with similar features that might be a part of a 'kitchen schema'
So whilst you might encode a few details about it, for example, the layout, or the colour of the walls and so on, you would not need to store any more than this. For this reason, schema driven processing increases the efficiency or cognitive economy with which memory operates. However, schema driven processing has an important consequences for the way we store information. By forcing new situations to fit into our schemas, we may distort them in some way. So the information encoded in memory will not correspond exactly to what we actually encounter. When we later recall the information, these distortions will have been incorporated into our recall that hence may not be entirely accurate.
Contributed by Aidan Sammons
The Work of Frederick Bartlett These general ideas were first formulated by Frederick Bartlett in the 1930s. Bartlett carried out a large number of studies in which he showed that the ways in which participants make sense of something (i.e. the schema they apply to it) affects the way they recall it later. In one study, participants were shown unfamiliar line drawings like the one below and instructed to memorise them. The stimulus Bartlett instructed his participants to remember
Bartlett asked his participants to talk aloud whilst trying to memorise...
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