Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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February 17, 2003
By: Kevin Drum

MEMORY....I found out this morning that Elizabeth Loftus, one of the leading experts in memory and the tricks it can play on us, is now at UC Irvine. She presented her latest research on Sunday at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, including the following:

In one study, undertaken with one of her researchers, interviewers in Russia were able to convince 12.5% of their subjects that they had seen a wounded animal in media coverage of two terrorist bombings in Moscow that killed 233 people in September 1999.

The people were first interviewed in March 2002. They were interviewed again six months later and told that they had mentioned a wounded animal in their first interview. They were asked to describe it.

One person described a parrot in a cage. Another described a dog barking and racing around police officers. Another talked of a bleeding cat lying on a desk.

One problem: They all made it up. No wounded animals were shown on TV or in newspaper or magazine coverage of the incident.

We all are convinced that our memories are perfect, but the evidence is sadly against us and this is one reason why eyewitness testimony in court cases even from witnesses who are absolutely positive about what they saw should be taken with a grain of salt. It's also why questioning of witnesses and suspects should always be captured on videotape. If this ever becomes common practice, I think we will all be shocked at the difference between what witnesses say on the stand and what they said when they were first interviewed. It's not a pretty sight.

Kevin Drum 12:41 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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