Author(s): Elizabeth F Loftus
That statement has ended many an argument, since for most people seeing is believing. But it shouldn't be. Between the time you first witness an event and the time you recount it to someone else, your memory of the event may change drastically. Many factors can affect the accuracy of your report. I have found that the questions asked about an event influence the way a witness "remem-bers" what he saw. Changing even one word in a single question can systematically alter an eyewitness account. Most previous research on this topic has been directed toward demonstrating how poor eyewitness testimony is, without exploring why people make the errors they do. One favorite method of study has been to stage an incident, then interrogate all the witnesses about what hap-pened. Typically, everyone tells a different story. In a study conducted at Dartmouth in the 1930s, some students unknowingly became subjects in such an experiment. While a class was in session, a man dressed in workman's overalls entered the room, made some remarks about the heat, tinkered with the radiator for a minute or two, and left. About two weeks later he returned with five other men of similar appearance, and the students were asked to pick him out from a lineup of all six individuals. Seventeen percent of the students chose the wrong man. Another group of students, who had not witnessed the event but who were told they had seen it, also had to make a selection. Seventy percent of these subjects reported (correctly) that they could not recall the incident, but 29 percent did point to one of the men. That is, they "identified" a man they had never seen.