• Robb G. Best

The Simplest Crime Reform You'll Ever Hear About

According to the Innocence Project, false eyewitness reports play a role in roughly 70% of wrongful convictions. Witnesses to crimes are notoriously unreliable in their recollections, and are especially vulnerable to influence from other witnesses. If given time to confer with each other, all it takes is one witness who remembered the facts incorrectly to contaminate all the witnesses' testimonies.

On the surface, this seems like an immense problem. However, it might have a deceptively simple solution, at least in part.

A recent study from Tufts University found that simply warning witnesses about the possibility of misinformation significantly lessened the impact of false narratives on the witness's memory.

The study rounded up 161 people for two experiments. In the first, researchers showed the volunteers a silent film of a crime taking place. The volunteers then listened to an audio description of what they'd just seen, including correct statements, omissions, and downright falsehoods. Lastly, they took a memory test designed to test their recall.

However, the participants were divided into three groups. One group received a warning ahead of time about inaccuracies in the audio account, one group received the same warning but after listening to the audio account, and one group got no warning at all. You might not be surprised to learn that the group with no warning was found to be the least reliable in their memories of the original video.

However, interestingly, the two groups that were given a warning performed similarly--there didn't seem to be much difference in performance if the volunteers were warned about possible misleading factors in the audio retelling before or after hearing it, as long as they were warned.

In the second experiment, researchers hoped to get a better understanding of the brain functions behind this phenomenon. They repeated the scenario, except this time, the subjects performed the final memory test while their brains were scanned by an fMRI machine. The researchers found that the "witnesses" who had been warned showed more activation in the visual regions of the brain and less activation in the audial regions.

“This suggests that warnings increase memory accuracy by influencing whether we bring back to mind details from accurate or inaccurate sources of information,” said study co-author Elizabeth Race, a Tufts psychology professor. In other words, the warnings helps settle the question raised by the old joke, Who are you gonna believe, me or your own eyes?

“Together, these results provide novel insight into the nature of memory distortions due to misinformation and the mechanisms by which misinformation errors can be prevented,” said Jessica M. Karanian, first author of the study and now an assistant professor of psychology at Fairfield University. “The adoption of these interview practices by police departments might protect the integrity of eyewitness accounts and improve the likelihood of just outcomes for all involved.”

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