The fallibility of human memory

I don't often talk about eyewitness testimony, but it's not because of the lack of research. It's a big field, with a lot of research done. When  I say I don't follow it because I regard the main finding as a done deal - eyewitness testimony is useless - that's not meant to denigrate the work being done. There is, clearly, a great deal of value in working out the exact parameters of human failures, and in working out how we can improve eyewitness testimony. I just arbitrarily decided to ignore this area of research until they'd sorted it all out! (I can't follow everything, I'm swamped as it is!)

Nevertheless, I do want to remark on a recent report in The Scientist, to the effect that a New Jersey court has decreed that all juries must be informed of the unreliability of eyewitness testimony. I want to raise a hearty cheer. I regard it as practically criminal that eyewitness testimony is given the weight it is. I think everyone should be taught, from a young age, that memory is completely unreliable. And, in particular, that the certainty you hold in any specific memory, and the vividness it has, are not nearly as good proofs of the accuracy of the memory as we tend to believe.

You may think a belief in the fallibility of memory would create an unpleasant state of uncertainty, but I believe it would bring about a useful decline in many individuals' dogmatic certainty, and encourage more empathy with other, fallible human beings.

You may ask how my emphasis on the fallibility of human memory squares with my frequent comments on the danger of believing that you have a bad memory or that your memory will inevitably get worse as you age. But believing in human fallibility is very different from believing you personally have a bad or deteriorating memory. You need to find a nice balance between these beliefs, and part of achieving that lies in understanding how memory works and what aspects are more reliable and which less. I hope my site helps you with that!

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