By Steven G. Mehta

By the time of mediation or trial, how many times do you think a witness has retold his or her story?  Many, I am sure.  Each time that story is told, however, new research suggests that the person’s memory is not improved, but instead detrimentally affected.

According to Ph.D. candidate, Farhan Sarwar from Lund University in Sweden, people rely too much on eyewitness accounts.  Sarwar suggests that contrary to popular belief, a person’s memory of an event is not improved by retelling the story. Rather, the more the story is retold and discussed, the more likely it is to be inaccurate.

“The most accurate witness statements come from people who have seen a crime and then write down what happened before they recount it or discuss it with anyone,” says Farhan Sarwar.

One example of how witnesses can be is the eyewitness descriptions of the murderer of Anna Lindh’s – a Swedish Politician. Those who were there and saw the murderer were in agreement that he was wearing military clothing. When the pictures from the department store’s cameras were examined, it could be seen that he was wearing normal sports clothes.

Sarwar’s studies show that eyewitnesses are particularly bad at remembering details, such as what the perpetrator was wearing or what weapon was used. On the other hand, they are better at recalling the general events.

Indeed, the more a witness tells his or her story, the more sure he or she is of the exact details of the event.  This places the legal system as we know it in a great dilemma.  We usually rely on the confidence of the eyewitness in telling his story, but that confidence could merely confirmation of his own inaccurate recollection.

What is so interesting about Sarwar’s research is that he – along with colleague Sverker Sikström  — has developed a computer program to measure the likelihood of eyewitness accounts being correct. Testing on the program, however, is incomplete.

This research has so many implications for the legal field.  Lawyers have to rethink the concept of witness credibility.  Perhaps lawyers will have to ensure that witness testimony is tested by independent factors.  Perhaps one witness’ account must be tested by another completely independent witness.  Indeed, Sarwar’s research did not take into account how multiple completely independent witnesses would fare in ascertaining the true events.

Download the thesis Eyewitness testimonies: The memory and meta-memory effects of retellings and discussions with non-witnesses.

Research Source:

Lund University (2011, January 26). Eyewitnesses are not as reliable as one might believe. ScienceDaily. Retrieved February 4, 2011, from­/releases/2011/01/110125092233.htm