You might be misjudging an innocent person with your false memory

"Just because somebody says something to you with confidence, lots of detail and emotion, it doesn’t mean that it really happened."

A renowned psychologist worked on a legal of a man named Steve Titus. The 31 years old lived in Seattle Washington and was about to marry the love of his life. One day the couple went out for a romantic restaurant meal. They were on their way back when they were pulled over by a police officer. Titus’ car sort of resembled the car that was driven earlier that evening by a man who raped a female hitch hiker and Titus kind of resembled that rapist. The police took the picture of Titus , put it in a photo lineup and later showed it to the Victim.

She pointed out Titus’ picture and said “That one’s the closet!” The police and the prosecution proceeded with the trial. And when Steve Titus was put on trial for rape, the victim spoke “I’m absolutely positive that’s the man!”

Titus was convicted. He proclaimed his innocence. His family screamed at the jury. His fiancĂ© collapsed on the floor sobbing and Titus is taken away to jail. Titus lost complete faith in the legal system and yet got an idea. He called a newspaper and got the interest of an investigative journalist who actually found the real rapist; a man who ultimately confessed this rape;  man who was thought to have committed 50 rapes in that area. When this information was given to the judge, the judge set Titus free.

That’s where this case should’ve ended. Titus should’ve thought of this as a horrible year, a year of horrible accusations and trials. But it wasn’t over. Titus was so bitter. He lost his job which he couldn’t get back. He lost his fiancĂ© who couldn’t put up with his persistent anger. He lost his entire savings. So he decided to file a lawsuit against the police and others who he felt were responsible for his sufferings.

Elizabeth Loftus started studying this case, trying to figure out how that victim went from “That one’s the closest” to “I’m absolutely positive that’s the guy”.  As a psychologist scientist, she has studied memories for decades.  She studies false memories. It’s when people remember things that didn’t happen or they remember things that were different from what they actually were.

 Titus was consumed with his civil cases, spending every waking-moment thinking about it. One morning he woke up only to double over in pain and dying of his stress related heart attack at the age of 35. 

Unfortunately Steve Titus is not the only person convicted based on somebody’s false memory. In USA, a project was done on 300 other people who were convicted of the crimes they didn’t do. They spent 20 to 30 years in prison and now DNA testing has proven that they are actually innocent. After those cases were analysed, three quarters of them turned out to be the victims of erroneous memories and faulty eye witnesses.
Many people like the judge of those cases believe that memory works like a recording device which can be played back when you want to identify images and people. Decades of work in psychology has shown that this isn’t true. Our memories are constructive and reconstructive. Memories are like a Wikipedia page. You can go in there and change it but so can other people.

In Constructive Memory Process experiments, people were shown simulated crimes and accidents and asked questions about what they remember. People said they saw a broken glass in the accident when there wasn’t any in real. We showed another simulated accident in which a car went through the intersection with the stop sign. Psychologists ask the respondents if they remember seeing an eel sign and they answered yes they saw an eel sign at the intersection, not the stop sign.

After that Loftus conducted a study on soldiers who were being trained to handle interrogators in the event of capture. They were interrogated in a hostile and physically abusive fashion for 30 minutes. After that they were asked to identify the interrogator. When we feed them with suggestive that insinuates that it’s a different person, many of them misidentify their interrogator. This explained that when you feed people with misinformation about an experience that they may have had, you can distort or contaminate or change their memory.

Out there in the real world, misinformation is everywhere. We get misinformation not only if we get questioned in a leading way but also if we talk to other witnesses who might consciously or inadvertently feed us some erroneous information or we see media coverage about some event that we might’ve experienced. All of these provide an opportunity for this kind of contamination for our memory.

If we plant false memory in people, it can have repercussions later on in their life. For example, plant a false memory in them that they got sick as a child after eating strawberries on a picnic. They will not want to eat strawberries on picnic. False memories aren’t always bad. If we plant a warm and fuzzy memory instead that involving a healthy food, we can get people to want to eat it more. It gives rise to an Ethical Dilemma : When should we use this mind technology or should we ever ban its use? A parent can use it to help his obese child.

From all these experiments and studies, there is a lesson to learn: Just because somebody says something to you with confidence, lots of detail and emotion, it doesn’t mean that it really happened. We can’t reliably distinguish true memories and false memories. We need independent corroboration. Such a discovery makes us more aware of the daily memory mistakes our friends and family might be making. Such a discovery could’ve saved Steve Titus, a man whose whole future was snatched away by a false memory. Meanwhile we should all keep in mind that memory like liberty is a fragile thing.


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