The Reliability of Eye Witness Memory


Unfortunately, there are countless people who have seen violent and trauma-inducing crimes. Witnessing such events can affect a person throughout their lifetime. When a person witnesses a crime, that memory is considered an “Eye Witness Memory”. These terms are often used in the judicial system. Eye witness memory is also used to describe an individual’s memory for a particular face, such as in situations where they have to positively identify their perpetrator. What experts have found over the last several years is that a person’s memory is not as reliable as once thought. There are a wide variety of different things that can affect a person’s ability to properly recollect someone’s face.

According to different researches found, when people were made to replicate eye witness testimony in controlled tests, their ability to do so was not very accurate. There are a number of psychological factors that can cause a person to incorrectly identify someone as their attacker following a crime. As a result, innocent people are regularly being sent to jail and prison for long sentences because of a false believe in the infallibility of eye witness testimony.

Research has produced a number of different reasons for why a victim who has witnessed their attacker’s face could provide false information about that attacker’s description, or could even believe it was a completely different person altogether. These causes include:

  1. Filling in of the memory’s gaps – When a person does not completely remember a situation, the brain will try to fill in the gaps. This is why the reconstruction of memory invokes pieces of data and information coming from other sources.
  2. Systematical Distortion of the Memory Perception– there are various studies showing that the memory can be biased toward expected events and that the systematic biases for remembering distances and sizes are a common part of memory perception.
  3. Memory is “personal” – memory of an individual interprets what he or she has seen. Basically, the eyewitness memory of the person is involved in the extraction of interpretations that is based on beliefs, experiences and needs.
  4. Biased Memory on Question Retrieval Method – experts says that eyewitness memory may become biased with the questions being given during retrieval process of the eyewitness.
  5. Retelling effects of the witnessed crime– accuracy may decline over time or if a story is retold many times. Based upon research, in some cases, the eyewitnesses tend to have a lower accuracy when immediately asked after the traumatic experience to recall the event.

Eyewitness memory may be a legitimate tool for prosecutors and law enforcement alike to ensure that those who commit crimes are punished accordingly, but the fact that it has failed for so many is enough reason to believe with certainty that this method should not be considered absolute evidence of guilt. It may be useful from time to time, but depending on the eyewitness, memory can be unideal.