Many of the techniques used to evaluate a client, witness, victim, or perpetrator rely on memory.
After completing your reading and reviewing some of the many studies that show that human memory is not as reliable as most of us believe it to be, how do you plan to account for possible memory errors when creating reports for others?
Remember, your job is to be accurate as possible for whoever hired you. Are there techniques you can use to help protect against the memory errors of others?
Reflectively respond to at least two others in this topic. Did your peers offer an idea that you did not think of yourself? How will the techniques your peers suggested help or possibly detract from their own work?
Welcome to Week 4 of Psychology in the Courtroom!
Consider this: How reliable is your memory?
Imagine you’re in court as a defendant. It’s June 20th. The prosecutor asks you what you did on June 6th. You’re asked to account for every minute of the day – your whereabouts, your behaviors, who you were with, how long you were with them…It’s difficult to remember days that aren’t significant to you. While the date in question isn’t significant to you, it’s significant to the prosecutor. What if you were on trial for a murder you didn’t commit? How could you prove you didn’t commit it when you can’t remember what you did that day? Lapse in memory can seem like a tactic for the guilty. Guilty parties often suffer from situational “amnesia” regarding days, environments, or individuals associated with the crime. One of the best examples I can think of that represents this phenomena is the interview of young medical student, Philip Markoff – the Craigslist Killer – to Boston PD Detectives.
The detective interviewing Markoff asks him if he’s ever been to any hotels in downtown Boston. Markoff says “yes” but cannot remember the last time he was at any hotels in the area [where the crimes took place]. After probing, he says he may have walked through a hotel at some point that year. Detectives asked what hotel it may have been, he couldn’t recall. They asked if he might have walked through the lobby of one of the hotels without really remembering. He responded “maybe…I don’t remember.” Detectives present Markoff with a photograph of him walking through lobby of one of the hotels in downtown Boston around the date and time the last victim was murdered. Detectives ask Markoff to explain where he may have been going or what he may have been doing. Markoff states that he may have gone to a Cheesecake Factory restaurant at some point, but he can’t recall for sure when or if that was where he was going. Detectives say, “no specific memory, huh?” Markoff replies, “I don’t really remember.” Detectives move past the date of the potential dinner at the Cheesecake Factory and say, “what would have brought you in there to walk through it?” [the lobby]. He responds, “I don’t remember.” So, “you have no clear memory of being there in the last couple of weeks?”, detectives ask Markoff. “I don’t remember, no….no clear memory,” he responded. The entire Markoff interview is maddening. His “loss of memory” in such an exaggerated manner suggests probable culpability, but what if he was innocent?
Human memory is not as reliable as we would like to believe. Consider controversial topics such as testimony based on “repressed memory” or eyewitness report from the memory of a child. This week you will be asked to describe how you would account for memory errors when creating reports for others. How would you account for the memory errors of others?
Memory was once thought to be like a video camera but this is often not the case. Memory can be manipulated by a variety of factors. Even stress or the presence of a weapon can determine the likelihood of memories being inaccurate (Costanzo, 2013). With this in mind as a psychologist there are specific responsibilities that one needs to uphold in regards to memory errors.
The Specialty guidelines for forensic psychology (APA, 2018) discusses the need to maintain competence in Section 2.02. Psychologists have the duty to maintain competence by staying up to date on research in one’s area of expertise. To testify to the accuracy of memories, one needs to be aware of current research regarding the inaccuracies of memory.
As memory errors are likely, as a psychologist your role is to help determine factors present that inform how accurate a memory likely is. For instance, questioning the client or witness on how good their view was and how closely they were paying attention may help determine accuracy (Costanzo, 2013). Psychologists should also ask questions that the defense attorney is likely to ask, as these also help determine if errors are likely. Questions such as the level of ambient light help determine if identification is even possible.
Another important way to protect against memory errors of others is to be aware of and limit interviewer bias. Skeem et al. (2009) describe interviewer bias as the central characteristic that forms suggestive interviews. These interviewers hold pre-determined beliefs about matters of fact and may unknowingly make suggestions that alters the views of the client. The absence of open-ended questions may increase the likelihood of a suggestive interview. Even if questions are not suggestive, positive or negative reinforcement of answers can also lead one to mistake memories (Skeem et al., 2009). The best way to avoid memories errors is to analyze the circumstances surrounding the memory and ensure that the interviewer is unbiased.
American Psychological Association. (2018). Specialty guidelines for forensic psychology. Retrieved from: https://www.apa.org/practice/guidelines/forensic-psychology.aspx
Costanzo, M. A. (2013). Using forensic psychology to teach basic psychological processes: Eyewitness memory and lie detection. Teaching of Psychology, 40(2), 156–160.
Skeem, J. L., Douglas, K. S., & Lilienfeld, S. O. (2009). Psychological science in the courtroom: Consensus and controversy. New York, NY: Guilford Press.
Human memory has been brought under the firing gun so to speak numerous times. Individuals that are asked to repeat details following a highly stressful incident may not always supply accurate information. As an example, participants of a bank robbery may retell the incident differently. The adrenaline, the fear may all impact the way a person sees the details before them, then stores them in their brain. In time after the adrenaline and fear has subsided, they may remember different things that were not there originally. This has been significant in the court room. This is just way human memories could impact legal proceedings.
Child sexual abuse (CSA)cases have been historical through the last several decades on the topic of repressed memories. (Skeen, Douglas & Lilenfeld, 2009) CSA are classified as traumatic events however, when it is an adult that alleges the assault occurred when they were a child by a family member, a day care center, a satanic cult and the memory has been repressed for 5,10,15,20, 30 plus years then the integrity of those memories are brought into question.
Looking at scientific methodology it is easier to identify accuracy. Scientists are trained to not allow their emotions to get in the way and to remain objective. (Skeen, Douglas & Lilenfeld, 2009) Bias must be avoided and this can be achieved with utilizing unbiased valid assessment procedures that do not lead an individual, the questions presented are clear and concise and cannot be led for misinterpretation or suggestive of a different meaning. (Skeen, Douglas & Lilenfeld, 2009)
This does not mean this is the same set of circumstances for a therapist. Therapist are not always able to remain as objectively distant when providing services to a client. However, talking to a client that alleges sexual assault specifically requires objectivity to protect oneself and the client. There are three methods specifically that would need to be looked at. The anecdata is supporting data from previous cases that were remembered during therapy. (Skeen, Douglas & Lilenfeld, 2009) Method two is subjective forgetting which is when it is addressed if the individual remembers forgetting whether they forgot. Method three is testing actual victims of CSA years after abuse and asking them to go through an interview outlining their alleged abuse. (Skeen, Douglas & Lilenfeld, 2009) Sadly however, none of these options are full proof to say repressed memories for a victim of alleged CSA is telling the truth or not. The memories may be genuine, or suggestive. A victim that does not come forward until years later is not the same as one that claims repressed memories.
Skeem, Jennifer L., Douglas, Kevin S., Lilienfeld, Scott O. (2009) Psychological Science in the Courtroom. The Guilford Press