Truth in Unreliable Memories: A Forensic Psychology study

Truth in Unreliable Memories: A Forensic Psychology study

When a violent occurrence is observed, our body reacts uniquely, cortisol, a stress hormone, rushes into our bloodstream, preparing us for a fight or flight response. Our focus also narrows in on the threat at hand, tunnelling our awareness down to our central vision and eliminating peripheral details, according to the Easterbrook hypothesis. A solid memory of what happened afterward could be remembered, though we may lose certain details with time. We should be able to recall the perpetrator's clothing as well as what they said or did. It's unlikely that we would forget what day it was. These details are critical in convicting someone in court.

Associate Professor Helen Paterson, Senior Lecturer in Forensic Psychology explained that repeated victims have a tendency to mix up one occurrence with another and the defence, in turn, would discover any inconsistencies in the witness's testimony and discredit them. All those small details blur together for individuals who have been subjected to recurrent trauma or abuse, such as victims of domestic violence or workplace bullying. They may not be able to recall exactly what the offender said or what they were wearing on a given day, instead of forming a script-like memory of the abuse. Unfortunately, the victim's failure to recall key details might lead to them being dismissed as an untrustworthy witness, making it difficult for them to achieve justice. She also added that it worries her because the more victims there are; the less detailed their reports of each incident become.

Academic motivation derived from her own experience

Paterson, who was raised in Vancouver, was interested in dealing with witnesses and victims of crime stems from her experience as a witness while on exchange from the University of British Columbia in Sydney in 1998. She didn't realise until she got off the boat that her "lovely cheap place to stay" was anything but nice. She mentioned that there were some fairly dubious characters living in the apartment building, one of them was an arsonist, who kept setting fire to her apartment building, while the cops continued to interview her as a witness. She felt like there was a major disconnect between what she was studying in forensic psychology studies about how witnesses should be examined and how the cops were interviewing them. She was motivated by the experience to bridge the gap between law enforcement and the academic field of forensic psychology, to learn what police needed in terms of interrogation, and to share studies on witness recall and the best approaches to asking witnesses with them. The field of forensic psychology is vast. It applies psychological theory and research to the criminal and civil judicial systems as a whole. From crime investigation to trials, post-sentencing, and offender rehabilitation, it encompasses all people and processes in the legal system. Judges, juries, police officers, witnesses, victims, and offenders could all be studied by researchers.


A team of honours students, Ph.D. students, and volunteers studied the psychological repercussions of crime, lie detection, and eyewitness recall at the Forensic Psychology Lab, led by Paterson and Senior Lecturer in Forensic Psychology, Dr. Celine van Golde. Paterson's razor-sharp Lab team is carrying on her groundbreaking research. Their research into eyewitness memory has revealed how memory for one-time occurrences differs from memory for repeated or ongoing experiences. The way our brains rebuild memories each time they are recalled is part of the problem. They aren't arranged like a filing cabinet in the brain. This implies that our memories of events may be a little skewed. The difference between cooking from a recipe and cooking from memory is a good analogy. We might increase the amount of one spice or the other. Although the basic recipe is the same, the flavours are slightly different. Sarah Deck, a recent Forensic Psychology Ph.D. graduate and one of Paterson's students, discovered that those who had multiple experiences were judged as less believable than actual liars and those who had only experienced a single event. The findings are intriguing because they suggest that we would expect people who are telling the truth to provide extensive, specific information about their experiences, while in fact, the opposite is often true.



Paterson mentioned that there is a lot of study on the effects of repeated assaults on children's memory, but there isn't much on the effect of repeated incidents on adult memory. She believed there was a misconception that grownups would not allow themselves to be victimised regularly, but in fact, this is a major issue. She added that they don't yet have an objective way of determining whether or not someone is lying — there's no Pinocchio's nose. However, they do know that liars are more likely to generate and rehearse a tale (or recipe) and then stick to it. These scripted reports can make them appear more confident, consistent, and so more trustworthy. The ramifications of domestic violence and workplace bullying are serious. Because there is rarely any external proof to back up a person's claims in these cases, the entire process hinges on the victim's honesty. Natali Dilevski, another of Paterson's Ph.D. students, has demonstrated that repeated occurrences can damage an adult's capacity to recall specifics of an event. A similar study on children's memory has led to a relaxing of legislation in courts in recent years, so children who have been subjected to long-term abuse now simply need to describe what generally occurs during an unpleasant occurrence. Adults who have been subjected to recurrent abuse, according to Dilevski's conclusions, should be subjected to the same regulations.

Assistance provided by an anonymous donation

An anonymous donor provided $100,000 in 2018 to fund much of Paterson's and van Golde's study in domestic violence. The study program's goal is to develop techniques to promote victims' continued psychological well-being while also assisting them in gathering the information they need to prosecute criminals. Paterson and her team developed an app called I witnessed as part of this. She explained that when our memory is at its best, I witnessed can help us fill a report right after the incident. Date stamps, GPS coordinates, and photo attachments can be added to our memory account. When questioned later, we might refer to this report to refresh our memory. It might also aid in the consolidation of our recollection of the crime.

This is critical in cases where a victim's decision to report the crime to authorities may take some time. The effort is continuing, as the app must be updated regularly to be compatible with constantly updating phone versions. Of course, the necessity to discover the truth to achieve justice remains continuous. Despite the difficulties, Paterson is continually motivated by her work and the commitment of those around her and she added that the lab with a talented group of people is just a great environment to work in.

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