Seeing, Believing, Getting It Wrong

Jamie Spencer at Austin Criminal Defense Lawyer posts about a fascinating experiment designed to test whether a person who recalls an event prior to being fed misinformation is more likely to recall it correctly later, and thereby not have his memory tainted by the misinformation.

As Jamie notes, it’s just common sense that a correctly recalled memory should enhance the likelihood that it will not be effected by some subsequent taint.  Ah, common sense, our old, reliable friend.


Except it ain’t so. The study proved just the opposite. (You’ve got to love science. The whole point of proving something using the scientific method can lead to unexpected results.)


A group of volunteers watched the first episode of “24” and then either took an immediate recall test about the show or played a game. Next, all of the subjects were told false information about the episode they had seen and then took a final memory test about the show…


The researchers found that the volunteers who took the test immediately after watching the show were almost twice as likely to recall false information compared to the volunteers who played the game following the episode.


Afterwards, both of you are given false information about what you watched. And then you are both tested on what you saw. You are re-tested; he’s asked for the first time.


Here’s the kicker… you are more likely than the other guy to repeat the false information:


The results of a follow-up experiment suggest that the first recall test may have improved subjects’ ability to learn the false information – that is, the first test enhanced learning of new and erroneous information.



The beauty of science is that it can provide us with answers to questions that “common sense” would have us believe need not be tested since the answers are obvious.  And wrong. 

I had a personal experience that tested this concept, and can attest to the power of post-hoc taint.  On July 17th, 1996, I was driving over the Westhampton bridge toward my summer house on Dune Road, with my kids in the car having just gotten them ice cream, when I saw what appeared to be a firework shoot up from the ocean into the sky and explode.  It was quite unusual to see, and I pointed out to the kids that someone on a boat must be shooting off fireworks.  My memory to this day is clear.

What I saw was the downing of TWA Flight 800.  I called the FBI and made a report the next day, after learning that wanted eyewitness reports.  I was never contacted about it again.  What I saw bore no relation to the official report of the incident.

Years later, I talked about this incident with a reporter friend of mine, who had covered it at the time.  He argued with me that I could not have seen what I did, explaining to me the various reasons why it couldn’t have happened that way.  He demanded that I rationalize my observation with the various other factors found in the investigation, asking me if I was saying that this was some sort of terrorist conspiracy.  I shrugged and demurred.  I didn’t have to explain what happened, I told him, but just what I saw.  I saw what I saw.  What it means is for someone else to explain. 

But the sense of need to fit the pieces together, to make sense of them with the other information I had subsequently learned, was compelling.  Gestalt grabs us by the collar and jerks us hard.  We want our observations to fit what we believe are facts, and we want to find a way to make sense of everything.  We need things to make sense.

I fought the impulse.  To this day, I remember the observation, my comments to my kids, and my subsequent doubt of my observations.  If anyone asks me now what happened, I answer that I don’t have a clue, but I do know what I saw.  If it were up to me to explain it, I would find myself locked in a dilemma because I can’t rationalize my observations with the facts as I’ve been told.  But I can hold firm to my observations, as long as I fight off the need to make sense of them.

How many witnesses are willing to fight the need to make sense, to explain, and just stick with their observations?  How many will do so when others “suggest” they are wrong?

2 comments on “Seeing, Believing, Getting It Wrong

  1. Mike

    I saw what I saw. What it means is for someone else to explain.

    As I suspect you know, that’s actually the best way to keep the integrity of a memory. Once you seek an explanation, your mind starts filling in gaps. You’ll get a coherent narrative….. that will just so happen to be false.

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