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Forensic psychology
Forensic psychology

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3.4 Memory, questioning and suggestibility

Figure 8

In order for someone to be able to answer a question, they must not only be willing to respond, but also be able to do so. As you saw previously, not everything we ‘see’ or ‘experience’ is automatically encoded and stored in memory.

Questions will only be successfully answered if the person involved has relevant information available and accessible in memory. However, the social context in which a question is asked is also influential. Social factors can affect the way an adult or child responds to questions. For example, a witness may try to answer a question by giving an answer that they think is what the interviewer wants to hear. Psychological research has found that children are particularly prone to answer in this way. This can obviously lead to inaccuracies and errors being introduced and witnesses providing information about aspects of the crime or perpetrator that they have no memory of.

Inaccuracies can also occur from the way our memories are organised. Information about events (known as ‘episodic memory’) is believed to be organised in our minds in what psychologists refer to as event schemas. These allow us to store knowledge about particular events or activities efficiently by making use of information which represents what is ‘typical’ of such events. For example, rather than remember every specific time we have eaten at a restaurant, we might use a ‘restaurant’ schema to build a general impression of events that typically take place in a restaurant.

The use of schemas has the potential to distort memories, for example by making it very difficult for a person subsequently to distinguish between specific episodes of an event, or by the person relying on inappropriate assumptions about what typically happens. This is especially relevant in the experience and reporting of crimes that follow a common pattern (e.g. repeated child sexual abuse), and special questioning techniques are required. An example of such a technique is asking the witness to begin by describing more notable instances of the repeated event, such as the first or last time, or an occasion that was particularly memorable for some reason (Powell and Thomson, 2001).

Regardless of the crime being investigated, it is important that the interviewer does not inadvertently suggest an answer to the witness. Suggestibility has been defined as involving ‘the act or process of impressing something (an idea, attitude or desired action) on the mind of another’ (Fundudis, 1997, p. 151). When interviewing a witness, it is very important that questions are asked that do not suggest information, but keep the mind of the witness as uncontaminated as possible. Part of the problem facing an interviewer is that we find it very difficult to distinguish between information we saw while an event (such as a crime) is taking place, and information we heard about after the event had finished – which is referred to as ‘post-event information’.

A classic study by Loftus and Palmer (1974) investigated the ability of post-event information to influence the reports of an event that the witness subsequently gave. Participants were shown a video of vehicle accidents and were asked questions with a variety of phrasings. For example, some were asked how fast the cars were going when they ‘smashed’ into each other, while others were asked how fast the cars were going when they ‘bumped’ into each other. Participants gave higher estimates of speed if they were asked the ‘smashed’ version of the question than if they were asked the ‘bumped’ version. Remarkably, in a second experiment, ‘smashed’ participants were also more likely to report seeing broken headlight glass, even though none of the cars’ headlights were seen to break on the video. The reason this happened is that the participants were asked the question ‘did you see any broken glass?’, which contains post-event information suggesting that there might have been broken glass. The memory of participants who had also been provided with the post-event information that the cars ‘smashed’ into each other, was therefore altered to incorporate a high speed collision containing broken glass – even though this is not what they had seen.

The findings of studies such as Loftus and Palmer’s demonstrate the constructive nature of memory (i.e. that rather than retain an exact picture of what happened, our memories change so as to incorporate new information) and the influence that event schemas can have on memory. It is possible that the participants could not remember whether there was broken headlight glass or not, i.e. there were gaps in their memories. These gaps may have been filled in (constructed) with what seemed ‘likely’ to the participants based on their schema for car accidents. One would not necessarily expect the headlights to break if the cars had only ‘bumped’ into each other, but one would certainly expect them to break if the cars ‘smashed’ into each other.

Memory seems to be constructive by nature and organised using mechanisms such as event schemas that allow us to fill in gaps. Although these may be very useful in everyday life, they pose a problem for investigations because they may involve memories that were constructed after the crime was witnessed and are not restricted solely to information that was encoded at the time the crime was witnessed.

Suggestibility and the way memories are organised mean that a police interviewer must be very careful indeed to ask questions that do not introduce post-event information or lead a witness to construct an answer. Next, you’ll look at some different types of questions – some to be used and some to be avoided.