Sources of distortion in witness memory 1
Internal and External Sources of Misinformation in Adult Witness Memory
University of Nevada, Reno
Elizabeth F. Loftus
University of California, Irvine
Chapter prepared for:
Toglia, M. P., Read, J. D., Ross, D. R., & Lindsay, R. C. L. (Eds.), (in press). Handbook of
eyewitness psychology (Vol.1): Memory for events. Mahwah, N.J.: Erlbaum.
Sources of distortion in witness memory 2
At 8:30 pm on July 17, 1996, Trans-World Airlines flight #800 crashed into the ocean.
Reports consistent with the theory that a missile attack may have caused the crash soon spread
among witnesses, investigators and the media. Despite physical evidence pointing to another
cause, discussion of the “missile theory” of the crash persisted for years. How did so many
witnesses become convinced they saw a nonexistent missile? And why did their reports continue
to convince investigators, the media and interested observers despite accumulating evidence of
another cause? Some analyses suggest that post-event suggestion in the form of widespread
speculation about causes of the crash may have brought about the initial potentially false reports
consistent with the involvement of missiles. Within days of the crash, the media further fueled
the “missile theory” by publishing seemingly supportive evidence and witness accounts. For
example, the New York Daily News ran a story with the headline "Was TWA Jet Shot Down?
Missile Attack, Bombing Probed." Other stories speculated about whether a bomb or possibly a
surface-to-air missile more likely caused the crash. Witnesses claiming to have seen a missile
were interviewed extensively, leading other witnesses to come forward with similar stories. Their
stories in turn encouraged investigators to process evidence with the “missile theory” as a
primary hypothesis, perhaps biasing interpretation of that evidence toward support of the theory.
This highly publicized TWA case provided a host of excellent real life illustrations of the
many biasing influences confronting witnesses and others in our judicial system. We address a
number of these in this chapter in the context of our discussion of sources of misinformation in
adult witness memory reports. Specifically, we review internal and external influences that
cause: (a) selective memory or selective failure to remember, (b) false memories for things not
actually witnessed or experienced, and (c) distortion or alteration of memories for things actually
witnessed or experienced. We consider two general sources of these memory failures: (1)
Sources of distortion in witness memory 3
schematic and inferential processing and (2) sources of specific misinformation. We begin our
review with consideration of the effects of schematic and inferential processing processes on
memory, and then turn to additional internal and external sources of specific misinformation.
Perhaps the most central feature of organic information processors is the constructive
nature of perception and comprehension. We add to or alter what we perceive or experience to
render it comprehensible; we engage in this constructive processing at every level, ranging from
simple sensory perception (for example, see Hoffman, 1998 for a fascinating review of
constructive processes in visual perception) to processing of complex social events, oral and
written discourse and narratives, and conversations; and we engage in constructive processing in
response to stimulus features of the information being processed as well as internal and external
stimuli and events both preceding and following the target stimulus (for reviews see Davis &
Friedman, this volume; Green, Strange, & Brock, 2002; Taylor & Crocker, 1981; Wyer & Srull,
1989; Wyer, 2002; 2004). Hence, original perceptions and judgments as well as later memory
and judgments include a mixture of actual features of the original information or event and
altered, distorted, or added features resulting from schematic/inferential processing and/or
influential information external to the event. Predictable judgmental biases and distortions in
Schematic processing involves relatively automatic (unconscious or uncontrolled) effects
of the activation of specific concepts. Inferential processing, on the other hand, involves more
deliberate and deliberative controlled processing of information in order to explain or
disambiguate incoming information, or to select and plan responses to it (e.g., Graesser, Olde, &
Klettke, 2002). We begin with consideration of these processes.
Sources of distortion in witness memory 4
Schematic processing is among the most pervasive sources of predictable errors in
memory. Schemas are organized knowledge structures that include beliefs and expectations
concerning the nature, characteristics, and behaviors or functions of objects, people, events, and
other cognizable entities. Schemas selectively direct attention to relevant and useful information;
facilitate the processes of perception, recognition and understanding of incoming information;
direct integration of new information with old; lend structure and meaning to experiences and
events; guide information searches and retrieval; and provide the foundation for evaluative
processes, problem-solving, anticipation of the future, settings goals, and making and carrying
out plans. Without schematic processing, we would not know how to reduce the sea of input to
manageable chunks, how to interpret what we see, what to expect of the world around us, or how
to plan effective actions. However, although schematic processing is necessary and generally
helpful, it also results in systematic errors in perception, judgment and memory, including errors
of the three categories we consider here: selective memory/forgetting, false memories for events
that did not occur, and distortions/alterations in memory for those that did occur (for reviews see
Hastie, 1981; Kunda, 1999; Taylor & Crocker, 1981; Wyer & Srull, 1989; Wyer, 2002; 2004).
A wide variety of schemas affect processing, including (a) category schemas telling us
what the members of particular social or object categories are like; (b) person schemas involving
perceptions and expectations of particular individuals, (c) self-schemas consisting of how we
think about ourselves, (d) role schemas specifying characteristics and likely behaviors of those
occupying specific social roles, (e) event schemas (or scripts) containing expected components
and sequences for events, including crimes, (f) causal schemas containing theories of what
causes what and how (for example, linking specific motives to specific crimes; Davis & Follette,
2002; 2003), and (g) procedural schemas specifying how specific tasks are executed, among
Sources of distortion in witness memory 5
others. We even have spatial schemas involving placement and motion that produce predictable
errors of motion perception and spatial memory (e.g., Hubbard, 1996).
Of particular importance to the legal arena is narrative processing and construction,
which may be viewed as an overarching story structure involving a collage of relevant schemas
and scripts which together inform the overall narrative. Essentially narratives may be constructed
to explain complex events such as a crime, and may include a variety of sub-scripts and person,
category, and causal schemas of various kinds involving particular relevant persons and episodes
(both current and historical) within the overall narrative. Generally, we tend to think of and try to
understand complex events in terms of narratives, as illustrated, for example by the “story
model” of jury decision making (e.g., Hastie & Pennington, 1995; Pennington & Hastie, 1986;
1992). For those who construct or listen to them alike, such narratives are particularly persuasive
(e.g., Spiecker & Worthington, 2003) and influential for judgments and decisions of all sorts,
from product choice to juror verdicts. Since they involve multiple schematic influences, they
profoundly influence memory (see reviews in Green, Strange, & Brock, 2002; Hastie &
Pennington, 2000; Wyer, 2004; Wyer, Adaval, & Colcombe, 2002).
To understand when schemas are likely to affect processing and memory, we must
understand how they are activated. Schemas are sometimes activated by bottom up processes,
whereby properties of observed objects or situations themselves activate the schema (such as
when seeing a man in a police uniform activates the “police” category schema, the “getting a
traffic ticket” script, or the “why the man smoking marijuana ran” causal schema). Schemas may
also be activated by top down processes in which a schema is activated by something other than
properties of what is being observed (e.g., media accounts of the “missile theory.”). Top down
Sources of distortion in witness memory 6
activation and application, of a schema can result in any of the following ways (for reviews see
Fiske & Taylor, 1991; Hastie, 1981; Kunda, 1999; Taylor & Crocker, 1981).
First, relatively stable features of observers may result in chronic activation of particular
schemas, and in their use (whether relevant or not) for processing incoming stimuli. Schemas
important to the person’s self concept (e.g., honesty as central to the self concept of clergy) or to
categorization/evaluation functions important to professional functioning (e.g., honesty as central
to police interrogators’ evaluation of suspects) will tend to be chronically activated and widely
applied to incoming stimuli. A policeman, for example, might mistakenly interpret innocent
behavior as suspicious due to chronic activation of crime/criminal-related schemas (see
Thomassin & Alain, 1990 for illustration). Recovered memory therapists (who tend to
chronically evaluate clients in terms of sexual abuse) tend to process, interpret, and search
incoming information for abuse-relevant content (see Loftus & Ketcham, 1994; Davis, Loftus &
Follette, 2001). Similarly, the greater importance of personal appearance to women has been
offered as one explanation for the superiority of women’s memories for the appearance of others
(i.e., descriptions of clothing/ personal physical appearance vs perpetrator identifications) (see
Horgan, Mast, Hall, & Carter, 2004 for a recent review and demonstration).
Even social roles can activate category-based schematic processing. Social power appears
to encourage category-based perception of subordinates, whereas lower power positions appear
to encourage individuated processing. For example, Richeson and Ambady (2003) found that
placing whites in higher power roles relative to blacks increased racial bias; whereas Richeson
and Ambady (2001) found similar effects of roles on automatic gender biases. Power can also
affect other automatic associations, as illustrated by Bargh and his colleagues (Bargh, Raymond,
& Pryor, 1995) who found that placing males in higher power roles relative to female
Sources of distortion in witness memory 7
subordinates tends to activate sexual thoughts (presumably the result of automatic power-sex
Second, temporary influences such as acute concerns, interests, or processing goals, or
features of the context in which a stimulus is encountered can trigger specific schema activation.
Rachel Remen, for example, tells of the time in medical school when she was learning to draw
blood when she found herself scanning the veins of strangers, categorizing them in terms of the
ease with which one could draw blood (Remen, 1996, XXV). Acute concerns can also trigger
general activation of a broad set of schemata. Rejection, for example, tends to promote selective
attention to social rather than nonsocial information (e.g., Gardner, Pickett, & Brewer, 2000).
Third, schemas recently activated (or primed) in irrelevant contexts may remain active or
easily accessible, and hence affect processing of new information (see Wyer & Srull, 1989;
Wyer, 2004 for reviews)—as, for example, when a woman sitting on a jury for a child sexual
abuse trial suddenly views affectionate behavior between her child and the child’s uncle in more
suspicious terms. Finally, schemas may be activated by external influences—including
prominently statements from others-- that directly suggest a particular event category (“Look at
that fight!”), stereotype (“Hello, I’m doctor Smith.”), causal schema (“Could a missile attack
have caused this crash?” “He had a clear motive to kill him for the money.”), script (“Well, if
you did kill him, how might you have gone about it?”), person schema (“I thought he was rather
evasive and deceptive.”), or narrative (“It all began when three guys met by chance at a bar..”).
Although necessary to facilitate information processing, once activated, schemas exert a
wide range of biasing effects on perception and interpretation, ranging from what a person
believes he or she has observed to the perceived meaning or underlying causes of the event.
Although we do not exhaustively review the literature on schematic influences on processing and
Sources of distortion in witness memory 8
memory here, we illustrate these varied effects with selected legally relevant empirical
demonstrations. (For more exhaustive reviews, see Davis & Follette, 2001; Green, Strange, &
Brock, 2002; Fiske & Taylor, 1991; Hastie & Pennington, 2000; Hastie, 1981; Kunda, 1999;
Taylor & Crocker, 1981; Wyer, et al., 2002; Wyer & Srull, 1989; Wyer, 2004).
A pervasive consequence of schematic processing is selective attention to, and hence
memory for, schema-relevant over schema-irrelevant aspects of incoming information. Given the
same background file for a 30 yr old man, for example, a clinical psychologist expecting to see
the young man as a patient is likely to notice and remember information relevant to potential
psychological problems and diagnoses; whereas a potential employer is likely to notice and
remember information relevant to anticipated job (see Taylor & Crocker, 1981; Wyer, et al.,
2002; Wyer & Srull, 1989; Wyer, 2004 for reviews of empirical demonstrations).
Relevant schema-inconsistent information is sometimes remembered better than schema-
consistent information. Schema-inconsistent information may be surprising and require greater
processing to understand or explain, and hence may trigger elaborative inferential processing,
and therefore be remembered better than schema-consistent information requiring less processing
(e.g., see Bower, Black, & Turner, 1979; Grasser, Gordon, & Sawyer, 1979; Schank, 1982;
Hastie, 1980 for illustrations regarding text processing, event memory, and social information
processing). Upon hearing that their pastor was heard screaming obscenities at a local elderly
widow, parishioners could be expected to find this unexpected behavior surprising (even
shocking), and to speculate at length about possible causes. Unfortunately for the pastor, given
such extensive processing, the story would not soon be forgotten.
Sources of distortion in witness memory 9
Schema-Based Effects on Categorization
Schemas fundamentally involve the processes of categorization and understanding of
incoming stimuli. Without schematic processing, we would be unable to understand much of
what we see or hear (e.g., Bransford & Johnson, 1972). However, although this categorization
function of schemas is crucial to perception, it can also lead to predictable errors. When a
schema is activated, incoming stimuli are more likely to be categorized in terms of the activated
schema. Race and gender categories tend to be automatically activated when perceiving others
(e.g., Ito & Urland, 2003). Once racial schemas are activated, information and behaviors relevant
to such racial schemas are likely to be noticed and remembered, whereas if others such as
occupational schemas are also made salient, persons are likely be thought of in occupational
categories as well, and occupation-relevant information is more likely to be noticed and
remembered. Hence, the likelihood that a witness will remember specific information will be
strongly affected by which schemas were active when the original event occurred. Schema-
irrelevant information, which is less likely to be closely attended to during the target event, is
less likely to be encoded and available for later retrieval.
Trickle-Down Categorization and the Misperception of Weapons
“Labeling sets up an expectation of life that is often so compelling we can no longer see things
as they really are…We are in a relationship with our expectations and not with life itself.”
Rachel N. Remen, Kitchen Table Wisdom, 1996, XXV
Once categorized, one may suffer what might be called “trickle-down categorization,”
whereby other features or behaviors, and associated targets such as belongings, are categorized
or interpreted in a manner consistent with the activated person category. In the broadest sense,
this occurs when persons are assigned to undesirable social categories, thereby activating a
Sources of distortion in witness memory 10
generally negative bias in categorization and interpretation of other traits and behaviors. Even
unrelated stimuli are affected by the activation of social stereotypes. For example, white subjects
were able to categorize good words faster (in a lexical decision task) when primed subliminally
with the word “white” and negative words faster when primed with the word “black” (e.g.,
Wittenbrink, Judd, & Park, 1997), and this was true particularly for words stereotypically
associated with the racial category. Similarly, white subjects asked to determine whether words
were “good” or “bad” categorized favorable words as “good” faster when primed subliminally
with a white face, but categorized unfavorable words as “bad” faster if primed with a black face;
whereas the reverse was true for black subjects (Fazio, Jackson, Dunton, & Williams, 1995).
Even black clothing biased perception of offenders and suspects who wore them toward greater
aggressiveness and threatening intentions than those who wore light clothes, presumably because
of the stereotypical association of the color black with evil, aggression and bad characteristics or
objects (e.g., Vrij, 1997; see also Frank & Gilovich, 1988 for a similar demonstration of effects
of uniform color on perceptions of football players’ actions).
Generally, priming a particular stereotype can affect activation in three ways. First, the
valence of a primed social category tends to facilitate perception of equivalently valenced
categorizations and evaluations of associated stimuli (including those strictly temporally
associated, as in the Fazio et al., study). That is, persons primed with negative stimuli or words
are quicker to recognize and categorize other negative stimuli.
Second, the prime may facilitate perception of all prime-relevant stimuli, irrespective of
valence, such as when priming a black face would facilitate recognition of both weapons and
athletic equipment (e.g., Judd, Blair, & Chapleau, 2004; Kawakami, Dion, & Dovidio, 1998).
Finally, the prime may facilitate perception of stimuli that are both stereotypic of the primed
Sources of distortion in witness memory 11
category and of the same valence (e.g., Wittenbrink et al., 1997), such as when priming a black
face facilitates recognition only of bad things associated with blacks (but not good things
associated with blacks or bad things associated with whites). These processes may be responsible
for the variety of situations in which police judge and respond to the behaviors of black citizens
with greater suspicion and more negative reactions (e.g., Winkel, 1999).
Several notorious research examples of this phenomenon were inspired by the 1999 case
of Amidou Diallo, a black man killed by four New York City police officers who misperceived
the wallet in Diallo’s hand as a gun. Shortly after this incident, researchers began to investigate
whether these misperceptions could have resulted from racial stereotypes associating violence
with blacks. Years earlier, Allport (1947) had shown that as participants transmitted descriptions
of a scene depicting a white man holding a razor arguing with an unarmed black man, at some
point in the series of retellings the black man was depicted as holding the razor instead for more
than half of the groups of storytellers. To show that stereotypical associations of violence with
Blacks can have more immediate effects on reactions, Payne (2001) asked participants to rapidly
categorize objects as either weapons or tools after a brief prime with a picture of a white or black
face. Those primed with a black face were quicker to categorize weapons than those primed with
a white face and, when required to respond very quickly, were more prone to mistake tools for
weapons, whereas the reverse was true of those primed with a white face. Further, these biases
tend to work in reverse as well, in that activation of abstract concepts such as “crime” or
“basketball” tends to induce attentional biases toward Black male faces (Eberhardt et al., 2004).
Recent studies have used computer game simulations that require participants to shoot
only targets holding weapons. Respondents were more likely to “shoot” at black than at white
targets holding harmless objects (see Correll, Park, Judd, & Wittenbrink, 2002; Eberhardt, Goff,
Sources of distortion in witness memory 12
Purdie, & Davies, 2004; Judd, Blair, & Chapleau, 2004; Payne, Lambert, & Jacoby, 2002; Plant,
Peruche, & Butz, 2005). Even police officers show this bias (Plant & Peruche, 2005).
Greenwald, Oakes and Hoffman (2003) recently provided evidence that these errors can result
both from increased perceptual difficulty in distinguishing between weapons and harmless
objects when held by Blacks, and a response bias toward treating objects held by Blacks as guns.
Although these studies did not address biases in memory for weapons (as opposed to
errors of perception) and the various additional schemata that might facilitate mistaken memory
or perception for weapons (such as those for criminals, hunters, police, adversarial encounters,
gangs, etc.), these issues offer both important and fertile ground for future exploration. The first
author was recently retained for a case involving contested possession of a weapon by a man in a
domestic dispute. Could knowledge of characteristics of the defendant, the history and nature of
the relationship with the woman, stereotypes involving social class or those involved in domestic
disputes, or other features of the event in question trigger schema-based expectations that would
bias perception or memory toward inclusion of a weapon in the defendant’s hand? The “weapons
false alarm” research clearly suggests that they could.
Schematic Effects on Interpretation
In addition to affecting perception and categorization, schemas bias the search and
interpretation of incoming information—and hence later memory for it---toward consistency
with activated applicable schemas. Broadly, such biases are reflected in heavily documented
tendencies to interpret school work, essays, art, daily routines or behaviors and other personal
products or behaviors in more favorable terms when described as coming from relatively favored
social groups (e.g., men, capitalists, whites, intelligent persons or smart vs. dumb rats) than when
described as coming from stigmatized groups such as women, communists, minorities, or the less
Sources of distortion in witness memory 13
intelligent (see review by Kunda, 1999). Such confirmation biases have also been investigated in
studies of clinical diagnosis and judgment (e.g., Rosenhan, 1973). When diagnostic categories
are made salient—through labeling of a patient, or even simply by asking the question of
whether or not the person may suffer a specific disorder—the clinician tends to confirm the
diagnosis. Given the same file, for example, clinicians asked to determine whether the person
suffers from bipolar disorder will tend to diagnose the person as bipolar at a greater rate than if
asked to determine whether the person might be histrionic (see reviews by Maddux, 1993; Turk
& Salovey, 1988; Salovey & Turk, 1991). In part, such confirmatory diagnoses result from
biased interpretation of incoming information. However, research on hypothesis testing has
shown that information searches are biased by schematic influences, such that hypothesis testers
tend to seek information that would confirm the hypothesis, but fail to seek disconfirming (and
more informative) information (e.g., Wason, 1960). Interviewers, for example, select questions
that would tend to elicit answers confirming rather than disconfirming the hypothesis (e.g.,
Copeland & Snyder, 1995; Snyder & Thomsen, 1988). Such diagnosis driven interviewing
choices and interpretations of client symptoms and information have been widely criticized,
particularly by critics of “recovered memory therapy” (e.g., Loftus, 1993; Loftus & Ketcham,
1994; McNally, 2003; Ofshe & Watters, 1994; Piper, Pope & Borowiecki, 2000; Pope, Oliva &
A few studies have addressed schema-based distortions in perception and memory for
physical appearance. Perception of facial features or expressions, for example, can be biased by
schema-driven interpretative processes (see Carroll & Russell, 1996). Students told that a man
was a Gestapo leader responsible for barbaric medical experiments on concentration camp
victims were more likely to judge his facial expression as cruel, whereas those told he was a
Sources of distortion in witness memory 14
leader of the WW II anti-Nazi underground were more likely to judge it as warm and kind
(Rothbart & Birrell, 1977). Of particular importance for eyewitness identification processes,
memory for faces spontaneously categorized or labeled as belonging to particular racial/ethnic
groups tends to shift over time toward typicality for that category (Corneille, Huart, Becquart, &
Bredart, 2004; see also Eberhardt, Dasgupta, & Banaszynski, 2003), and faces labeled as angry
or sad are later remembered as physically appearing more extremely angry or sad (e.g.,
Halberstadt, 2003). Temporary personal goals can also bias facial perception. Self-protection
goals, for example, led white participants to perceive greater anger in Black and Arab faces
(outgroups associated with threat); whereas mate-search goals led male participants to perceive
more sexual arousal in attractive targets (Maner, Kenrick, Becker, Robertson et al., 2005).
Script-based expectations can also bias interpretation of facial expressions. This was first
demonstrated by Russian film director Kulechov (and hence dubbed the “Kulechov effect”).
Kulechov created three short films that first showed either a dead woman, a dish of soup, or a
girl playing, and then presented the face of an actor with a neutral expression. Viewers judged
the identical expression as relatively sad, thoughtful, or happy depending upon when version of
the film they saw. Similar effects have since been documented in more systematic research. For
example, students told a person in a photo was being threatened by a vicious dog tended to view
his expression as fearful, whereas those told he had just won money tended to see the expression
as one of happiness (Trope, 1986). Causal schemas can also distort memory for facial
expressions. People asked to explain why ambiguous faces are expressing anger perceived and
remembered those faces as angrier than those asked to explain why they were expressing
sadness, and these distortions were greater than those produced by simple application of the
emotion label to the faces (Halberstadt, 2003; 2005; Haberstadt & Niedenthal, 2001).
Sources of distortion in witness memory 15
Finally, Davis and colleagues (Davis, Vanous & Cucciare, 2005) have recently shown
that motion schemas involving expectations of continuity in motion can contribute to failures to
perceive differences between separate actors (i.e., “change blindness;” Simmons & Levin, 1998).
The authors demonstrated that participants were more likely to confuse two actors when they
appeared in a sequence that promoted the illusion of continuity in motion, than to confuse two
who appeared in a sequence involving equal temporal separation, but that did not promote the
illusion of continuity. Further, the actor who appeared in an apparently continuous sequence with
a thief stealing a bottle of wine was later misidentified as the thief at a greater rate than the actor
who appeared in the apparently discontinuous sequence involving the thief.
Constructive Processes and Distortion
Schemas not only bias veridical memory toward schema-relevant features, they also form
the basis of constructive errors in memory whereby one “remembers” additional schema-
consistent information that was not part of the witnessed event. In its simplest form, such
constructive processes have been demonstrated in what is known as the DRM paradigm (e.g.,
Roediger, 1996; Roediger & McDermott, 1995; Roediger & McDermott, 2000). Participants in
the DRM research are asked to study lists of semantically related words (such as dream, tired,
bed, snore) and then to try to recall or recognize the words they have heard. A central finding is
that participants are prone to falsely remember nonpresented but schema-associated words
(sleep). Ironically, these effects can be stronger when participants attempt to suppress memory
for stereotypical information (Aray, Ekehammar & Akrami, 2003).
Similar effects have been found for social stimuli such as descriptions or observations of
people and social events. In a typical experiment, participants study a description of a person (or
watch an event involving a person or people). A script or schema may be activated either bottom
Sources of distortion in witness memory 16
up (because the information suggests a particular social or event category) or top down (by
labeling the participants or event with a particular category). Later, participants’ memories for
the original information or event are tested. Participants tend to falsely recall or recognize
schema-consistent, but unpresented, information (see reviews by Graesser & Nakamura, 1982;
Taylor & Crocker, 1981; Kunda, 1999; Wyer & Srull, 1989). They infer characteristics, events or
behaviors based upon information they are exposed to, and later falsely recall that these
constructions were actually part of the original event or information. Further, the likelihood that
any given specific schema or script-based information will intrude into memory is greater the
more strongly it is associated with a particular schema or script (e.g., Graesser & Nakamura,
1982). Although such processes have been demonstrated across a wide range of stimuli and
schemas, two illustrations are particularly relevant to witness event memory.
Several studies have investigated the effects of crime-related schemas or scripts on
memory. Witnesses to crimes tend to accurately remember script-relevant actions (whether
consistent or inconsistent) more than script-irrelevant actions; but they also falsely remember
crime-script consistent but unwitnessed actions--particularly those more central to the script--and
such intrusions are more likely when questioned at longer retention intervals, or when the
original event was shorter or more ambiguous (Garcia-Bajos & Migueles, 2003; Greenberg,
Westcott, & Bailey, 1998; List, 1986; Tuckey & Brewer, 2003; in press; see also Brewer &
Treyens, 1981; Lampinen, Copeland, & Neuschatz, 2001; Neuschatz, Lampinen, Preston,
Hawkins & Toglia, 2002; Pezdek, Whetstone, Reynolds, Askari, & Cougherty, 1989 for similar
results regarding script-based memory errors for teacher behaviors and schema-based memory
intrusions for objects). Interestingly, one such intrusion involved the misreport of a bag as a gun
(Tuckey & Brewer, 2003). Hence, like the previously discussed race-based expectations of
Sources of distortion in witness memory 17
violence, the script-based expectation that a robber would have a gun led subjects to misperceive
or misremember the bag. Such crime script based expectations seem to pervasively influence the
trial process, as they have been shown to also bias jurors’ memory for witness testimony (Holst
& Pezdek, 1992; Smith & Studebaker, 1996) and verdicts (Smith, 1991).
Hannigan and Reinitz (2001) investigated the impact of causal schemas on memory
intrusions. Participants viewed a scene involving a potential cause without an effect (a person
removing an orange from the bottom of a stack) or an effect without a cause (a spilled stack of
oranges). Those who saw the spilled stack of oranges later tended to falsely remember seeing the
cause (i.e., someone removing an orange from the bottom of the stack). Hence, it appears that
script-based intrusions will include typical actions or component events, including those
expected to play a causal role in the overall event.
Schematic processes may also be responsible for source memory errors. Statements we
believe, for example, tend to be misremembered as coming from a more credible source,
presumably as a result of expectations that believable information comes from credible sources
(e.g., see review in Fragale & Heath, 2004). These authors provided a particularly disturbing
demonstration of this principle involving source attributions for incriminating evidence. That is,
participants led to believe a suspect was guilty tended to misremember incriminating evidence as
coming from a higher credibility source than those led to believe he was not guilty.
Several studies have shown that we are prone to misremember who said what in
predictable schema-driven ways. When asked to remember which of several speakers contributed
a particular statement to a discussion, for example, participants are more likely to misattribute
the statements of one member of a social category to another person from the same category (i.e.,
those of the same gender, race, age, attractiveness, hometown, clothing color, educational status,
Sources of distortion in witness memory 18
etc.) than to someone from a different category-- perhaps because they seem more similar, and
source confusions between similar sources are more likely than between dissimilar sources
category (see reviews in Davis & Friedman, this volume; Davis, Kemmelmeir & Follette, 2005;
Klauer & Wegener, 1998). For this reason, objects and episodes from one action sequence are
more likely to be misattributed to an episode of the same general class (e.g., Restaurant Episode
A to Restaurant Episode B), than to one of a different class (e.g., Hannigan & Reinitz, 2003).
Moreover, schematic source errors can derive from trait schemata. For example, trait-
related statements, such as “I work out almost every day” tend to be disproportionately
misattributed to a person fitting that trait (e.g., an athlete) when they were actually made by a
different speaker (Mather, Johnson and De Leonardis,1999; see also Sherman & Bessenoff,
1999; and Bayen, Nakamura, Dupuis, & Yang, 2000 for demonstrations of schema driven source
monitoring errors associating objects with rooms). Such schematic effects also appear to be
stronger among those with poorer overall memory (Spaniol & Bayen, 2002), older persons (see
Davis & Loftus, 2005 for review) and those with stronger stereotyped associations (as measured
by the Implicit Attitudes Test, Greenwald, McGhee & Schwartz, 1998; Gawronski et al., 2003).
Although source errors may sometimes be benign, they are raised and disputed surprisingly often
in legal contexts. Which of a group of persons uttered a threat may be crucial, for example, and
the target of an utterance can be equally important (such as who the threat addressed; see Davis
& Friedman, this volume; Davis, Kemmelmeier & Follette, 2005 for illustrations and research).
Information acquired after exposure to target events can also activate schema-based
reconstructive memory processes that bias memory in favor of information consistent with the
newly activated schema—processes apparently central to the reports of witnesses to the TWA
Sources of distortion in witness memory 19
incident. Post-event schema activation can occur through several processes.
Post-event information from external sources may activate a particular schema. For
example, in a seminal study of such reconstructive processes, Snyder and Uranowitz (1979) had
participants read about “Betty K,” and after a delay told them that Betty was either heterosexual
or gay. In a later memory test, participants reported memories of the original description of Betty
that were consistent with the newly acquired category labels of “gay” versus “heterosexual.”
They were more likely to correctly remember previously presented schema consistent
information, but also incorrectly reported non-presented schema consistent information.
A classic study by Cohen (1981) demonstrated that category schemas exerted essentially
equivalent effects on memory, whether activated at the time an event was witnessed or later.
Participants witnessed a video of a woman interacting with her husband. They were told either
before or after witnessing the event that the woman was a waitress or a librarian. Those told she
was a waitress tended to remember her appearance and behavior as more consistent with their
stereotypes of waitresses (e.g., blond hair, drinks beer, affectionate with her husband, listens to
rock and roll, etc), whereas those told she was a librarian tended to remember librarian consistent
behaviors and attributes (such as brown hair, drinks wine, listens to classical music, etc.). (See
Davis & Follette, 2001; Hirt, McDonald, & Markman, 1998; Schacter, 1996 for reviews of the
tendency to reconstruct memories of past events toward consistency with current expectations.)
Present Knowledge and Reconstructive Hindsight Biases
“Life is lived forwards, but understood backwards.”
Knowledge of current events, emotions or outcomes is well-known to bias memory and
Sources of distortion in witness memory 20
judgments of processes leading up to them. Victims of the hindsight bias (Fishhoff, 1975) have
been shown not only to overestimate, in hindsight, how likely a particular outcome was to occur,
but also to overestimate what others could have, or should have, anticipated in foresight, thus
giving them undue credit or blame for the outcome. Moreover, unaware of their own hindsight
biases, they cannot accurately remember their own behavior or judgments before the outcome
was known, recalling instead that they were wiser (“I knew it would happen this way.”), and
more confident (“I was sure of it!”), and that they had behaved consistently with this knowledge
(“I told you so!”) before the event than was actually the case (see reviews by Christensen-
Szalanski & Willham, 1991; Davis & Follette, 2001; Hawkins & Hastie, 1990; Hoffridge &
Baruch Fischhoff (1975) described this tendency to view past events as inevitable
consequences of their predecessors “creeping determinism.” In effect, outcome knowledge tends
to activate causal schemas for how such outcomes are produced, which in turn engage schema
driven searches and reviews of past information and reconstructive memory processes that
reorganize memory. These processes bias memory toward retrieval of information consistent
with the now activated causal schema, and promote schema-consistent memory distortions and
judgments of past events (see recent theoretical analyses of hindsight effects by Erdfelder &
Buchner, 1998; Roese & Olson, 1996; Winman, Juslin, & Bjoerkman, 1998).
A number of studies have examined implications of the hindsight bias in the legal system.
Judgments in hindsight can be inappropriately harsh because people blame themselves or others
for incorrect decisions, even though in foresight they were appropriate in light of available
information. This has been shown with respect to medical and psychotherapeutic judgments and
decisions, financial advisement, behaviors prior to rape, and judgments of probable cause,
Sources of distortion in witness memory 21
suggesting that both decisions to file suit as well as jury verdicts can be influenced by hindsight
(Carli, 1999; Goggin & Range, 1985; see reviews in Christensen-Szalanski & Willham, 1991;
Davis, 1991; Hawkins & Hastie, 1990; Hoffridge & Pohl, 2003). Moreover, the production of
evidence, rather than reactions to it can be influenced by hindsightful witnesses, as illustrated by
Ulric Neisser’s (1981) classic study of hindsight biases in John Dean’s testimony before the
Watergate Hearings. John Dean testified to having warned the president that the cover-up would
eventually be discovered and lead to Nixon’s loss of the presidency, whereas no such warnings
actually took place (see Davis & Friedman, this volume for discussion of studies assessing biases
in John Dean’s memory, including hindsight and other schematic processing effects).
Davis and colleagues (Davis, Lopez, Koyama, et al., 2005) recently found hindsight
biases in memory for a conversation between a couple arguing over an interaction between the
girl and a male classmate. Her boyfriend exhibited extreme jealousy and suspicion of her
relationship with the classmate. Later half of the participants learned that the couple had broken
up, whereas the other half were told the female was found dead, and her boyfriend was charged
with murder. Those who learned he was charged with murder were both more likely to
accurately remember threatening statements he made to his girlfriend during the argument, and
more likely to falsely remember that he had hit his girlfriend during the vignette, and that he had
also threatened her classmate.
Hindsight and other retrospective biases are likely to exert pervasive influences on crucial
witness reports, distorting memories of the past (including one’s own) toward consistency with
present knowledge (e.g., Dawes, 1991; Rubin, 1996; Ross, 2000; Schacter, 1996). Countless
reports concern events, objects, or people witnessed well before the litigated event occurred, and
often even longer before the witness is questioned about it. When asked about these issues after
Sources of distortion in witness memory 22
learning of the target event, retrospective or hindsight biases likely come into play. A witness
who observed a vigorous conversation between a couple may remember it as “a fight” in light of
new knowledge that the wife has been found murdered. Past behaviors of an employer newly
accused of sexual harassment may be suddenly be remembered as more sexually suggestive or
coercive than before the accusation. Even memories of our own attitudes, emotions, or behaviors
are colored by hindsight (“I always felt creepy when he was around;” see Dawes, 1991; Keuler
& Safer, 1998; Levine, 1997; Ross, 2000; Safer, Levine, & Drapalski, 2002). Such processes
may well have contributed to witness reports of inappropriate interactions with children in the
case of superstar Michael Jackson. The memories of witnesses who learned of the allegations of
sexual abuse well after they witnessed Jackson’s interactions with the children could well have
been distorted by current knowledge of the accusations.
Hindsight biases may also contribute to the development of false “recovered memories”
of sexual abuse, in that once the person has developed a self-schema as an abuse survivor past
events may be selectively searched and reinterpreted to fit the new self-identity (see Loftus &
Ketcham, 1994; McNally, 2003; Loftus & Davis, in press). Indeed, researchers interested in
autobiographical recollections, life stories, and narrative approaches to understanding experience
have highlighted the way personal “identity” consists of evolving narrative constructions of the
self that continually restructure the past to fit current conceptions of the self (see Fivush &
Haden, 2003; Greenwald, 1980; McAdams, 2001; Ross, 2000; Rubin, 1996; Wilson & Ross,
2003 for reviews) or levels of self-esteem (e.g., Christensen, Wood, & Barrett, 2003; Tagarodi,
Marshall, & Milne, 2003). In countless ways, old events, emotions and behaviors take on new
characteristics and meanings as new knowledge provides revised context for their interpretation.
Sources of Specific Misinformation
Sources of distortion in witness memory 23
In addition to schema-based intrusions, misinformation may creep into memory from a
variety of external and internal sources of specific incorrect information. Specific misinformation
may be mistakenly incorporated unchanged into memory, thereby simply adding false
information to (for example, inserting the memory of a car), or replacing (substituting memory of
a truck for that of a car) veridical memory. However, it may also distort memory (for example,
changing the color or location of the car), and activate schematic processing which causes far-
reaching related inferential processing and associated distortions in memory. In this section, we
consider sources of specific misinformation, provide examples of misinformation effects on
event memory, and discuss proposed mechanisms via which misinformation affects memory.
External Sources of Misinformation
Media coverage of criminal and civil litigation is perhaps among the most common
sources of misinformation in witness memory. Sometimes within hours of a target crime, the
incident, and perhaps various witness reports and other evidence, are reported in television news
accounts—reports that are soon followed by others in printed media. And these reports are
typically repeated and elaborated upon in subsequent reports as the case unfolds or nears trial.
Research has established the biasing effects of such reports and pre-trial publicity among the
community and prospective jurors, and motions for change of venue for the trial are commonly
filed and granted on the basis of demonstrations of wide-spread case relevant knowledge and
biased opinions among the population of jurisdictions saturated with such publicity (e.g., Abbot
& Batt, 1999; Davis & Follette, 2004). There is experimental as well as anecdotal evidence that
media reports can also distort witness memory. For example, Loftus and Banaji, (1989) directly
tested the impact of case-related publicity on witness memory. The authors presented subjects
Sources of distortion in witness memory 24
with a 4 minute videotape of a robbery and shooting incident. It depicted two police officers on
rounds at night who hear shots and confront two robbers. One officer and one robber were
injured in the confrontation. Later, subjects were exposed to a television report of the incident,
which they viewed under the premise that they were to decide whether the reporter was
sufficiently talented to obtain a job in a major national news operation. The TV reporter inserted
misinformation into the account shown to “misled” subjects but not into the version shown to
“control” subjects. For example, in the misled version she suggested that there were three
robbers rather than two, or that the victim liquor store was named “Midtown Liquor” rather than
“Pete’s Liquor.” When tested later, control subjects almost never gave the suggested answer
(1%), but misled subjects frequently did (28%).
Loftus and Castelle (2000) offered a systematic analysis of the influence of media reports
on witness memories of the widely publicized crash of TWA Flight 800. Within days of the
crash, the media began to present and discuss the theory that the plane had been downed by a
missile attack—including graphic illustrations of how the shooting could have occurred and of
witness accounts that could be interpreted as support for such a theory. The authors’ account of
the investigation of the case illustrated how the testimony of the primary witnesses was altered
over time as publicity of the missile theory escalated, and how ultimately 183 other witnesses
came forward with testimony supporting the theory.
A more controlled study was conducted by Hans Crombag and his colleagues (Crombag,
Wagenaar, & Van Koppen, 1996), who studied Dutch residents’ memories of the crash of an El
Al Boeing 747 into an eleven-story Amsterdam apartment building. Media coverage never
included the crash itself, but began within the first hour after the crash and included films of the
ensuing fire and rescue operations. In two surveys, ten months after the crash, the authors found
Sources of distortion in witness memory 25
that 55% and 66% of respondents reported having actually seen the crash on TV, and of those
many gave vividly detailed descriptions of the crash they could not have actually seen. The
authors attributed these false memories to the effects of imagination. That is, based on
widespread media descriptions of the crash participants would tend to visualize the crash, and
hence later falsely attribute the source of these images to TV videos of the crash rather than their
Memory Conformity: Effects of Co-Witnesses
The first author served as a memory expert for the case of Mr. Stroud, who was accused
of robbing a Portland bank. Evidence included a police tape in which an employee of the bank
reported the robbery. Having been asked to provide a description of the assailant, the employee
responded “Wait a minute, we’re getting a consensus on that.” What effect might such
consensus-seeking discussions or other influences between witnesses have on memory accuracy?
If witnesses seek consensus, disagreements must necessarily be resolved through
alteration of conflicting accounts toward consistency. However, even in the absence of such
absolute consensus seeking, witness accounts are influenced by those of others (for example, see
accounts in Memon & Wright, 1999; Schachter, 2001 of influence between the three witnesses
who reported that Timothy McVeigh (the Oklahoma city bomber) was accompanied by another
man when he rented the truck used in the bombing). There is direct evidence from the eyewitness
literature demonstrating that co-witnesses can influence both the accuracy of one another’s
testimony as well as their confidence in those accounts. For example, Loftus & Greene (1980)
found that participant-witnesses incorporated misleading details from other witnesses’ written
descriptions into their own descriptions of target faces. More recently, memory conformity has
been demonstrated for diverse stimuli such as cars (Wright, Self, & Justice, 2000), details of
Sources of distortion in witness memory 26
written stories (Betz, Skowronski, & Ostrom, 1996), objects from various scenes (Meade &
Roediger, 2003; Roediger, Meade, & Bergman, 2001), time estimation (Conway III, 2004), and
reports of witnessed criminal events (Gabbert, Memon & Allan, 2003).
Perhaps the clearest demonstration of these effects can be seen in a series of three studies
by Shaw, Garven & Wood (1997). In the first study, student witnesses were questioned in ways
that were intended to be analogous to the experience of a witness who receives misinformation
from an interviewer or questioner about what other witnesses have already said. A second and
third study simulated the situation where witnesses received the information directly from co-
witnesses. In all three studies, witness reports were significantly affected by information about
the reports of other witnesses, whether they received the information directly from the co-
witnesses or indirectly from the interviewer. The most errors, however, were committed by
witnesses who received incorrect information both directly from other witnesses and indirectly
via the misleading questions of the interviewers. Similar results were obtained in a study of the
induction of false memory reports by children of wrongdoing by a classroom visitor. False
reports were most likely in children exposed to both reinforcement of such claims by the
experimenter and cowitness information from other children (Garven, Wood, & Malpass, 2000).
Consistent with the general literature on opinion and behavioral conformity, memory
conformity appears to be greatest among those with less clear recollections of the original
stimulus and among those exposed to more sources of bogus information (larger groups); and
less when there are dissenters who break the unanimity of the bogus group reports or when the
credibility of the other person is suspect (Hoffman, Granhag, See, & Loftus, 2001; Walther,
Bless, Strack, Rackstraw, Wagner, & Werth, 2002). Participants in the Walther et al. study were
also less affected by bogus group judgments for stimuli that were sufficiently unusual as to cause
Sources of distortion in witness memory 27
them to believe they would have remembered them if they had seen them before, and under
conditions where a clear lack of memory would reasonably be a valid indication that the event
did not occur. In other words, participants appeared to use “metacognitive knowledge,” that is,
situational cues (such as original conditions of encoding), along with characteristics of the bogus
group claims (such as whether it was plausible that the participant could forget the particular
style of stimulus the group claims to have seen), group size and degree of agreement among
group members to determine whether their own memories or the claims of the group members
would be most likely accurate. These effects occurred both for correct and incorrect claims.
The witness memory-conformity studies suggest that discussions between co-witnesses
have great potential to influence the testimony of all witnesses, with far reaching consequences.
First, co-witnesses can shape one another’s initial reports. When interviews by police or other
investigators suggest information similar to that being conveyed by other witnesses, a target
witness will be particularly likely to adopt the suggested account. Further, a witness’s first
statements have been shown to shape reports during subsequent interviews or court appearances.
In other words, once a witness has told his or her version of what happened, that witness is likely
to stick with that account in the future. This phenomenon is sometimes referred to as the
“freezing effect” (see Loftus, 1979). As time goes by, it becomes increasingly difficult for a
witness to change or back down from an initial statement or identification.
The first statements of even a single witness may also influence the subsequent
investigation of a case, just as helicopter pilot Meyer’s initial report of the TWA explosion
triggered the “missile theory” of the crash and thousands of hours of investigation of that theory,
and influenced countless reports of witnesses who heard Meyer’s account on TV before their
own interviews. Similarly, based upon one witness’s initial account of a criminal incident, police
Sources of distortion in witness memory 28
may construct lineups, choose particular mug shots, interview specific witnesses, formulate
detailed theories about the commission of the crime, and even make an arrest. Hence, even minor
errors, misstatements, or omissions in one witness’s initial memory report can have far reaching
effects on the investigation of the case, whether civil or criminal.
Inflation of Witness Confidence Through Collaboration/Corroboration. Discussions with
other witnesses may not only contaminate memory, but also inflate confidence in information
“confirmed” by others. Luus and Wells (1994), for example, showed that witness confidence in
perpetrator identifications was affected by confirming or disconfirming identifications by other
witnesses. They staged a theft in front of 70 pairs of witnesses. Witnesses who were told their
co-witness had made the same identification showed an increase in confidence in their
identifications, as expressed to an ostensible police officer. Those who thought their co-witness
disagreed showed deflation of confidence (see Semmler, Brewer, & Wells, 2004; Wells &
Bradfield, 1998 and Wells, Olson, & Charman, 2003 for similar demonstrations of the effects of
police feedback on witness confidence; and Hafstad, Memon & Logie, 2004; Meudell, Hitch, &
Kirby, 1992; Stephenson & Wagner, 1989 for other demonstrations showing that collaboration
inflates confidence in eyewitness identification; and Stephenson, Bandstatter, & Wagner, 1983
for effects of collaboration on validity and inflation of confidence in story recall; however, also
see Allwood, Granhag & Johansson, 2003 for conditions under which collaboration may increase
the correspondence of witness confidence and witness accuracy.).
Since witness confidence is perceived by jurors as an important indicator of accuracy, it
is not surprising that feedback-inflated confidence can in turn affect the credibility of the
witness’s later testimony. Luus and Wells showed tapes of the 70 witnesses to other mock jurors
who judged the credibility of their testimony. Witnesses who had experienced confirming
Sources of distortion in witness memory 29
feedback from their co-witnesses were judged as more credible by the mock jurors than those
who had experienced disconfirming feedback, or who had not been given any feedback. In other
words, witness confidence was affected by information about the opinions of other witnesses,
and the witnesses’ confidence, in turn, affected mock juror judgments of their credibility.
Finally, it is important to point out that social influence between witnesses may occur due
both to influence of the information conveyed between them and to the potential for motivational
distortions in memory created by any desire they may have to avoid rejection, or to help or
support other fact witnesses, investigators, or parties to the case (see Asch, 1955; see also
Reysen, 2005 for evidence that memory conformity results from both processes). To the extent
this motivation exists, it would tend to both distort the witness’s own memories in the direction
consistent with the interests of the other person, and to render the witness more susceptible to the
influence of any source who might be reporting the events in line with the other’s interests.
Expert testimony on issues of witness contamination can be valuable, as jurors will not
understand the potential for witness collaboration to influence both memory and confidence.
Rather they instead assume that confidence strongly reflects accuracy (see Davis & Follette,
2001 for review, as well as Shaw, McClure & Dykstra this Volume and Leippe & Eisenstadt,
Volume 2 this Handbook).
Forensic and Clinical Interviews and Procedures
Among the most prolifically investigated issues in eyewitness psychology is the manner
in which forensic interviewing procedures can lead to fabrication or distortion. This line of
research began in the 1970’s with the early studies of Loftus and her colleagues of the effects of
question wording (see Loftus 1979 for a summary). Participants were shown videos and other
event depictions and later interviewed about their memories of the events. In some studies, for
Sources of distortion in witness memory 30
some participants the interviewers questions more strongly implied particular information than
for others (e.g., “Did you see “the” (vs. “a”) broken headlight.”). The more strongly the
interviewer’s questions implied a particular answer, the more likely participants were to report
memories consistent with the expectation. In other studies, wording was shown to affect
estimates such as speed (e.g., “How fast was the car going when it “hit” (vs. “bumped into” or
“smashed”) into the other car, such that wording implying more forceful impact led to greater
estimates of speed, as well as greater numbers of false reports of having seen broken glass.
Although not conducted in the context of witness memory studies, studies among linguists and
social psychologists have shown that both memory and inferences are affected by such additional
features of questions as whether the target (e.g., an alleged rape victim) is described as the
subject (“Did you dance with the defendant?”) versus the object of the sentence (“Did the
defendant dance with you?”); or whether the question inquires about action verbs (“Did you talk
to the defendant?”), versus state verbs (“Did you like the defendant?). Respondents providing
answers to questions involving actions (as opposed to states) of the target, and those depicting
the target as the subjects (rather than objects) of the sentence, tend to attribute more causality to
the target for the event in question (e.g., “I talked to the defendant because I…” versus “I talked
to the defendant because he…”), and that these differences are associated with a variety of other
inferences which affect memory, judgments regarding the event, as well as future predictions
involving the parties and recurrent or similar events. Further, judgments by those who listen to
the responses are reliably affected by the wording of the questions (see Semin & De Poot, 1997).
Loftus and her colleagues subsequently demonstrated that false information suggested
during interviews can lead to the development of false memories for objects or events that were
not included in the originally witnessed events—a phenomenon dubbed the “misinformation
Sources of distortion in witness memory 31
effect.” In these studies, participants were again shown depictions of scenes or events. However,
the experiments then proceeded in two phases. In the first phase, witnesses were interviewed
about what they had just witnessed. However, some were given “misinformation” during the
interview. In some studies, they received false information about something that had been seen
(e.g., that they had seen a stop sign when they had actually seen a yield sign), whereas in others
the false information suggested events or objects not actually witnessed at all (such as broken
glass, barns or wounded animals). Participants were later interviewed again, after varying lengths
In some early studies, Loftus showed that (mis)leading questions can cause witnesses to
falsely remember seeing a yield rather than a stop sign, a conspicuous barn in a bucolic scene
actually containing no buildings, broken glass, tape recorders or wounded animals that were not
present, incorrect colors of objects, curly rather than straight hair, and Minnie Mouse when they
actually saw Mickey. Thus, these studies showed that (mis)leading questions can lead people to
both add things to their memories, and alter memories of things they did see (Loftus, 2003;
Loftus & Greene, 1980; Loftus & Palmer, 1974; Loftus, 1975; 1977; 1979). Unfortunately,
interviewees confronted with interviewers’ misinformation are most likely to ignore it rather than
to comment on or correct it (Hunt & Borgida, 2001), perhaps enhancing their vulnerability to
later incorporating it into memory. Further, a number of studies exposed participants to written
or oral narratives after they had witnessed the original events. Like the biased questioning
procedures, these post-event accounts led participants to alter or add to their memories of the
original event (e.g., Eakin, Schreiber, & Sergent-Marshall, 2003).
Susceptibility to misinformation effects is generally related to the ability to detect
discrepancies between event information and post-event misinformation (the “Principle of
Sources of distortion in witness memory 32
Discrepancy Detection;” Tousignant, Hall, & Loftus, 1986; see review in Gerrie, Garry, &
Loftus, 2005). Hence, factors associated with the ability to detect discrepancy (such as
characteristics of the witness or event, or of the similarity between the event and misinformation)
or with the tendency to look for or notice discrepancies (such as the credibility of the source or
the plausibility of the misinformation) predict the magnitude of the effect.
Misinformation effects tend to be stronger for some people (see Eisen, Winograd, & Qin,
2002; Gudjonsson, 2003 for reviews of individual differences in general suggestibility).
Misleading information creates more distortion among children than adults (e.g., Ceci, Ross &
Toglia, 1987) and among elderly versus younger adults (see Davis & Loftus, 2005; Mueller-
Johnson & Ceci, 2004; Polczyk, Wesolowska, Gabarczyk, Minakowska, Supska, & Bomba,
2004 for reviews). Age differences may reflect the importance of cognitive resources, as
misinformation effects are stronger when encountering or retrieving information under
conditions of stress, limited attentional resources or heavy cognitive load (Klein & Boals, 2001;
Zaragoza & Lane, 1998), and among persons with chronically low cognitive resources, such as
those with lower working memory capacity (Jaschinski & Wentura, 2002), poorer overall recall
for the original information (Liebman et al, 2002; Tomes & Katz, 1997) lower IQ (see
Gudjonnson, 2003), or poorer neuropsychological functioning (Lee, 2004). Surprisingly, acute
anxiety is has been associated with reduced susceptibility (e.g., Ridley & Clifford, 2004; Ridley,
Clifford, & Keogh, 2002), although this relationship can be reversed for suggestibility in other
contexts. Sometimes one’s abilities confer increased susceptibility, as has been shown for those
with enhanced ability or propensity for visual imagery (Dobson & Markham, 1993; Lindsay,
1990; Tomes & Katz, 1997; Winograd, Peluso, & Glover, 1998), although results for this have
been somewhat mixed (see discussion in Hekkanen & McEvoy, 2002).
Sources of distortion in witness memory 33
Additionally, several personality variables are associated with susceptibility to
misinformation, including neuroticism (e.g., Liebman, McKinley-Pace, Leonard, Sheesley, et al.,
2002; Zanni & Offermann, 1978), “self-monitoring” (the tendency to monitor one’s own
behavior for impressions made on others; Lassiter, Stone, & Weigold, 1988), empathy (Tomes &
Katz, 1997), dispostional tendencies toward dissociation (Hekkanen & McEvoy, 2002; see
review by Eisen & Lynn, 2001) and “absorption” (as measured by the Tellegen Absorption
Scale: Drivdahl & Zaragoza, 2001; Eisen & Carlson, 1998). Temporary states such as hypnosis
can also magnify misinformation effects (e.g., Scoboria, Mazzoni, Kirsch, & Milling, 2002), as
can even the belief that one is under the influence of alcohol (e.g., Assefi & Garry, 2002), or that
one is a “poor” rather than “good” eyewitness (Roper & Shewan, 2002). Nevertheless, the
misinformation effect is widely generalizable—even to three-month-old infants (Rovee-Collier,
Borza, Adler, & Boller, 1993), pigeons, rats (Harper & Garry, 2000; Garry & Harper, 2005), and
gorillas (Schwartz, Meissner, Hoffman, Evans & Franzier, 2004)—and applies to other domains,
such as experiences with products and public figures (e.g., the advertising misinformation effect:
Braun, 1999; Cowley & Janus, 2004; Braun & Loftus, 1998; Braun, Ellis, & Loftus, 2002).
Misleading questions tend to induce greatest distortion when introduced after a delay,
instead of immediately after the event (Loftus, 1979), when the wording of the misleading
question is more definite (e.g., “Did you see the stop sign?” versus “Did you see a stop sign?”,
Loftus & Zanni, 1975), when the source of the misleading information is credible, attractive, of
high status or power, or apparently unbiased (Bregman & McAllister, 1982; Ceci, Ross &
Toglia, 1987; Dodd & Bradshaw, 1980; Loftus, 1980; Smith & Ellsworth, 1987; Vornick,
Sharman, & Garry, 2003; see Blank, 1998; Vornick, et al., 2003 for reviews), and when the
person is asked about perceptual details of the suggested event (presumably inducing greater
Sources of distortion in witness memory 34
visual imagery of the suggested events promotes false memory; Drivdahl & Zaragoza, 2001).
The emotionality of a witnessed scene also appears to affect susceptibility to misinformation
such that misinformation regarding highly negative scenes is roughly twice as likely to induce
false memories as that regarding either positive or neutral scenes (Porter, Spencer & Birt, 2003).
Misleading information also creates more distortion when it is more accessible (Eakin,
Schreiber & Sergent-Marshall, 2003), for peripheral rather than central detail (e.g., Loftus, 1979;
Roebers & McConkey, 2003; Sutherland & Hayne, 2001), for more poorly remembered
information (e.g., Marquis, Marshall, & Oskamp, 1972; Read & Bruce, 1984); when tested by
recognition versus recall procedures (Sutherland & Hayne, 2001), and when it is subtle, rather
than blatant (Loftus, 1979; Ornstein, Gordon, & Larus, 1992). On the other hand, less distortion
is observed for negative information with high personal significance (e.g. Bruck, Ceci, &
Hembrooke, 1998), for persons specifically asked to indicate the source of the misinformation at
retrieval (e.g., Dodson & Johnson, 1993) or to ignore information from the source of the
misinformation when reporting memories (e.g., Lindsay, 1990), for misinformation introduced
by a suspect source (Dodd & Bradshaw, 1980), for secret versus non secret information and
when the secret giver as opposed to the nonsecret giver interviews the person at retrieval
(Wilson, Powell, Raju, & Romeo, 2004), and for those warned of misinformation effects (Eakin,
et al., 2003; Highhouse & Bottrill, 1995) or experimenter trickery (Chambers & Zaragoza, 2001).
The misinformation effect may also be reduced by explicit training in “source-monitoring” (e.g.,
Theirry & Spence, 2002), and generally varies with the conditions of encoding or retrieval (see
Ayers & Reder, 1998; Blank, 1998; Brainerd & Reyna, 2002; Eakin et al., 2003; Frost, 2000;
Gerrie et al., in press; McCloskey & Zaragoza, 1985; Roebers & McConkey, 2003; Schooler &
Tanaka, 1991 for discussions of theoretical mechanisms of the misinformation effect and the
Sources of distortion in witness memory 35
conditions under which misinformation is most likely to induce false memories). Nevertheless, in
the years since Loftus’s original demonstrations of the misinformation effect, research has shown
how (mis)leading information can cause a person to develop false memories of much more
dramatic incidents, including those involving the self or others (see Loftus & Davis, in press).
Faced in the late 1980’s with rapidly escalating accounts of child abuse and adult
“recovery” of repressed memories of such abuse, psychologists began to devote increasing
attention to the issue of how false memories for more dramatic events, and particularly dramatic
autobiographical events might be implanted in memory. Since recovered memory therapy
commonly includes direct suggestions from the therapist that the client has been abused, many
such studies examined the impact of direct suggestion that a particular event had occurred. For
example, Mazzoni and her colleagues (Loftus & Mazzoni, 1998; Mazzoni, & Loftus, 1996;
Mazzoni, Loftus, Seitz & Lynn, 1999; Mazzoni, Lombardo, Malvagia, & Loftus, 1999) studied
direct suggestion in the form of a clinical psychologist’s bogus interpretation of dreams. For
some participants, these bogus interpretations (i.e., the same interpretation given to all subjects,
regardless of the dream reported, and with no reason to believe the interpretation applied to each
subject) led to false memories for mildly traumatic suggested events. Dreams themselves may
also be confused with actual experiences in some cases (Kemp, Burt & Sheen, 2003).
Perhaps the most widely used paradigm to study the effects of direct suggestion has
become known as the “familial informant false-narrative procedure” (Lindsay, Hagen, Read,
Wade, & Garry, 2004). Researchers first verify with family members that a childhood event did
not take place, but later tell subjects that the event did take place, and that it was provided by the
participant’s family. Participants are asked to try to remember the events. Using this paradigm,
researchers have led participants to develop such diverse false memories as having been lost in a
Sources of distortion in witness memory 36
mall for extended time and later rescued by an elderly bystander, painful physical injuries,
having been hospitalized overnight, having an accident at a family wedding, having been nearly
drowned and rescued by a lifeguard, having been the victim of a vicious animal attack, hot air
balloon rides and many others (see Lindsay et al., 2004; Loftus, 2003 for reviews). Reviewing a
set of such studies, Lindsay et al. (2004) found that on average 31% of participants develop false
memories of the suggested event. The term rich false memories, was coined to refer to instances
in which the person feels confident, provides details, and even expresses strong emotions about
made-up events that never happened (Loftus, 2003; Loftus & Bernstein, 2005). However, while
some sorts of event memories appear to be easy to implant, other less plausible events (having
received a rectal enema) can be more difficult (Pezdek, Finger, & Hodge, 1997).
Another frequently investigated method of implantation of false memories is the use of
imagination or visual imagery, generally referred to as “imagination inflation” (Garry, Manning
& Loftus & Sherman, 1996). A host of studies have shown that active imagination/visualization
of events, objects or persons can lead to false memories of having actually seen, performed or
experienced them. These studies demonstrated that imagination/visual imagery can lead to false
memories for common and bizarre personal behavior (both recent and historical), simple and
complex events, pictures, sounds, written and spoken words/phrases, and inanimate and animate
objects and persons, particularly when a confederate also reports the imagined experience as real
(e.g., Hoffman et al., 2001). Imagination has also induced false autobiographical beliefs and
memories for a range of historical events (see reviews in Gerrie et al. in press; Johnson,
Hashtroudi & Lindsay, 1993; Kassin, this volume; Loftus & Davis, in press; Mazzoni & Memon,
2003; Schacter, 1996; 2001; Smith & Gleaves, this volume; Thomas & Loftus, 2002). Even
paraphrasing event descriptions can produce inflation (e.g., Sharman, Garry, & Beuke, in press).
Sources of distortion in witness memory 37
Although much of this work has primarily addressed the issue of autobiographical
memory in an effort to understand the mechanisms underlying creation of false memories of
sexual abuse, other work has examined the ability of imagination to create more mundane event
predictions or memories. Imagining a future event, for example, has been shown to increase the
subjective confidence that the event will actually occur (Carroll, 1978; Gregory, Cialdini, &
Carpenter, 1982). Those that more easily imagined produce greater inflation in confidence (e.g.,
Sherman, Cialdini, Schwartzman, & Reynolds, 1985).
Presumably, imagination and other implantation techniques work in a three stage process
whereby people first come to believe an event is plausible, next come to believe the event did
actually occur, and finally reinterpret their narratives and images of the event as actual memories
(Mazzoni, Loftus, & Kirsch, 2001; see recent review by Henkel & Coffman, 2004). Imagery and
imagination may contribute to all levels of this process. Imagery is crucial to plausibility and
hence persuasion (see Green & Brock’s (2002) review of tests of their “transportation-imagery
model” of narrative persuasion, which provides evidence that narratives are persuasive to the
extent they evoke imagery of their contents). Research from the “source-monitoring” tradition
has shown that images can be confused with real memories, particularly when they have many of
the subjective characteristics of real memories. Johnson, Foley, Suengas and Raye (1988) found
that there were almost no differences between rated characteristics of real and imagined
memories for childhood events, although memories for real and imagined recent events differed
in a number of respects. The authors reasoned that when real memories are vague and lacking in
vivid detail, as when they are from the distant past, or were never encoded richly in the first
place, it is easier to confuse imagined and real events. If true memories cannot be distinguished
from false memories on the basis of vividness, richness of perceptual detail, and other contextual
Sources of distortion in witness memory 38
information, both will seem equally real, and they will be easier to confuse. Thus, the
“imagination inflation” research suggests that when testifying about events that were long past,
never encoded deeply, or without rich imaging and contextual embedding, one will be more
susceptible to memory distortion or creation through the use of imagination based techniques.
This tendency can be quite dangerous in legal contexts. Memory recovery techniques
emphasizing imagination (hypnosis, guided imagery, and age regression, for example) can lead
to the creation of false memories in which the subject has great confidence (see Arburhnott,
Arbuthnott, & Rossiter, 2001 regarding imagery; Mazzoni, Kirsch, & Lynn, this volume on
hypnosis; Spanos, Burgess, Burgess, Samuels & Blois, 1999 on age regression), as illustrated in
many cases of recovered memories (Loftus & Ketcham, 1994; Ofshe & Watters, 1994).
Although false memories are often created in the context of therapeutic use of these
techniques, law enforcement personnel sometimes attempt to induce suspects to engage in
repeated acts of imagination of the criminal act as a means of inducing them to confess. In part,
such imagination exercises were responsible for known cases of false confession such Paul
Ingram’s confessions to abuse of his children (see Henkel & Coffman, 2004; Kassin, this
volume; Loftus & Ketcham, 1994). Another technique common to interrogation—explaining
how a particular event might have happened—also tends to inflate confidence that the event
actually did occur (Sharman, Manning & Garry, 2005).
Props, Drawings and Photographs
When witnesses or victims encounter difficulty remembering persons or events, they may
be asked to examine props, drawings, or photographs (or to revisit the scene of the event) in
order to facilitate memory. Although it is clear that such physical context reinstatement
procedures can indeed sometimes aid recall (e.g., Koutstall, Schacter, & Johnson, 1999; Salmon
Sources of distortion in witness memory 39
& Pipe, 2000), it is equally clear that, like many memory retrieval procedures, they can
sometimes impair memory and/or trigger creation of false memories as well.
For example, props or other aids used to remind the person of some target information
may impair memory for non-cued information (e.g., see Koutstall et al., 1999 for an illustration
with use of photographs to facilitate event memory). As well, like forensic interviews, props,
photos and other retrieval aids may themselves incorporate misinformation, and thereby lead the
interviewee to falsely remember the misinformation as true. Schacter and his colleagues
(Schacter, Koutstall, Johnson, Gross & Angell, 1997) demonstrated that (particularly older)
persons who were shown misleading photos after having previously seen a videotape were later
more likely to “remember” that events depicted in the photos had been in the original videotape.
Photos can also bias memory for auditory information. Schacter (1996, p. 70) reported an
experiment in which college students looked at photographs of people they had heard speak in
either a pleasant or irritating tone of voice. Later, they were asked to recall the speaker’s tone of
voice. They were cued with photographs of the speaker posing with either a slight smile or slight
scowl. Regardless of the actual original tone of voice of the speaker, subjects who were cued
with a smiling face were more likely to “remember” a pleasant tone of voice and those cued
with a scowling face were more likely to “remember” an irritating tone of voice. In other words,
memory was greatly influenced by the retrieval cue, drifting toward consistency with the cue.
Unfortunately, autobiographical memory can be similarly distorted through exposure to
photographs. Lindsay and his colleagues (Lindsay, Hagen, Read, Wade, & Garry, 2004) asked
participants to work at remembering three childhood events (two true and one false, as
established by their parents). Half of the participants were also given their school class photos
Sources of distortion in witness memory 40
from the years of the target events. The use of the photos significantly increased the rate of false
memories of the target pseudo events, even though they did not directly depict or imply them.
Updating and Reevaluating
As noted earlier, memories and beliefs are continually revised in response to new
information and beliefs. This process is reflected in previously reviewed phenomena such as
hindsight and misinformation effects, and other schematic reconstructive memory processes.
However, studies concerned with the “retrospective bias” have shown that reports of our own
past attitudes or behaviors are biased by current attitudes, or recently acquired information.
Recollections of past political attitudes, for example, tend to be distorted significantly by current
political beliefs (e.g., Dawes, 1991; Levine, 1997). Similarly, recollections of one’s own
behavior tend to change to conform to newly acquired information about how one should
behave. That is, we reconstruct memory of the past so that we believe we behaved in a more
consistent, sensible or desirable way than we actually did. Generally, current self-views, goals,
and beliefs bias memories of past selves and behavior (and vice versa; Wilson & Ross, 2003).
Mood and the “Affect Infusion” Model
It is important to note that mood and other affective states can exert both direct and indirect
effects on judgments. For example, the phenomenon called “mood congruent retrieval” has been
shown to affect retrieval through contextual cueing processes (whereby mood serves as a biasing
retrieval cue for mood consistent content), as well as motivated retrieval processes, or the desire
to avoid mood incongruent memories (e.g., Bower, 1992; Mineka & Nugent, 1995). More
generally, Forgas and East (2003) define "affect infusion" as “the process whereby affectively
loaded information exerts an influence on, and becomes incorporated into, a person's cognitive
Sources of distortion in witness memory 41
and behavioral processes, entering into his or her constructive deliberations and eventually
coloring the outcome in a mood-congruent direction.” They provide evidence that affect can
indirectly and implicitly influence judgments by affecting access to (i.e., memory of) and use of
knowledge and incoming information—and can exert explicit influence when judges simply
infer a response based on their current affective state (see the January 2002 entire issue of
Psychological Inquiry, Vol. 13 (1), devoted to Forgas’s affect infusion model and related data).
In effect, affective states can result in all the same biases in memory and judgment characteristic
of schematic processing (see van den Bos, 2003 for specific applications to justice judgments).
Retrieving and Retelling
A particularly pervasive source of misinformation is one’s own repeated retrievals and
recountings. Unfortunately, although failure to rehearse information tends to impair memory,
rehearsal can itself impair or distort memory, especially when the rehearsal is selective or biased,
or involves retrieval in a different form than encoding. Some neuroscientists have provided
evidence they believe demonstrates that memories become unstable during the act of retrieval
(see also Estes’ (1997) “perturbation” account of memory distortions), thereby requiring new
consolidation when the memory is returned to storage. In turn, each reconsolidation can
incorporate accurate information as well as misinformation acquired during retrieval, and can
delete information previously in memory (Nader, 2003; Nader, Schafe, & le Doux, 2000).
Although Nader and his colleagues’ propositions are controversial, it is clear that retrieval is not
The phenomenon of “retrieval induced forgetting,” for example, refers to circumstances
in which selective retrieval of some aspects of an event can lead to selective forgetting of others
(Barnier, Hung & Conway, 2004). When retrieval occurs in a different mode than the event was
Sources of distortion in witness memory 42
experienced, memory can be distorted. Witness attempts to verbally describe perpetrators have
been shown to impair later attempts to identify the perpetrator in a lineup—a phenomenon
labeled “verbal overshadowing” (see Schooler & Miessner, this handbook, Vol. II for a detailed
discussion). This can also occur when retrieval requires the person to selectively extract
information (e.g., How many times did …?), or to organize or judge the event in different terms
than occurred when it was originally witnessed (see Davis & Friedman, this volume; and the next
section on recountings). The wording one uses to describe some aspects of an event can affect
memory for other features such as duration (Pedersen & Wright, 2002). Furthermore, biased
retrievals induced by forensic, therapeutic or social interactions can induce selective memory and
distortion. Even attempts to suppress memory can successfully impair it (Anderson, et al., 2004;
Anderson & Green, 2001).
Telling and Retelling: Distortion through Conversational Recountings
Although attempts to retrieve information are often themselves sufficient to impair or
distort memory, perhaps even greater problems occur as a result of conversational recountings.
Even the simple act of repeating a statement can increase the strength of one’s belief in its truth.
Memory researchers have dubbed this effect the “illusory truth effect” (e.g., Arkes, Boehm, &
Xu, 1991; Arkes, Hackett, & Boehm, 1989; Begg, Anas, & Farinacci, 1992). The effect occurs
from the mere act of repetition, even when statements are simply repeated in the laboratory, with
no implication the statement is true, and out of context, without the personal involvement and
very real consequences inherent in case relevant testimony. Further, even in the absence of any
input from a conversational partner (such as alternative accounts, leading or misleading
questions, feedback, therapeutic suggestions and procedures, etc.), persons asked to describe
witnessed materials or events (a) bias their descriptions to reflect their own goals (for example,
Sources of distortion in witness memory 43
entertainment, deception, or informing accurately), or characteristics of the listener (for example,
toward consistency with the listener’s known attitudes or toward selective inclusion of aspects of
interest to the listener), (b) subsequently report believing these biased descriptions, and (c)
falsely recall the original stimuli as consistent with their biased descriptions (e.g., Higgins &
Rholes, 1978; Higgins & McCann, 1984). Pasupathi (2001) proposed two general principles
governing conversational recounting of past events: co-construction (the joint influences of
speakers and interpersonal contexts on conversational reconstructions) and consistency (the
influence of initial conversational reconstructions on subsequent memory).
Considerable evidence indicates that all recountings are shaped by (1) the mere
expectation that there will be listeners, (2) the speaker’s own goals with respect to the listener(s),
(3) characteristics of listeners that affect expectations concerning their likely interest,
understanding or approval of specific content, and (4) listener behaviors and reactions during the
interaction. In addition, aspects of the context may affect what is viewed as appropriate, possible
or desirable to discuss. Hence, reports may be adjusted with respect to the reported gist of the
event, the nature of opinions expressed about the event, which of many aspects or specific details
of an event are discussed, or the interpretation and evaluations of the events; and through
additions and distortions designed to please, entertain or protect oneself from negative reactions
by the listener (see reviews by Clark, 1996; Dudukovic, Marsh, & Tversky, 2004; Holtgraves,
2002; Davis & Friedman, this volume; Davis, Kemmelmeier, & Follette, 2005; Hyman, 1994;
Krauss & Chiu, 1998; Marsh & Tversky, 2004; Pasupathi, 2001; Sedikides, 1990; Todorov,
2002; Tversky & Marsh, 2000). Each such choice affects subsequent memory: both the amount
recalled and the specific types of errors in recall (e.g., Tversky & Marsh, 2000).
Such biased reports of witnessed events take place in a wide variety of social interactions,
Sources of distortion in witness memory 44
such as parent-child interactions, professional interviews with victims and suspects, therapeutic
interactions, and the many conversations that might take place between co-witnesses or between
a victim and supportive friends and family prior to reports to police. Indeed, the more informal
conversations, which no doubt take place in greater numbers and variety, may shape accounts
more powerfully than the professional interactions we have tended to study.
Dudukovic et al. (2004), reviewed evidence indicating that strict accuracy is rarely the
goal of informal interactions, and that people widely report lying and otherwise distorting
autobiographical and other information in everyday conversations. Such distorted accounts can
exert long term effects on memory. Indeed, accounts given to entertain (likely more typical of
everyday conversations than those given with the strict goal of accuracy) are qualitatively
different, and result in poorer overall memory for the original information than those given with
the goal of accurate recounting (e.g., Dudukovic et al., 2004; Wade & Clark, 1993). If the
distorted recountings do elicit reinforcers, one would expect them to be repeated. Moreover, a
variety of consistency and other motivations serve to maintain these reconstructed versions.
Once these distorting conversations have taken place, subsequent memory is biased in the
direction of the distorted reports—i.e., a “saying is believing” effect (see review in Holtgraves,
2002). Pasupathi argued that conversational recountings influence subsequent memory because
they “function as a rehearsal that is selective, is schematic, and can lead to source memory
confusions,” (p. 658). Dudukovic et al. (2004) also suggest that retellings affect memory via
creation of schemas that are later used to guide reconstruction of events: “Schemas are used
during retelling to re-organize events, to select some details and omit others. The schema
provides a top-down structure for events, and thus allows for elaborations in the retelling to
bridge across and interpret events.” (p. 127).
Sources of distortion in witness memory 45
Over time, a witness who discusses witnessed events with others can be expected to
provide biased reports to those others, and ultimately to come to believe the distorted accounts
and report these false recollections to still others. Even the anticipation of recounting to a
specific audience (e.g., children versus adults) tends to shape memory for the narrative to be
reported (e.g., Adams, Smith, Pasupathi, & Vitolo, 2002; Schuurmans & Vandierendonck, 1985).
And, given the many and varied conversations and interviews any given witness can be expected
to experience, multiple conversational-related distortions can be expected to accumulate.
Dudukovic et al., (2004) also noted that the difference in organizational structures during
retellings (such as informal conversations involving witnesses) and the target recall (such as
during a forensic interview or trial testimony) can impair accuracy. When the story must
suddenly be restructured at recall, retrieval pathways do not match the way the information is
stored. Indeed, Dudukovic et al. found that when storytellers had to switch perspectives at recall,
the new chronological structure aided recall of information not previously recounted in accounts
given to entertain, whereas it impaired memory for information that was previously recounted
(and hence tightly tied to the story schema), presumably because the organization of that
information during the previous storytelling could no longer be used.
Adaval and Wyer (2004) examined the impact of making intervening judgments and
reports on later memory for a conversation. Participants witnessed a conversation with the sole
objective of comprehension. Subsequently, they either wrote their impressions of the characters
involved or described the sequence of interaction, and later completed recognition tasks for
aspects of the original conversation. Communicating impressions of the protagonists decreased
recognition of verbal aspects of the conversation, but not nonverbal behaviors; whereas reporting
on the sequence of events decreased recognition of both verbal and nonverbal behaviors. The
Sources of distortion in witness memory 46
authors likened their findings to the “verbal overshadowing” (e.g., Schooler & Engstler-
Schooler, 1990) findings in the eyewitness identification literature (see also Krauss & Chiu, 1998
for similar interpretation). Consistent with the “bin” model of social memory (Wyer & Srull,
1989), the authors described the processes promoting distortion as follows:
“At the time we witness the interaction, our only objective may be to understand what the
protagonists said and did. Later, however, we may be called upon to use the information
we have acquired for a reason we did not anticipate….To attain this objective, we
presumably retrieve a mental representation of the interaction that we had formed at the
time we first observed it and construe its implications for the communication we intend to
deliver. In the process of generating the communication, however, we are likely to
construct a new representation of the experience whose content and implications differ in
several respects from the one we had formed earlier…Once this new representation is
formed, it can be used as a basis for reconstructing the initial events we had observed.
Our reliance on the new representation can sometimes distort our memory for the original
events and in some cases, can lead to memory errors.” (Adaval & Wyer, 2004, p. 450).
Deliberate Fabrication: Lying and Feigning Amnesia
Recent research has begun to investigate the role of providing deliberately false accounts
on the provider’s own subsequent memory. Theoretically, deliberate fabrications—either through
knowingly providing false information or through feigning failure to remember---might affect
veridical memory through several distinct theoretical processes (e.g., Christianson & Bylin,
1999). First, either focusing on false information or diverting attention from true information in
order to feign amnesia can interfere with rehearsal of true information. Second, as suggested by
the previously reviewed research on “retrieval-induced forgetting,” selective retrieval of some
Sources of distortion in witness memory 47
information might selectively impair memory for the non-reported true information that had been
suppressed in order to lie or feign amnesia (e.g., Anderson et al., 1994; Christianson & Bylin,
1999; Ciranni & Shmamura, 1999; Macrae & MacLeod, 1999; Shaw et al., 1995; Wright et al.,
2001). Third, the person may have constructed new information or distorted aspects of witnessed
information in order to effectively lie or feign amnesia. Particularly if one developed elaborated
scenarios or visualizations of the new or distorted version of events, one might later experience a
source-misattribution of the new version to the original event instead of one’s own constructions
(e.g., Johnson, Hashtroudi, & Lindsay, 1993).
Finally, although the first three processes would tend to impair veridical memory, a
fourth, suggested by Polage (2004), would tend to facilitate veridical memory. That is, in order
to lie convincingly, the person may have to remember (and hence rehearse) the true information
in order to ensure that false information is reported. In addition, this retrieval would occur under
conditions involving a clear tag indicating that the new information is false. Indeed, there is
evidence that each of these processes occurs under some circumstances.
Polage (2004) tested the fourth process using the familiar imagination inflation method
(Garry et al., 1996). However, instead of being asked to imagine a particular event, participants
were asked to lie, falsely claiming that some of the events actually happened to them. The
authors found that the most common effect of this procedure was to deflate ratings (given one
week later) of the likelihood that the falsely reported event had actually occurred. However, a
minority of participants (10-16%) in two studies increased their certainty to the maximum rating.
Hence, while lying tended to result in “fabrication deflation” (Polage, 2004) for most subjects,
some developed great confidence that the lied-about event had actually occurred.
Several studies (Bylin & Christianson, 2002; Christianson & Bylin, 1999; Oorsouw, &
Sources of distortion in witness memory 48
Merckelbach, 2004) have found evidence of memory impairment among those asked to feign
amnesia. These have differed in important methodological details from the Pollage studies,
however. Participants in the Bylin and Christianson (2002) and Christianson and Bylin (1999)
studies read crime narratives while imagining themselves in the role of perpetrator. They were
then asked either to report the narrative veridically or to report it as if trying to evade
responsibility for the crime, including by feigning memory loss. Oorsouw and Merckelback
(2004) had participants actually engage in a mock crime, and then offer veridical or simulations
of amnestic reports. In all three studies, participants who reported falsely to evade responsibility
and/or simulate memory failure were less accurate when subsequently asked to report the truth,
either immediately or one week later. Further, the simulators were equally confident in their
memories as previously untested truth-telling controls (Oorsouw & Merkelbach, 2004). Unlike
Polage’s (2004) participants, who were specifically asked to lie about whether a specific event
had taken place, participants in these studies were allowed to fabricate, distort, or feign amnesia
for a variety of details to accomplish their deceptive goals. Hence, they may have constructed
more elaborate general scenarios, distorted true events, and added false events. These processes
may have facilitated source monitoring errors, and provided less clear tags for which things were
true and which false than Polage’s procedure of lying about specific events that did not happen.
Pickel (2004) tested the effects of fabrication in witnesses to a robbery. Witnesses either
correctly described the robber, fabricated a description of him or of someone else, or did not
describe anyone. One week later, those who had previously fabricated a description of the robber
and those who did not previously describe him remembered fewer correct details than did
truthful witnesses or those who fabricated about another person. Those who fabricated about the
robber also reported more incorrect details than truthful or non-interviewed witnesses.
Sources of distortion in witness memory 49
Evidence that deliberate fabrications can impair veridical memory is of considerable
practical significance, given the prevalence of both lying and feigning amnesia among criminal
defendants. Of particular interest is the fact that police interrogators are trained to elicit false
accounts from offenders (for example, admitting to inaccurate facts or scenarios that would
render their crimes less serious) as a “stepping stone” approach to eventually getting the full
truth (e.g., Inbau, Reid, Buckley, & Jayne, 2001; see Davis & O’Donohue, 2004 for review).
Police are generally insensitive to the potential of their procedures to elicit false accounts, and
even less aware of the potential of their procedures to impair memory such that the truth is lost
Personal Routines and Repeated Events
Repetitive events become easily confused, such that one can lose track of which specific
occurrences took place in which event. In line with the tendency for source similarity to increase
source confusion (see Wyer, 2004 for review of effects of similarity between events on event-
specific memory), the more additional similar events intervene between the target event and
attempt to recall, the greater the likelihood of confusion between them or failure to remember the
target at all. Hence, schematic inferences concerning what one was likely to have done, or what
was likely to have occurred in the instance in question tend to replace veridical memory (see
review in Haber & Haber, 2000). This is of particular concern for parties to cases involving
routinized professional interactions, such as doctor-patient, attorney-client, and others.
While often witness memory is not only valuable, but crucial, it must be appreciated that
even the most scrupulously honest and sincere witness cannot be presumed to be entirely
accurate. Human information processors are simply overwhelmed by the magnitude of incoming
Sources of distortion in witness memory 50
information and efforts to process and remember it accurately, leaving us vulnerable to error.
Some information is necessarily lost, and other may be confused or distorted. Misinformation is
introduced through countless internal and external mechanisms. We have shown that
misinformation can create errors in memory for events that were actually witnessed, and that it
can also lead to the planting of entirely false beliefs or memories. It is crucial for the various
participants in the legal system to gain greater understanding of the magnitude of the potential
for distortion in witness memory, and of the many and varied sources of memory distortion for
events relevant to a wide variety of litigated events. Unfortunately, expert testimony has been
largely restricted to criminal trials, and issues of eyewitness identification, child witnesses, and
recovered memories (which is also offered in civil trials). This represents only the tip of the
iceberg of memory issues with potential relevance to the courts. Davis & Friedman (this
volume), for example, point to pervasive testimony involving memory for statements in both
civil and criminal trials. Yet memory experts have yet to penetrate barriers to introduction of
expert testimony on conversational memory. They have come a long way with their contributions
to the legal system. Still, given the varied sources of distortion and the many events for which
witness memory is an issue, we can only expect the range of testimony from witness memory
researchers to expand in the future.
Sources of distortion in witness memory 51
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