I Misremember It Well: Why Older Adults Are Unreliable Eyewitnesses

Article excerpt

We used the eyewitness suggestibility paradigm to investigate the hypothesis that cognitive aging is associated with an increase in misrecollections-confidently held but false memories of past events. When younger and older adults were matched on their overall memory for experienced events, both groups showed comparable rates of suggestibility errors in which they claimed to have seen events in a video that had only been suggested in a subsequent questionnaire. However, older adults were-alarmingly-most likely to commit suggestibility errors when they were most confident about the correctness of their response. By contrast, their younger, accuracy-matched counterparts were most likely to commit these errors when they were uncertain about the accuracy of their response. The elderly adults' propensity to make high-confidence errors fits our misrecollection account.

In the film Gigi, an elderly man recounts a long-ago love affair in the song, "I Remember It Well." What is remarkable about his description of the event is not only the huge number of details he apparently misremembers, but also the confidence with which he continues to produce more misrecollections.

Research in cognitive aging has long recognized that older adults are more susceptible to false memories-both "remembering" events that never occurred and misremembering events that did occur-than are younger adults (for general reviews, see Dodson, Koutstaal, & Schacter, 2000; Johnson, Hashtroudi, & Lindsay, 1993; Roediger, 1996; Schacter, Koutstaal, & Norman, 1997). Currently, the prevailing account for this susceptibility is that older adults have greater difficulty recollecting or using source information-specific item information about an event, such as when and where it occurred (e.g., Balota, Dolan, & Duchek, 2000; Dodson & Schacter, 2002; Johnson et al., 1993; Memon, Bartlett, Rose, & Gray, 2003; Schacter, Norman, & Koutstaal, 1998). Failing to remember or use source information that identifies how a particular person or event was encountered means that the elderly must more often guess or rely on overall familiarity as a basis for a response, which can lead to memory errors.

We investigated an alternative, but not necessarily competing, hypothesis about why aging is associated with increased memory distortions. According to the misrecollection account, the elderly are prone to making high-confidence errors when answering questions about specific details of recently learned events. Our misrecollection account builds on the ideas of others that explain age-related memory impairments in terms of changes in the capacity to bind together and associate different items or features of events (e.g., Chalfonte & Johnson, 1996; Henkel, Johnson, & DeLeonardis, 1998; Koutstaal, Schacter, & Brenner, 2001; Kroll, Knight, Metcalfe, Wolf, & Tulving, 1996; Schacter et al., 1998). For instance, Henkel et al. suggested that older adults are susceptible to miscombining features of one event with features of other events, which contributes to misremembering how events occurred (see also Koutstaal et al., 2001; Kroll et al., 1996). We suggest that the kind of feature miscombinations that occur in the elderly produce convincing misrecollections, which, in turn, lead to high-confidence errors (for more details, see Dodson, Bawa, & Krueger, in press).

We used an eyewitness suggestibility paradigm to evaluate the misrecollection hypothesis. Participants watched a video clip of a crime and then answered questions about the witnessed event. Some questions referred to details that were never actually witnessed in the video, such as that the police said, "we'll shoot!" or that the burglar had a gun. The participants then completed a source memory test that contained items that referred to events that had been seen in the video, read in the questionnaire, both seen and read, or not encountered in the experiment (i. …