Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

A Little Elaboration Goes a Long Way: The Role of Generation in Eyewitness Suggestibility

Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

A Little Elaboration Goes a Long Way: The Role of Generation in Eyewitness Suggestibility

Article excerpt

Although research has documented that perceptual elaboration (e.g., imagery) can increase false memory, prior research has not ascertained whether such effects are due to the act of generation or simply from exposure to perceptual details. Two experiments explored this question using the eyewitness suggestibility paradigm. Experiment 1 compared the effect of generating descriptions of suggested items with the effects of reading elaborated versions of the items or the suggested items alone. Experiment 2 compared participants who generated descriptions to participants who read the same descriptions. Generating a description increased false memory and increased accurate memory for the items' actual source, relative to comparable control conditions. Generation also increased claims of having a (false) vivid recollection of the items in the event. Overall, the results suggest that conditions that require people to describe the appearance of objects that they do not remember are even more pernicious than conditions that involve exposure to such details.

In real-world forensic interrogations, eyewitnesses are sometimes pressed to describe people, objects, or events that they do not remember well or never actually witnessed. For example, Dent (1982) described a situation in which a police officer interrogated a child who had witnessed an event involving three men and a woman. In the following quote, the officer inquired about the woman's poncho and cap, when in fact the woman in question did not wear anything on her head, nor did she wear a poncho:

Q: Wearing a poncho and a cap?

A: I think it was a cap.

Q: What sort of cap was it? Was it like a beret, or was it a peaked cap, or-?

A: No, it had sort of, it was flared with a little piece coming out. It was flared with a sort of button thing in the middle.

Q: What . . . was it a peak like that, that sort of thing?


Q: That's the sort of cap I'm thinking you're meaning, with a little peak out there.

A: Yes, that's the top view, yes.

Q: Smashing, Um-what color.

A: Oh! Oh-I think it was urn, black or brown.

(pp. 290-291)

Although there were multiple suggestive influences present in this interrogation (e.g., reinforcement by the police officer and leading questions), this example appears to show that pressing the witness to describe the fictitious cap altered her memory for the witnessed event. Over the course of the interrogation, the witness, who was initially unsure whether she remembered a cap, appeared to gain confidence that she had actually seen the specific cap she had been pressed to describe.

Why might pressing witnesses to generate descriptions of suggested items promote the development of false memories? As is predicted by the source-monitoring framework (Johnson, Hashtroudi, & Lindsay, 1993), evidence from a variety of domains has shown that memories of suggested events will be confusable for memories of "real" events to the extent that memories of suggested events contain features (e.g., sensory and perceptual details) that are similar to characteristics of memories of "real" events. For example, there is considerable evidence that visual imagery can serve as a potent catalyst to false memory creation (e.g., Dobson & Markham, 1993; Garry, Manning, Loftus, & Sherman, 1996; Goff & Roediger, 1998; Gonsalves et al., 2004; Hyman & Pentland, 1996; Lindsay, Hagen, Read, Wade, & Garry, 2004), because imagining a suggested item imbues the memory representation of the suggested item with sensory and perceptual details similar to those of perceived events (see Drivdahl & Zaragoza, 2001, and Thomas, BuIevich, & Loftus, 2003, for more direct evidence for the role of sensory/perceptual elaboration in the development of false memories). As with imagination, one consequence of pressing witnesses to describe a poorly remembered or fictitious item is that it forces the witness to create a more specific, concrete, and perceptually detailed version of the suggested item. …

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