Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

False Recollection of the Role Played by an Actor in an Event

Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

False Recollection of the Role Played by an Actor in an Event

Article excerpt

Published online: 31 May 2013

© Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2013

Abstract Two experiments demonstrated that eyewitnesses more frequently associate an actor with the actions of an- other person when those two people had appeared together in the same event, rather than in different events. This greater likelihood of binding an actor with the actions of another person from the same event was associated with high-confidence recognition judgments and "remember" responses in a remember-know task, suggesting that viewing an actor together with the actions of another person led participants to falsely recollect having seen that actor perform those actions. An analysis of age differences provided evidence that familiarity also contributed to false recognition independently of a false-recollection mechanism. In particular, older adults were more likely than young adults to falsely recognize a novel conjunction of a familiar actor and action, regardless of whether that actor and action were from the same or from different events. Older adults' elevated rate of false recognition was associated with intermediate confidence levels, suggesting that it stemmed from increased reliance on familiarity rather than from false recollection. The implications of these results are discussed for theories of conjunction errors in memory and of unconscious transference in eyewitness testimony.

Keywords Recollection * Familiarity in recognition memory * False memory * Aging

A professor at California State University-Hayward was attacked in front of his class of 141 undergraduates. Sworn testimony was collected from eyewitnesses immediately after the incident, and seven weeks later, the eyewitnesses were asked whether the perpetrator was present in a lineup of six pictures. Unbeknownst to the students at the time of the incident, however, the entire assault was staged, and thus investigators already knew who was the perpetrator. Only 40 % of the eyewitnesses correctly identified the perpetrator. Perhaps more disturbingly, 25 % of the eyewitnesses (in- cluding the professor himself) selected a photo of an inno- cent bystander who was simply present at the scene of the "crime" (Buckhout, 1974). This result exemplifies the phe- nomenon of unconscious transference, in which an eyewit- ness associates a familiar but innocent person with the actions of a criminal (Loftus, 1976).

Unconscious transference may occur for a number of reasons (Davis, Loftus, Vanous, & Cucciare, 2008) under a variety of conditions, some of which may seldom be met in criminal cases (Read, Tollestrup, Hammersley, McFadzen, & Christensen, 1990). The basic phenomenon of uncon- scious transference, however, closely resembles a robust finding in the memory literature, known as a conjunction memory error. Thus, theories of the mechanisms underlying conjunction memory errors may also explain at least some examples of unconscious transference that occur occasion- ally in criminal cases, and likely even more frequently in everyday life.

A conjunction memory error involves the false recogni- tion of a test stimulus composed of features from two different study items. For example, Reinitz and Hannigan (2001) tested participants on face recognition. Some of the recognition hues combined features from two different faces within the study list. Participants were particularly likely to falsely recognize these conjunction faces when the features came from two faces that had been simultaneously present on the computer screen.

Reinitz and Hannigan (2001, 2004) explained this result in terms of a binding error in memory. In particular, the simultaneous presence of two faces on the computer screen may have resulted in both faces being represented in work- ing memory, possibly leading to associations among the features of those faces. Thus, when participants were later presented with a conjunction of two such features, the retrieval of a previously established association may have caused them to recollect having seen those two features together in the same face. …

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