Autobiographical Memory, Eyewitness Reports, and Public Policy

By Lindsay, D. Stephen | Canadian Psychology, May 2007 | Go to article overview

Autobiographical Memory, Eyewitness Reports, and Public Policy


Lindsay, D. Stephen, Canadian Psychology


Abstract

In the first part of this article I summarize the source-monitoring perspective on the cognitive processes involved in differentiating between mental events from different sources (e.g., memories of what one witnessed during a crime versus memories of what one later heard a cowitness describe). In the middle section of the article I consider, from the perspective of the source-monitoring framework, four issues pertaining to remembering in forensic situations: 1) adults' memory reports, 2) children's memory reports, 3) "recovered memories" of childhood sexual abuse, and 4) eyewitnesses' suspect-identification decisions. I then comment briefly on research psychologists as expert witnesses before offering some concluding comments.

None of our worldly possessions rivals the value and utility of our memories of our own personal past. We would quite literally be lost without them. And autobiographical memory pops up frequently in applied domains. Consider, for example, the autobiographical memory questions that health care providers routinely pose to their patients (e.g., "How many servings of fruits and vegetables do you eat in a typical day?" "When was the last time you had a cold or the flu?" "How long have you had that cough?"). Similarly, journalists often ask politicians to remember their past behaviours and knowledge states (e.g., "What did the Prime Minister know and when did she/he know it?"), and consumer scientists often ask people questions about their prior experiences of shopping for or using various products. Likewise, studies of such public policy issues as voting behaviour or financial expenditures are, in essence, tests of autobiographical memory. (see chapters in Durso et al.'s Handbook of Applied Cognition, 1999, for discussions of research and theory pertaining to memory in a wide variety of applied domains, many of which have public policy implications.)

Below I first provide a sketch of a theoretical perspective on autobiographical memory (namely, the source monitoring framework of Johnson, Hashtroudi, & Lindsay, 1993). I then consider, from the perspective of that framework, four issues pertaining to remembering in forensic situations: 1) adults' memory reports, 2) children's memory reports, 3) "recovered memories" of childhood sexual abuse, and 4) eyewitnesses' suspect-identification decisions. After these capsule reviews, I comment on research psychologists as expert witnesses, then close with some concluding comments.

A Source-Monitoring Perspective on Autobiographical Memory

When you were a child, were you ever bitten by a dog? If so, take a moment to recall as much as you can about that event. Can you see the surroundings? What did the dog look like, and how did it come to bite you? Do you remember sounds, such as the dog snarling or yourself screaming? Smells? Can you remember the pain of the bite itself, or your emotional reaction at the time? What were you wearing? Can you recollect anything about what was going on 24 hours before the dog bit you? Whose dog was it? (If you were never bitten by a dog, you can do the same exercise with any other memorable one-off event, such as breaking a bone or winning a prize.)

As Tulving (2002) has pointed out, autobiographical reminiscence can be described as mental time travel, with the rememberer transported into the past to re-experience, albeit only partially, a moment of his or her personal history. How do we accomplish this feat? Human memory has been studied at various levels of analysis and with diverse methodological tools for a century or so, but we are still far short of a complete understanding of how it works. Yet we have learned a good deal along the way, much of it at odds with lay intuitions. For example, lay people sometimes describe memories as though they were sensurround videotapes, with each experience stored on its own cassette and housed in a vast autobiographical library. From this perspective, although it is sometimes difficult to locate a tape and details may become blurred with the passage of time, a unitized record of each experience is in principle available for playback (for a discussion of metaphors of memory, see Roediger, 1980. …

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