The Misinformation Effect: Interviewing a Witness and Memory Unreiiability

Studies conducted over the past thirty years have concluded that the human memory is not nearly as reliable as it was once thought to be. The human mind and the way that it encodes memories is a process that is actually quite susceptible to suggestion. The misinformation effect is a perfect example of how misleading information told to the witness of some event between the time that their memory encoded it, and when they first recall the event can actually change details of the memory altogether. Whether this type of retroactive interference with memory is intentional or not, it can greatly impair the ability of a witness to recall the events they saw accurately.

The misinformation effect basically states that exposure to incorrect or misleading information between the time when a memory is encoded in the human brain and when it is first recalled can cause a memory distortion. Certain words or phrases spoken to the person can affect their recollection of the events they witnessed on a subconscious level. This can impair their memory in regards to such details as the color of a car they might have seen, whether they heard broken glass, or perhaps even multiple examples of certain sounds such as gunshots when there may have only been one.

Elizabeth Loftus is one of the leading researchers in this field and has conducted a great amount of research into the misinformation effect as well as the suggestibility of memory. Her research has concluded that the use of certain words can directly affect the encoding of a memory within the human brain and distort the person’s recollection of an event. This type of suggestive wording relies upon feeding the witness in question misleading information in the form of false presuppositions. These presuppositions when reinforced using proper suggestion can actually become a part of the person’s memory of the event even though the information is incorrect.

When it comes to interviewing witnesses it is very important to be aware of the misinformation effect so that their testimony isn’t unintentionally influenced. Details of an event they witnessed can be greatly altered if not altogether rendered invalid simply by using suggestive language statements. It has been the claim of many defense attorneys over the years that their clients were in fact fed misinformation in order to cause them to make false statements that were detrimental to their cases. For this reason, any interview material that is to be used in court is recorded at the time that the interview is conducted to ensure that presuppositions were not suggested to a witness to alter their testimony to favor one opinion over another.