Thanks in part to news reports and entertainment media a misperception about the strength of eyewitness testimony persists. Whether from television, books, movies or news anchors, individuals ascribe a disproportionate importance to the statements made by eyewitnesses in criminal cases. While this testimony is generally convincing, should it be?

There are countless diseases of perception from color blindness to prosopagnosia – the inability to remember others’ faces – that have a nearly infinite scale of measurement. This isn’t to say that eyewitnesses might suffer from a deficit in visual or cognitive processing but, rather, to highlight the fact that many people might have trouble accurately describing what they saw weeks, days or even hours ago. This can be detrimental in serious matters such as a criminal case.

A recent article published by the Association for Psychological Science echoes this statement. “The claim that eyewitness testimony is reliable and accurate is testable,” states the report. “The research is clear that eyewitness identification is vulnerable to distortion without the witness’s awareness.” Individuals, the witness and observers alike, assume that the memory provides a clear image of the past – like a camera. Unfortunately, memory is malleable and, thus, unreliable.

Why does the myth of the infallible witness persist?

Generally, when a fact is testable – confirming either validity or reliability – the truth overpowers a false perception. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case. There are numerous reasons why people might be unwilling or unable – even on a subconscious level – to dispel a false belief.

  • Reinforcement in popular media: As mentioned earlier, the entertainment media constantly reinforces the notion that eyewitness testimony is often the cornerstone of a strong prosecution. Often detectives and witnesses alike will have crystal-clear almost supernatural memories of complex events that can lead to the resolution of a mystery or successful court case.
  • Distinctive events: Crimes and accidents are stressful events and individuals generally believe these distinctive events will somehow occupy more memory space and, thus, remain clear and detailed. Unfortunately, research has shown that terrifying events can inhibit memory formation with the memory itself being constantly altered by facts learned after the event.
  • Unquestioned confidence: Eyewitnesses are often genuinely trying to help. They have an earnest nature and a confidence in their convictions that comes across to observers. Even though they might not be necessarily correct in their recollection, they believe they are, and this confidence lends credence to their story.
  • Confirmation bias: Observers, or those listening to the recollection of an eyewitness account, tend to find a level of commonality between their own recollection of stressful events. They might remember a situation – a scenario, a face, a quote, a car – with absolute clarity and assume the memory of the eyewitness is just as clear.

The unfortunate reality is that memories, while helpful, are far from the unquestioned video playback some would have us believe. In reality, eyewitness testimony can be unreliable, changed, biased or influenced. Memory can be remarkably accurate or remarkably inaccurate. There is no unified answer for the whole of people and each court case should be built on the strength of objective evidence.