Essay on Memory Failure and Eyewitness Testimony

Published: 2021/12/02
Number of words: 1917

The human brain has the function and the capability to put down information about things or events with the facility of remembering them later for use. However, if past events cannot be remembered or retrieved by the brain, then neither language nor relationship can be developed. The scenario of forgetting past events is called memory loss. On the other hand, when a person remembers events differently from the exact way they took place or at worst remembers events that did not take place at all, it is called false memory. Different scholars equally have different definitions of false memory. According to Cherry (2020), false memory is a forged recollection of an event that may be wholly incorrect and imaginary while in some instances contains information that has been distorted due to distortion of memory. People with incorrect memory have mental experiences that they trust are an exact portrayal of previous events. Incorrect memory can be trivial like supposing that one put office keys on the home table or can be serious like supposing that you saw someone at the scene of the crime. Abadie and Camos believe that false memories are well-accepted long-term memory (LTM) phenomena. Some reports of false acceptance in short term suggest that working memory (WM) could also because of false memories, thereby supporting the unitary form of memory. People with false memories always hold false memory in high belief and it can be very difficult to persuade them that the memory in question is wrong.

False memory can be caused by several factors. One factor is inference, which is simply the application of the previous comprehension to conclude. For example, a witness trying to figure out what would be the result of an event uses that prior knowledge to make sense of what is happening. Interference can cause false memory in that many events can take place after memory is stored leading to interference in retrieving the original event. For example, the Spanish language learned may come to one’s mind and interfere with Spanish learned in high school. Occurrences of many events after the original event may block access to memories of that event. False memory can at times occur when subjects erroneously validate new subjects on a recognition test due to their affinity to the original events. For example, laboratory research has shown that exposure to similar events creates illusionary memories. Another cause of false memory is the misattribution of familiarity. When subject misinterpret why new items on an acknowledgement test feel familiar, false memories can occur. Therefore, false memories are the results of processes that usually assist veracious memory.

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On the other hand, false memory differs from other memory failures in different ways. While false memory means distortion of memory or failure to remember what does not take place fully, absentmindedness is a form of memory failure in which forgetting occurs when a person does not pay close attention to something. For example, a person may forget where he placed a pen because he did not focus on where he placed it in the first place. Absentmindedness equally differs from false memory since it involves forgetting something that must be done at a prescribed time, like taking medicine. Another form of memory failure is blocking which refers to having an answer at the tip of one’s tongue but one can’t think of it. Blocking takes place when memory is rightly stored in the brain but something is keeping you from retrieving it and end up retrieving the wrong memory. An old person may call his eldest son by the younger son’s name or vice versa. Suggestibility is a memory failure that involves the vulnerability of memory to the power of suggestion, the information that a person learns about an event after a fact. The suggestion tends to fool a person into thinking that it is a real memory. Therefore, false memory is a form of memory failure but research shows that it differs from other memory failures. Another study by Niedźwieńska et al (2020) opines that memory failure is prevalent in daily lives, despite little being known about which types have the strongest impacts in life.

Memory and the process of reconstruction, bringing of older memory can be fragile. Police officers, courts, prosecutors and judicial institutions oftentimes rely on witness identification and testimony in the process of justice. Eye witness testimony is a most compelling form of evidence during criminal justice proceedings and most people trust eye witness to give accurate and verifiable recollections into what happened at the scene of purported crime. However, research has shown that eye witness testimony is among the top factors in wrongful convictions. Eye witness testimony has always proved to be unreliable and has more often led to wrongful convictions in the courts of justice. Wixted et al (2018) argue that eye witness memory is an unreliable assessment that has increasingly pervaded the legal system. They argue that memory is malleable and more often eye witness misidentification have played great roles in many DNA exonerations of the innocent. However, if not interfered with, eye witness testimony can be accurate. Eye witness memory has been undeservedly sentences of mistakes of others. Eyewitnesses can provide correct evidence on the initial and uncontaminated memory test. Therefore, eye witness can be detrimental to the justice system due to several reasons.

Firstly, eye witness testimony can be unreliable due to encoding failure. Encoding failure refers to the disability of the brain to create a memory link, a phenomenon called memory loss. Memory loss, at times, happens before the actual memory process begins. During testimony, a witness may have forgotten to retrieve the initial information for an occurrence that took place in a past event. This results in wrongful convictions in the justice system since a very important element of the case may have been forgotten already. If a witness does not encode the right information, the information is not in their long-term memory and also cannot be remembered in future.

Secondly, limitation of memory may make eye witness unreliable. Human memory of a perceptual experience is not necessarily fixed. This means that it is flexible and prone to manipulations. Memories may always become distorted and downgraded when they are initially made or recalled in later stages. Equally, since memories are not fixed, they may always develop to put in new information. In such circumstances, a person may not comprehend that his memories have gone through a lot of changes. Limitation of memory is a proven case to show that eye witness memory is unreliable.

Further, the environmental factors may make eye witness testimony unreliable. When a person witnesses an alleged crime or is present at the crime scene, encompassing surrounding can prevent her from accurately and rightly perceiving or remembering what was the actual occurrence. For example, in a domestic fight, between couples in their house, a neighbor witness may watch from far due to fear of getting assaulted. Equally, witnessing a crime scene from a distance in a dark or witnessing an event taking place in a dimly light place can lead to poor information given during witness cross-examination. When two sisters were staying in a given house and a suspect comes in to abduct one of the girls, the environment may be traumatizing and the psychological effects that may have on them may make the information given be unauthentic and unreliable. A person’s biasness can greatly affect the accuracy of one’s memory. Stressful situations like the presence of a gun or a knife during an assault scene may make the victim’s eye witness give false information. “During the repressed-memory epidemic in the 1990s, adult patients in psychotherapy recovered childhood memories of having been molested by their parents, memories that later were implanted by psychotherapists since they repeatedly probed the patients ‘childhood memories” (Wixted et al., 2018).as a result, eye witness has proved to be unreliable.

Questionable lineup procedures can affect the eye witness testimony to be unreliable for use. According to Fitzgerald et al (2018), photo lineups are practical options but believe that witnesses make good identifications when lineup members are physically present. Live presentations have to be weighty to overcome the fundamental trouble of dispensing lineups. However, the channel used to line up members for eyewitness identification varies according to the location of the criminal investigation. Fitzgerald and co continue to insinuate that live lineups are not the best options but encourage further studies to establish which non-live medium gives the best balance between probative value and its practical utility. An eye witness may have observed a scene and accurately remembers it but his memories may get distorted when there is a poorly managed identification procedure. The information provided to the eye witness by authorities with the right intentions or accidentally can interfere with their memories. In fact, during eye witness testimony, police officers who know the identity of the suspect are not supposed to conduct lineups as they may give eyewitnesses cues that influence their identified persons.

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Misrepresentation during trial and questioning eyewitness during the trial also make eyewitness testimony to be unreliable. For example, police officers may present identification as certain; even if the eye witness has not shown a high level of confidence. Similarly, police officers may give feedback in identification may make an eye witness have a high level of certainty. Consequently, victims of crimes that involve eye witness’ testimony may benefit from consulting with an attorney for advice that seeks to challenge the testimony or contesting the testimony.

In conclusion, false memory is a byproduct of processes that typically support veridical memory. It is proper for the memory systems to focus on meaning extraction because that will suffice many cases. False memory makes a person remember events differently from the exact way they took place or even remember events that did not take place at all. False memory is a memory failure but differs from other forms of memory failures such as blocking, absent-mindedness among others. False memories can trick judicial officers and it can be very difficult to correct once a person becomes confident about a wrong memory. On the other hand, eye witness testimony has thrived in the judicial corridors even though it is unreliable. Some of the factors that may make eye witness testimony unreliable are misrepresentation during the trial, questionable lineups, questioning witness during trial among others. When probing an eye witness, the probing officers are only likely to receive reliable information if the observers were not earlier exposed to manipulated information, their memory is being probed for the first time, they are not tricked to provide the desired information and the investigators are sensitive to the witness’s level of confidence. When such conditions are met, eye witness is likely to be reliable; otherwise, eyewitness memory may be highly unreliable.


Abadie, M., & Camos, V. (2019). False memory at short and long term. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General148(8), 1312.

Fitzgerald, R. J., Price, H. L., & Valentine, T. (2018). Eyewitness identification: Live, photo, and video lineups. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law24(3), 307.

Kendra Cherry (2020): False Memories.

Niedźwieńska, A., Sołga, J., Zagaja, P., & Żołnierz, M. (2020). Everyday memory failures across adulthood: Implications for the age prospective memory paradox. Plos one15(9), e0239581.

Wixted, J. T., Mickes, L., & Fisher, R. P. (2018). Rethinking the reliability of eyewitness memory. Perspectives on Psychological Science13(3), 324-335.

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