Skip to content

The flawed systems that remind me we still live in the olden days

I had to give a witness statement today for an incident that happened whilst at work, involving three people from outside of the company. Obviously I cannot really say what this was (it isn’t anything too exciting, trust me) but it provided my thoughts for the day. This incident happened a couple months back however it was only this afternoon that I was required to give a statement, this was tricky because I then had to recall that one day despite my memory of it fading.

Here is a video about eye-witness testimony that I have literally just found whilst typing ‘flaws in eye witness testimony’ in YouTube.

I was required to give details about what the individuals were wearing. What they sounded like. How tall and what kind of build they had. Their hair colour. I admitted that I cannot recall too much anymore and that it is mostly guesswork. She understood this completely. However now I have provided a witness statement that may have big inaccuracies, unintended of course.

Like dreams and any memory we have, remembering them can portray a completely different picture than it did when first experienced. I may have a memory from childhood of riding a skateboard as I watched a horse escape from a field on a rainy day. The next time I rethink this memory, I might forget it was a skateboard and think I was on a scooter instead. I may forget it was a horse and think it was a cow. Before I know it, I have a memory as a child of riding my scooter when a cow escaped a field on a sunny day. The whole scene has changed and I still remember this as clear as day. Or so I believe. This is the problem with eye- witness testimony. To rely on humans to rethink what happened on a certain day is very flawed. Our brains are amazing, but not good enough to accurately revisit a previous date as well as CCTV can. I wouldn’t be surprised if every eye witness testimony of the same incident varied wildly, yet eye witness testimony may be the difference between being a free citizen or spending a lot of time behind bars. A pretty crazy thing to consider.

I guess my advice here would be stay out of trouble. But then again, if something happens near you and the eye witness remembers your description more than the offender, you may get screwed over anyway. I guess I shouldn’t complain about how many CCTV cameras there are in the UK. I am sure it is a blessing in disguise.


39 replies »

  1. Our instincts incline us to believe the eyewitness testimony is reliable but it is actually less reliable than most other forms of evidence, partly for reasons you have outlined above. There is a famous exercise in which a group of students are shown a video of youngsters playing with a basketball and are asked to count how many times it bounces. At the end they are then hit with the real question: “did you see the gorilla?”. Most have not because they have been concentrating on the counting task, and some even try to deny that there was a gorilla. The gorilla (actually a person in a gorilla suit) is in shot for nine seconds of a 25 second video clip, and yet when attention is diverted elsewhere is very easily missed.

    Liked by 3 people

    • I have seen that video Thomas! I did not think about it at all during the time I was writing this post, I wish I added that in somewhere. Oh well, thanks for reminding me of it. When I first read that there was a gorilla in the video, I had to watch again and I couldn’t believe we could miss something so obvious! A big flaw in our observations indeed.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Agreed, I don’t believe miracle claims at all. They often happen in areas or times in which decent proof for the masses was or is not possible. Very convenient for those that claim a miracle happened, not very believable though.

      I like that quote too, thanks for sharing 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Great [post and very interesting video!

    I have an old friend who was an MP, and her laconic comment to situations like this was “Five witnesses, seven statements”. A cousin who used to be in federal law enforcement also used to grumble about it – more so because he felt many of his colleagues were too ready to take even the most confused bystander’s testimony as reliable, if it meant they might close the case.

    When it’s about skateboards and horses and cows and scooters (awesome image by the way 😛 ), well, no harm done. Other than doubting your own sanity, perhaps. If we’re talking about law enforcement … UNH.
    You can actually be trained to observe and remember, and still your memory messes with you. There was a hilarious “Due South” episode once, with three cops remembering the same incident in completely different ways, and applying their own biases on top of it.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Your point of biases is a good one, as well. It’s one thing to report physical facts of what you saw, but can be quite another when a statement is given with all the angles and interpretation overlaid from the witnesses experiences, opinions and interests.
      In an incident I was related to, I was amazed how varied the testimony on the same incident was, and then how varied the memories were of what was in those testimonies, by each person who attended the hearing. From my perspective, almost everything most of them said, and afterward remembered, had to do with their bias coming in rather than anything that actually happened or was talked about by others at the hearing. Very eye-opening!

      Liked by 2 people

      • Absolutely! The eye opening part, and your other observations!

        What one might also consider, is that the bias is often subconscious, so we’re not even aware we’re applying it. And/or our own brains fool us by racing down well traveled/familiar pathways, and we don’t stop and re-assess. For example, I’m around horses a lot, so if I hear a squeal with a certain pitch but can’t see what is happening, my brain tries to interpret the sound and offers a familiar explanation first (Horsey in distress!). Even if there’s no pony within 5 miles, but only a happy piglet seeing the feed bucket.
        Only if I look around and my brain gets the “no horse in sight, goofus!” message, does the “backtrack -> re-evaluate -> enter visual of piglet -> offer new, better explanation” happen. But what if it was that squeaky bike? Now I’m confused… (Brain does not like uncertainty. Brain likes familiarity. Brain likes easy explanations. Predators in doubt hesitate. Hesitation means predator goes hungry or is killed by other predator. Brain does not like.)

        Have to mention another “Due South” episode (had a wee bit of a marathon recently, can you tell 😉 ?) “Your honor, there was a ‘bing’ where the ‘boom’ should’ve been!”
        Two cops, jumping to conclusion based on the (gunshot) sounds they heard, and arresting the wrong dude. Then going back over what they heard and re-assessing. Forcing their brains to backtrack and leave the worn paths to evaluate what they actually heard.

        Fascinating stuff.

        Liked by 2 people

      • You do seem a Due South fan, just a little xD

        Another thing from your brain processing segment is that we do like to jump to conclusions too. Sometimes a bad answer is better than no answer at all, from documentaries I have watched those in power have often rushed sentences without fair trials or enough evidence just because it closes the case. Which is pretty scary indeed.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, very cool episodes…It sounds well written. Your horse example is a very good physical one. We all do that, for sure. Brains are forever taking new sensory input and assigning it to known patterns. I hadn’t thought so clearly of how that works with psychological input too, though I’ve certainly always seen the result. And, of course, I understand that I have biases and can fool myself too. I try not to let that throw off my basic confidence – self doubt isn’t useful – but I use it to keep a measure on my pride and to keep empathy for others who I can see have become deluded.

        Liked by 1 person

    • That is cool to hear the opinions of people that may rely on such testimonies more regularly than I will. Even with training, there is only so much our brains can recall, even though I bet training would have a positive impact on the outcome. I can only hope that I have to recall my own dreams and childhood experiences instead of police incidents from now on! Fingers crossed…

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Sam – I found this post to be very interesting and thought provoking. My day job is in a law office. One of the things I have noticed is that often the person providing the testimony makes a difference in how it is perceived. For example the testimony of a police officer is often considered to be more valid than that of a regular citizen without a law enforcement background. I am definitely sharing this post with my co-workers.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Ah cool! I am glad you stumbled upon my post then 🙂 also, thanks for sharing with your co-workers. Would you agree that a regular citizens testimony would be less than a police officers? As one reader has mentioned above, are those that are trained in recalling incidents or at least have to be more aware of their surroundings actually better at recalling such moments in your opinion?

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks for more thought provoking questions. I have noticed that in general more weight is given to law enforcement. I think it is based on the assumption that they are right because they have training to be observant. One has to remember that law enforcement are trained to detect criminal or deviant behaviors. And that law enforcement officers are people. People given training to be observant but people just the same, who make errors, have biases, etc.

        An argument could be made that an artist or photographer or anyone who is trained in observing human behavior has extra training in being observant as well. But it doesn’t necessarily make them a good witness.

        This is a really good post and has proved great dialog in my office. -Jill

        Liked by 1 person

      • It is certainly interesting to consider who would make a good witness. It reminds me of the belief that pilots are considered more reliable witnesses of UFO sightings than just your everyday citizen in the street, although in this case pilots of passenger aircraft aren’t ufologists either!

        Liked by 1 person

  4. As the comment by kanewischer confirms, law enforcement and judges definitely consider the reliability of testimony. The fact you put in as part of your statement that you’re not sure of the details matters, and you’ve given due diligence in providing accurate evidence. At least here in the US, eye witness testimony has to be corroborated to have serious weight. If 6 eye witnesses say he was tall, 1 says he was blond, 4 say he had dark hair, 2 say he was medium height, etc., the judge is going to put higher assumption on that the guy was tall with darkish hair. There usually has to be more than one civilian eye witness, as well as some other evidence, to put someone behind bars. So what you provided it just one foggy part of an overall picture, and it will likely be treated as such.
    I also find it’s interesting how perspective or even dreams can play into memories from years ago, or especially from childhood. Some things I thought I dreamed, my brother has confirmed were real. Some things I would swear were real (where he was present) he doesn’t remember at all. He’s almost 6 years older and has a frighteningly accurate memory, so I think some of my memories were just dreams, or heavily enhanced with my imagination.
    I’ve witnessed a few ‘incidents’ in my time, and the first thing I did is write notes of key things I saw. I also checked myself to be sure I actually saw them and didn’t infer them by noise I heard etc. People often think they witnessed a car crash when they actually only noticed it right after the sound. They then infer what happened by the scene they see, which isn’t always accurate either.
    Good post… Sorry I got so longwinded, but you really got me thinking! 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

    • Don’t be sorry, it is fascinating to chat to everyone about it! It is very sobering to me to think of our incredible brains and realise that we can mix dreams and reality so easily. Oh well, I really do wonder how incidents are treated in 500 years time, maybe they will be able to predict crimes and incidents before they happen, Minority Report style.

      Liked by 1 person

    • The problem is actually, that I didn’t mention in the post but probably should have, is that I didn’t witness the incident, I just spoke to the people involved a couple of hours before it happened. So at the time I didn’t even know I was going to need to remember anything, until something happened and I had to think of the conversation I had. This makes it extra tricky!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I absolutely agree regarding the tricks our mind plays on us. Memories are not photographs–they are the result of multiple mental retellings and overlays.

    This post aligns beautifully with the book I am writing. What was a simply exploration of my journey to film-noir-fandom has become a larger exercise in what I call “interrogating memory.” My therapist and I have also considered what Freud called “screen memories”–the replacement of an underlying traumatic memory with one more banal, but with the same negative affect. If you (or any of your readers) are interested, I encourage you to read the relevant posts on my “Just Bear With Me” blog.

    Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. This is so true. Sometimes it’s funny the memories our mind makes us remember. Like a childhood memory i vividly remembered for a very long time until my parents told my that it didn’t actually happen to me but it happened to one of my siblings. After hearing the story so many times as a young child, i had started to place myself in the memory and before long, it had become mine. So yes, eyewitness testimony isn’t really that reliable and that’s one of the reasons why justice is sometimes flawed. It’s unfortunate however that not all countries and cities have CCTV cameras positioned around their territory so they still have to rely on the eyewitnesses for now. Hopefully all those improvements will be made in the future.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Thank You!

  • 53,249 little bits of appreciation
Follow Living! on
%d bloggers like this: