Popular Science

Your memories are less accurate than you think

How do police extract eyewitness accounts they can trust?
a police officer

How can you trust human memory?

Earlier this year, the Air Force Office of Special Investigations reported that a cold case of nearly 14 years had finally been cracked. In 2015, a woman who was attacked by her Air Force instructor in 2000 had been able to describe a family portrait she noticed in his home. The instructor denied that it had ever hung on his wall—until the prosecution projected a photo of his family sitting on their living room sofa with the portrait visible behind them.

To close the case, investigators used a technique called cognitive interviewing, which was designed to help police question witnesses without blurring their memories.

If you question someone the right way, you can extract memories of events that took place years ago. And in this case, those memories were accurate. Yet our memories can also be contaminated by outside forces, internal biases, and even our own thoughts. Not every detail we recall is trustworthy.

Psychologists have spent decades studying why our memories become distorted—and how best to help eyewitnesses remember what they saw accurately. Meanwhile, neuroscientists are probing the ways our brains recollect visual information, and what that means for eyewitness testimony.

It’s not possible to interview eyewitnesses in such a way that promises pristine accuracy. But there are ways

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