June 27, 2010
We’ve all seen courtroom dramas where the prosecutor asks the victim or another witness if the assailant is in the room. Without hesitation, the witness points to the defendant. It can be a devastating blow for the defense. Yet, eyewitness testimony may also exonerate an accused.
Unfortunately, eyewitness testimony — regardless of who it favors — is notoriously unreliable, based on imperfect memories. Now, a recent study by Cornell University suggests that those memories may be even less reliable than perviously thought, particularly when the subject is under stress.
During the study, researchers exposed both children and adults to negative stimuli while they performed memory tests. The findings indicate that negative emotions — such as one might experience during a violent crime — lead to low true memory levels and high false memory levels. Further, adults tended to be more susceptible than children to this influence.
How studies like this will affect our judicial system remains to be seen. Just remember, even the most credible eyewitness may be mistaken.
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