Published: Saturday November 4, 2017

Imperfect recall- The frailties of memory.

Human beings are key in all levels of investigations. They provide from memory primary evidence of what they experienced through their five senses. Their ability to recall and recount key information and provide fine grain detail builds the picture which in some instances guides, but in all influences the enquiries direction.

However memory is not a video camera and is prone to lapses which can impact on its evidential value.

A study by Karim Kassam, Daniel Gilbert, Jillian Swencionis, and Timothy Wilson examined the “ motivation to remember” –  misconceptions of memory – The Scooter Libby Effect 2009). They concluded that people who are highly motivated to remember something at the time when they encode it in memory are more likely to remember it than are those who become highly motivated to remember it after encoding it.

This proposal highlights important points regarding memory. If a witness is not consciously aware of an event occurring their memory of it will be less complete and therefore less reliable as a whole. Conversely those involved in high stakes events may suffer sensory overload where significant ( to them) aspects are magnified and committed to memory whilst other aspects are not given attention.A prime example of this is what is known as weapon focus.

Weapon focus is an acknowledged phenomenon that affects an individual’s recall of events. When faced with a gun or other weapon attention is naturally focused on that and other significant details, including,in some instances, a description of the person holding the weapon.

So, memory lapse is an issue for us all including Investigators. This brings me to a recent article in the online Lexipol magazine by FBI agent Jason Helfer which whilst focusing on Police use of force provides an in-depth examination of the imperfections of memory. The full article can be accessed here.

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