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Human factors

Human factors

Explain why a witness’s account of events may differ from what really happened.

  • Assume that the witness is fit and healthy and will provide and honest account according to their
  • Research should focus on PERCEPTION and LONG TERM MEMORY.

Writing style as Harvard.

An incident is reported of a woman that accused Donald Thompson of raping her. A
rapist attacked her while she was watching Donald Thompson on a live telecast. The woman

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confused the rapist’s face with the one she had seen on TV and identified Donald Thompson
as the perpetrator. Before the authorities realized that she had confused the face of the rapist
with that of Thompson on TV, Thompson had been arrested. The police had dismissed the
alibi that the rape occurred when he was on TV and together with the audience and other
discussants (Braddeley, 2004). It is a story of how accounts of mentally fit and healthy
witnesses with honest intentions may starkly differ from what really happened. It is an
intriguing phenomenon whose explanation lies in the mental processes of perception and long
term memory.
The eyes just like other sensory organs have limitations that can cause erroneous
identification of objects. For example, a story is told of two men that were in the woods
talking and thinking about bears. They then spotted a large object that was moving and
making some noise. Their conversation had conditioned them to think that it was a bear and
so they aimed their barrels and shot at what was later revealed to be a tent harboring a couple
that was making love. They killed the woman and during trial, the jurors found it difficult to
understand their perceptual problems because they could not imagine how a yellow tent
seemed like a growling bear. Prior conditioning altered their perception and the perpetrator
received a negligent homicide judgment (Loftus & Ketcham, 1991).
People do not see what they sense, rather they see what they think they sense. In this
light, a witness perceives not the raw data of the event, rather, an interpretation of the raw
data. There is an unconscious information processing process that interprets and discards the
raw data or information (Norretranders, 1999). It presents an interpretation of the event. It is
the reason why different witnesses of a similar event perceive it differently because their
interpretation is subject to their unique information processing process based on their world
view. The perception process only encodes the information that one thinks is expected. A

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witness also perceives events selectively based on prior life experiences. This conditioning
may cause witnesses in good faith to fill gaps in perception depending on what is expected or
wanted to perceive. Their perception leads them to give accounts that differ from what really
Perception occurs through the senses and the perceived sensations are processed. For
instance, research shows that most people would perceive a smaller light in the dark as being
further away than the larger light even when in reality they are on the same distance from the
eyes (Moses, 2001). All the information that a witness presents is first and foremost
perceived. It is because nothing sticks in the mind unless it is perceived. Processing the
perceived sensations thus heavily depends on how one makes inferences. Engaging in
inferential reasoning covers the gaps in actual perception. Witnesses may thus infer things
they do not know from other things that they do know. It leads them to give an account that
differs from what really happened. For instance, a witness may infer that the person they see
carrying a stolen wallet is the one that robbed them (Moses, 2001).
Witnesses can only remember what they perceive and can perceive only what they
attend to. Perception is influenced by a combination of stimulus that one already knows,
expects or wants. Perception of events is a momentary and personal occurrence and once
complete, the witness relies on memory. Perception can be flawed because the brain is filled
with one’s interpretation rather than the actual sensory information. A witness may thus have
an altered perception that distorts memory based on inherent expectations at the acquisition
stage of memory. A witness may interpret visual sensory information based on their inherent
expectations, pre-existing knowledge or wants and thus an account that starkly differs from
what really happened (Loftus & Ketcham, 1991).
Stressful situations also interfere with detailed perception. It is because heightened
stress levels narrows the scope of perception and elevates emotions. Physiologically, stress

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affects the hippocampus, impairing the formation of memories. In this event, stress makes an
impression on the person making perception unreliable. The impact of a life threatening
situation such as rape thus makes a witnesses’ perception unreliable. It makes the retrieval
process unreliable as well and it may be the reason their account may differ from what really
happened (Moses, 2001).
For the most part, matters involving eyewitness’s memory rely on the accuracy of
long term memory rather than sensory and short term memory. Sensory memory stores
information that lasts for the split second of an event because sensory organs only store
information for less than a second in its unprocessed form. Individuals preserve information
from their sensory systems in its sensory form. Short term memory allows one to store
acquired memory for some seconds to minutes (Weiten, 2005). Short term memory stores
limited items and when rehearsed and elaborated, it is registered and can be moved to the
long term memory. Long term memory retains information that can last a lifetime. Witnesses
recount an event by retrieving information from the long-term memory (Hagsand, 2014).
Long term memory is divided into implicit and explicit memory. Implicit memory
stores information that one does not unconsciously know like peddling a bike or a neonate’s
lurch on a mother’s breast. Explicit memory stores information that one can verbalize
consciously. Witnesses draw on their both their semantic and autobiographical aspects of
their explicit memory. Semantic memory contains facts such as people’s names and it is
more about what one knows than recalling. Autobiographical memory contains a recollection
of events and episodes. When one draws on the autobiographical memory, they recall the
exact details of uttered words, and the elements in the environment (Green, 2013).
One of the reasons why a witness’ account may differ from what really happened is a
faulty memory acquisition process. It is whereby one may not have perceived some

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information in the acquisition phase. When someone fails to effectively perceive information
it affects their capacity to develop a comprehensive account of what really happened. It is
also likely that the retention process was interfered with or even that information may be
inaccessible during the retrieval process (Loftus, 1979).
Witnesses retrieve bits and pieces of their memories as a puzzle. Memory is thus a
reconstruction of past events rather than a recording. A witness often has insufficient
information in the memory and h as to invoke pieces of information from other sources
during the reconstruction process. They draw from pre-existing schemas that are the
stereotyped models of events and objects (Green, 2013). A witness’ account is thus
susceptible to being altered because a lawyer’s questioning may alter the testament when
fragments of the memory is unknowingly combined with information provided during
questioning (Arkwotitz & Lilienfeld, January).
It is also likely that a witness may confuse the sources of information. For instance
one may present imagined memories of imagined events rather than of an actual event.
Memory source confusion may also incorporate information that is subsequently gained from
other witnesses or read in newspapers, information from ones’ general knowledge. The
witness may thus pool memory separate occurrences or mistake imaginative events for real
ones. The witness may thus give information that differs from what really happened owing to
the poor ability to determine the source of information (Green, 2013).
It is also evident that a witness may give an account that differs from the real
occurrence because the retrieved information is subjected to subjective interpretation. Every
witness interprets events based on personal beliefs, experiences and needs and world view. It
is the reason different eyewitnesses observing the same event have different interpretations
and different memories. They store their unique perception or interpretation of events in their
memory. More reason a witness’ account differs from what really happened is because

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memory changes with time. In recalling an event over and over, a witness drops details from
earlier versions and adds new details to later versions. They may also incorporate information
learnt after the event combining two memories into one (Green, 2013).
Forgetting is also responsible for why a witness’ account may differ what really
happened. When a memory remains inactive for months or days, the physiological bases of
memory tend to change. The memory trace in the brain or the engram gradually decays.
Disuse decreases the amount of information that can be recalled and items of information in
memory become less accessible with increased time. The loss of information occurs rapidly
at first and is then followed by a leveling off. Research shows that basic level information
decays less rapidly than more fine detailed information. A study indicated that eye witnesses’
reports provided after 40 days are less detailed than those provided immediately after the
event (Read & Connolly, 2006).
Retrieving an item from a memory also increases the likelihood that it is recalled
again. In a forensic context, once witnesses make an immediate recall attempt, it preserves
their subsequent recall performance making memory loss unlikely. It is because retrieval
strengthens the associations between them and increases their representation in memory
(Read & Connolly, 2006).
A witness may also give an account that differs from what really happened due to
retrieval enhanced suggestibility. Witnesses may fall into repeated retrieval when providing
testimony to police investigators, lawyers, friends and family members and it negatively
influences their ability to resist subsequently misleading information (Chan & LaPaglia,
2011). Providing a witness with misleading information produces higher confidence for the
incorrect information than for the correct information. It may occur because initial retrieval
may inadvertently draw attention to particular aspects of the event that was witnessed.
Attention increases when new information regarding those particular items is presented and

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in the subsequent retrievals, the misinformation – new information is integrated into the
memory becoming more memorable. Repeated retrieval can only lead to accurate recall when
the questions are asked in an open ended and neutral way. However, when one receives
misleading information, it increases suggestibility (Chan & LaPaglia, 2011). Engaging
witnesses in frequent retrieval with misleading information may thus influence their tendency
to provide information that differs from what really happened.
Indeed memories can be altered during retelling because people rarely retell memories
in a neutral way. A witness’ testimony has a pivotal influence on the determination of guilt or
innocence about the defendant. Mentally fit and healthy witnesses with good faith can
provide an account that differs from what really happened due to a flawed perception and
negative influences on their long-term memory. Perception occurs through the senses and
witnesses can only remember what they perceive and can perceive only what they attend to.
Their perception is again influenced by ones environmental conditions and internal
conditioning. Environmental conditions at the time of the event also significantly influence
the witness’ capacity to for quality perception. Elevated emotions interfere with the
hippocampus ability to register the entirety of the event. It means that a witness’s perception
can alter their account based on personal interpretation and stress levels. A witness’ account
may also differ due to impaired memory acquisition, external influences during memory
reconstruction, confusion of sources of memory, forgetfulness, subjective interpretation,
delays in retrieval and misinformation during repeated retrieval. These factors are pertinent in
assessing the reliability of witnesses’ testimony particularly because memory is continuously
altered and reconstructed.


Human Factors 8
Arkwotitz, H., & Lilienfeld, S. O. (January, 8 2009). Why Science Tells Us Not to Rely on
Eyewitness Accounts. Retrieved October 15, 2014, from Scientific American:
Braddeley, A. (2004). Your Memory: A User’s Guide . Richmond Hill, Canada: Firefly
Chan, J. C., & LaPaglia, J. A. (2011). The Dark side of Testing Memory: Repeated Retrieval
can Enhance Eyewitness Suggestibility. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 8(29),
Green, M. (2013). Eyewitness Memory is Unreliable. Retrieved October 15, 2014, from
Hagsand, A. (2014). Alcohol-Intoxicated Eyewitnesses’ Memory. Gothenburg, Sweden:
University of Gothenburg.
Loftus, E. F. (1979). Eyewitness Testimony. Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
Loftus, E., & Ketcham, K. (1991). Witness for the Defense: The Accused, the Eyewitness, and
the Expert who Puts Memory on Trial. New York : St. Martins Press.
Moses, R. (2001). Misidentification: The Caprices of Eyewitness Testimony in Criminal
Cases. Retrieved October 15, 2014, from criminal defence:
Norretranders, T. (1999). The User Illusion: Cutting Consciousness Down To Size. New
York: Penguin Books.
Read, J. D., & Connolly, D. A. (2006). The Effects of Delay on Long Term Memory for
Witnessed Events. In M. P. Toglia, D. Ross, J. Read, & R. C. Lindsay, Handbook of
Eyewitness Psychology: Volume 1: Memory for Events (pp. 117-155). Mahway NJ:
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Inc.

Human Factors 9
Weiten, W. (2005). Psychology: Theme and Variations, The United States of America. New
York: Thompson Learning Inc.

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