Warping court memories with subtle suggestions

The legal system works on a principal of innocent until proven guilty by the evidence presented in court, but Cognitive Daily covers several studies that shown our memory of the evidence is affected by moral judgements of the person in question.

With their trademark clarity, CogDaily discuss a study [pdf] by psychologist David Pizarro that found if participants were told about man leaving a restaurant without paying, they remembered the unpaid bill being more expensive if they were told he treated the waiters rudely, than if they were told he was generally a responsible person.

The study is reminiscent of a famous experiment by a young Elizabeth Loftus called Reconstruction of Automobile Destruction.

It was simple but elegantly designed. Groups of people were shown clips of cars crashing and then asked how fast the cars were travelling, but with different verbs in the question.

For example, some people were asked how fast the cars were travelling when they “smashed” into each other, others how fast when they “bumped” into each other, others how fast when they “contacted” with each other, and so on.

Loftus found that simply asking the questions with a different verb altered people’s memories of the speed of the crash – like so:

“smashed” : 40.8 miles per hour
“collided” : 39.3 miles per hour
“bumped”: 38.1 miles per hour
“hit” : 34 miles per hour
“contacted” : 31.8 miles per hour

Needless to say, these sorts of tricks have been used by lawyers ever since.

Link to CogDaily on moral blame can change the memory of a crime.
pdf of full-text paper.
Link to Wikipedia page Loftus’s car crash study.

One thought on “Warping court memories with subtle suggestions”

  1. I remember meeting a young Liz Loftus at a conference many years ago. She was cute as hell! More importantly, a great researcher and thinker!

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