Friday, September 25, 2009

Seeing May Be Believing, But It Isn't Always Proof

In the following video, Taryn Simon shows photographs from two themes in her work. The first half of the video shows part of a collection of photos of "secret sites", stuff most of humanity never sees. The second half is a series of portraits of innocent people who were convicted through the (mis)use of photographs.

My comments today are going to focus on the second half of this video. In 1988, a study by A. Rattner found that in reviewing 205 cases of wrongful convictions, 52% contained mistakened identification by eyewitnesses. In fact, according to G.L. Wells (1993), eyewitness mistakes are the most prevelent factor in wrongful convictions. There are two reasons why this occurs: mishandling by police officers and the nature of memory.

Going into my forensic psychology text by Lawrence Wrightman (2006), I found many possible ways that eyewitness testimony can be compromised. I also found a list of ways of how to make eyewitness information more reliable. The latter is a much shorter list and includes: slowing down questioning, re-creating the original context, tailor questions specific to the witness, have the interview witness-centered*, recognize the differences between accurate and inaccurate answers (as in how the witness says things, not whether or not it fits what the investigator thinks is so), and being careful of the temptation to form premature conclusions.

*Special note about witness-centered interviews. This means that the witness should be encouraged not to edit their thoughts, but to share all of them. Unfortunately, most investigators use control and intimidation to get information, even from cooperative witnesses (Fisher, Geisman, & Raymond, 1987). Very recent research has proven that forcing answers ruins the accuracy of the information gained. Be it intimidation or outright torture or other source, a person's memory can becomes distorted or even destroyed from stress.

I considered summarizing how memory works, but that would seriously take more time than I want to devote to in something that is just supposed to be commentary. So instead, I will give you another video about how our brains are wired to show that we don't always see what we think we see.

To be honest, this TED video is not a favorite of mine. The professor who taught my intro to psychology class, Dr. Melvyn G. Preisz, is not only a practicing psychologist, but also an amatuer magician. His lecture on preception and the mind is far more mind-blowing and informative.

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