Psychology to the rescue of justice

When one delves into one's memory in search of an event from the past, the false often intertwines with the true. At a scientific congress held last winter, psychologists explained how they could help judges, lawyers and police in their quest for the truth.

da37416f 8e72 11ea b33c 02fe89184577 - Psychology to the rescue of justiceMathieu Perreault
The Press

Minimize false memories

Memory is a faculty that abhors a vacuum. This is the maxim that could be drawn from the work of Ira Hyman, a psychologist at Western Washington University in northern Washington State. Mr. Hyman presented them at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in mid-February in Seattle.

"I’m interested in selective attention and inattention blindness," said Hyman on the sidelines of his symposium on forensic psychology. When an accident or an extraordinary event such as an assault occurs, a witness will very rarely pay full attention to it. Then he will have a very fragmentary memory. "

It is normal to reconstruct what happened later, often based on the questions asked.

Ira Hyman, Professor of Psychology at the University of Western Washington

"To minimize false memories," he continues, "you need very specific police interrogation techniques. For example, you can start by saying, "When did you realize something was going on?" The reliability of everything that happened before is less good. Another tactic is to avoid giving details about the event before the witness reports it. Often the police will say, "You witnessed a knife attack," for example. It may spark a knife in the witness’s memory that didn’t exist there before. "

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Anita Hill during her testimony before the American Congress in 1991. Mme Hill alleged that he had been the victim of sexual harassment at the hands of Justice Clarence Thomas, who was appointed to access the Supreme Court.

Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas

The modern study of mistaken memories took off with the testimony of Anita Hill when Clarence Thomas was confirmed to the United States Supreme Court in 1991, according to Ira Hyman. Judge Thomas' appointment endorsed despite allegations of M's sexual harassmente Hill, his former subordinate.

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Justice Clarence Thomas during Senate hearings in 1991

"A well-known study has shown that fuzzy memories, like" he was making sex jokes that I don't remember exactly ", are more often crystallized in memory when they occur in inappropriate contexts, says Hyman. So it was only natural that Anita Hill would remember these types of fuzzy memories more than Clarence Thomas' jokes and precise sexual remarks. "

The study was published in 1993 by two Californian psychologists in the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology. The researchers had shown guinea pigs videos of conversations between a man and a woman, in a bar and in an office. Half of the eight replicas of the man had a sexual connotation. The dirty words were more often remembered by the subjects and had left a stronger imprint when they were kept in an office … but these memories nonetheless remained fuzzy, the participant generally not remembering the exact words that had been spoken.

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Former FBI boss James Comey has testified several times before Congress, including allegations of interference against President Trump.

Risk factors for forgetting

Conversations are more likely to be correctly repeated if they occur in a surprising context, if they contain extraordinary words and if we are part of it, summarized at the colloquium on legal psychology of the AAAS, in Seattle in February , another specialist in the subject, Sarah Brown-Schmidt, from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaing.

"The admissibility of evidence in a trial must take into account psychological research," said Mme Brown-Schmidt at the conference. For example, we remember more what we say than what we hear. And if a witness is asked to confirm what a person said during the conversation, that memory is less reliable than if the witness is asked to repeat what that person said. "

Mme Brown-Schmidt used testimony from the United States Congressman James Comey, former FBI director, about allegations of interference from President Donald Trump, to illustrate the perils of memories of conversations.

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False memories complicate the search for missing children, concludes a study published in the Journal of Experimental Criminology in 2016.

The paradox of missing children

The pint of milk may not have been a good way to find the missing children, after all. Neither did bombing wanted ads on social media. This is what emerges from an American study discussed by Ira Hyman in the margins of the AAAS congress.

When The Press asked if false memories complicate the search for missing children, the American psychologist mentioned a study by Kara Moore of Knox University in Illinois published in 2016 in the Journal of Experimental Criminology.

Mme Moore showed 500 guinea pigs, divided into two groups, short wanted search videos for a young woman. One group watched the video three times in three days, while the other group watched wildlife documentaries the first two days, then the video of the missing woman on the third day. On the fourth day, the young woman was seated in a hall where all the participants were to pass. Guinea pigs who had seen the video three times recognized it in less than 5% of the cases, compared to 10% for those who had seen the video only once.

It shows that there is memory fatigue due to repetition. We only remember well what is out of the ordinary.

Ira Hyman, Professor of Psychology at the University of Western Washington

Social networks against sexual slavery

Another conference on crime at the AAAS congress in Seattle focused on the use of technology to counter child prostitution. A Seattle NGO, Real Escape from the Sex Trade (REST), testified that it had reduced the time it takes to help a victim of sexual slavery by a factor of 10 by contacting them by text message rather than in person. More than 60 hours of street work were necessary for a single case before, while six hours is enough with texting, because the victim can contact REST as he pleases. However, the approach only works with young people who are comfortable with technology and social networks, and can be hacked by pimps. Seattle is also home to a technology NGO, Polaris, which traps pedophiles frequenting prostitution sites, and displays anti-pedophilia advertisements on prostitution sites offering the services of minors, to discourage clients. These ads, which warn potential customers that they are "going to hurt" (hurt) the young prostitute would have halved the traffic in the targeted prostitution sites, said Polaris at the AAAS conference.


Proportion of the exact words of a harmless conversation which can be recited 10 minutes after the end of this conversation
Source: Law

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