Simple Jury Persuasion: If you tell us why, we are more likely to believe
A building falls down and 10 people die. How did it happen? Why did it happen? Why did it happen to those particular people? We wrote recently about the difference between how explanations and why explanations. In short, how is often filed away as a scientific explanation and why is often relegated to the supernatural. How the building fell is because of structural issues. Why? We want to know why. We tend to puzzle over why those particular people, why then, why them and why not others?
New research makes that recommendation even stronger. The researchers used the “false fabrication paradigm”. In brief, this a a technique where witnesses to an event are asked to tell what they saw and when memory fails, they are asked to “give your best guess”. In other words, they are told to “make stuff up”. What the researchers found is that when the fabrication (aka “the lie”) contained a causal explanation (aka the why) research participants were more likely to incorporate it into their next telling of the tale even after 6 weeks had passed! The researchers conclude as follows:
“The findings of the current investigation are of particular relevance to real-world forensic situations. In most cases, the purpose of eye-witness testimony is to provide an explanation for an outcome (e.g., an accident, robbery, or murder) that does not have a well-determined cause. In such situations, the stakes associated with solving a crime can be very high (e.g., conviction of the offender eliminates the likelihood of additional crimes being committed).
As a result, forensic interviewers may push witnesses beyond their actual memories, encouraging them or even coercing them to describe events they do not remember or never witnessed. The results reported here suggest that because of the explanatory function eyewitness testimony serves, witnesses may be especially predisposed to developing false memories for events that were at one time mere speculation or even forced fabrications.”
It’s a sobering initial finding into something we’ve suspected based on the false confessions research. We should point out that this research is based on how lies (aka forced fabrications) become truth in the mind of the rememberer. It’s a scary idea. We remember the lie as explaining why, and so it becomes the new ‘true’. And, according to prior research cited in this study, even when we are told the fact was wrong, we tend to forget that and instead recall the fabrication!
It’s a directive to the initial crime scene detectives to proceed carefully, and to defense counsel to consider very carefully how to pick apart eyewitness accounts. Further, it is a caution to witness preparers everywhere to be careful what you say and what you may encourage witnesses to say. It’s incredibly easy to contaminate witness memories.
Chrobak QM, & Zaragoza MS (2012). When Forced Fabrications Become Truth: Causal Explanations and False Memory Development. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. PMID: 22984953