ASSAP: Paranormal Research
ASSAP: Paranormal Education
Privacy and cookie information ASSAP mailing list
 
 

The Eyewitness
by Paul Chambers

Few researchers are lucky enough to witness paranormal phenomena personally. We therefore have to rely on witness testimony. But how accurate is that vital testimony? See also eyewitness research by ASSAP.

When it comes to solid proof, the paranormal world does not have a good track record. Several centuries of serious-minded investigation have yet to produce a single piece of independent evidence that satisfies the demands of the sceptic.

With almost every reported paranormal experience the only evidence we have to go on is that of the eyewitness. However, considering how important eyewitness testimony is to the credibility of the paranormal, it is amazing how little attention is actually paid to the conditions under which such testimonies are taken or the factors which can affect their reliability. In fact, experience suggests that many paranormal researchers start with the premise that eyewitness testimony is both 100 percent correct and infallible. This paper aims to show that there are many factors which can affect the accuracy of eyewitness testimony and that such factors must be taken into consideration if the paranormal is to be taken more seriously by the established scientific community.

One of the most frustrating aspects of any paranormal experience, be it a poltergeist or UFO, is the lack of solid proof to back up people's claims of having had an apparently impossible (in scientific terms) or improbable experience. It is this lack of hard evidence that more often than not defines a case as being paranormal. If a cryptozoologist could bring back the body of the Bigfoot, rather than just a few out of focus pictures of something that might or might not be an unknown species of giant ape, then there would be no mystery to solve. Zoologists could examine the body and be happy that there is a wild primate living in the forests of western America. Likewise, if every alien abductee could bring back a piece of material not found on Earth or every ghost be made to appear at a pre-arranged press conference, then most paranormal investigators would be out of a job. However, none of this hard evidence ever comes to light and it seems, as many have remarked, that the paranormal world will give just enough proof to keep people intrigued but not enough for them to be able to convince a sceptical world.

Whether by design or accident, the long and short of all this is that we are left with no tangible evidence other than the word of the witness or witnesses to the paranormal phenomenon concerned.

Considering that practically every sphere of the paranormal relies heavily on the testimony of eyewitnesses, there has been remarkably little work done into the question of its reliability. It seems that while paranormal investigators will travel long distances to see the site of a strange activity or will spend hours researching in libraries, very few ever direct their attention towards understanding the ins and outs of the reliability of the eyewitness testimony that underpins their craft.

Given the lack of direct research performed by the paranormal community, it is necessary to look for parallels in other research fields. A literature search revealed that practical research into the accuracy of eyewitness testimony has almost exclusively come from the legal profession, whose concern is the reliability of the testimony of eyewitnesses in a court of law.

The testimony of an eyewitness will often be the only evidence offered up in a court of law. There tends also to be a propensity for a court jury to believe without question what an eyewitness tells them. For this reason there has been a great deal of research done as to how accurate an eyewitness testimony in court actually is and, in cases where it turns out to be inaccurate, why errors have occurred and how they can be spotted or avoided in future.

Eyewitness testimony in court frequently concerns the recall of a spontaneous event or events which occurred some time previously (eg. a car crash). Eyewitness testimony given in the aftermath of a paranormal encounter is also likely to concern a spontaneous event which occurred some time ago. The parallels between criminal and paranormal witnesses are profound. Thus the bulk of the material in this paper will be drawn from research carried out on behalf of the criminal justice system but which can equally well be applied to paranormal research.

Hearsay Evidence

The first matter to be considered is whether or not second-hand testimony by witnesses is admissible as evidence.

Using first-hand sources might seem to be a common-sense thing to do, given that first-hand accounts are generally considered to be more reliable than second-hand ones, but the need for first-hand evidence is even more crucial than this.

The paranormal researcher, like most courts of law, is almost totally reliant on eyewitness testimony in their need to study the mystery before them. In a court of law only first-hand eyewitness testimony is admissible, with so-called hearsay evidence (i.e. telling somebody else's version of events) being wholly inadmissible. In other words as far as the law of the land is concerned, second-hand evidence is a non-starter. If the paranormal world is to gain the respect of scientists and other professional researchers, then it too should adopt this same high ideal. But why is hearsay evidence so unreliable?

Anybody who has ever tried to make a copy of an audio or video tape will know that the second copy is never as good as the original. This is because the copying process is imperfect and any minor faults on the first tape will become exaggerated on the second one. If a third copy is made from the second tape then this will be of worse quality still. If copies of copies are continually made, then by the sixth or seventh generation the imperfections will be so great as to make the original soundtrack and picture practically unrecognisable. Anybody who has bought a pirated videotape from a market stall will be able to testify that the quality is most certainly not the same as an original one purchased on the high street. The same is true of any type of sequential copying, be it art forgery or video piracy: to guarantee quality you have to go back to the original source. This is also true with eyewitness testimony and there have been a number of interesting experiments done to prove this.

The earliest, and probably still the best, experiment done with regard to hearsay evidence was performed in the 1930s by Sir Frederic C. Bartlett, a Cambridge psychologist who had an interest in the reliability of memory. In addition to his desire to understand the workings of human memory, Bartlett also had a fascination with folktales, especially with regard to the manner in which their meaning and content could become altered through time. He chose to use a folktale as the central focus in the following experiment, something that makes it all the more relevant to students of the paranormal.

In deciding how accurate a second or third hand recounting of somebody else's description of events is, Bartlett set up an experiment in which one person was told a traditional American Indian ghost story. This person then had to tell the story as best as they could remember it to another person who in turn had to tell it to somebody else who told somebody else, and so on down the line. In so doing, Bartlett wanted to see how much it was possible for a story to change after going through several generations of repetitions. The original ghost story was as follows:

One night two young men from Egulac went down to the river to hunt seals, and while they were there it became foggy and calm. Then they heard war-cries, and they thought: ‘Maybe this is a war party’. They escaped to the shore, and hid behind a log. Now canoes came up, and they heard the noise of paddles, and saw one canoe coming up to them. There were five men in the canoe, and they said:

‘What do you think? We wish to take you along. We are going up the river to make war on the people’.

One of the young men said: ‘I have no arrows’.
‘Arrows are in the canoe’, they said.
‘I will not go along. I might be killed. My relatives do not know where I have gone. But you’, he said, turning to the other, ‘may go with them.’

So one of the young men went, but the other returned home.

And the warriors went on up the river to a town on the other side of Kalama. The people came down to the water, and they began to fight, and many were killed. But presently the young man heard one of the warriors say: ‘Quickly, let us go home: that Indian has been hit’. Now he thought: ‘Oh, they are ghosts’. He did not feel sick, but they said he had been shot.

So the canoes went back to Egulac, and the young man went ashore to his house, and made a fire. And he told everybody and said: ‘Behold I accompanied the ghosts, and went to fight. Many of our fellows were killed, and many of those who attacked us were killed. They said I was hit, and I did not feel sick’.

He told it all, and then he became quiet. When the sun rose he fell down. Something black came out of mouth. His face became contorted. The people jumped up and cried.

He was dead. [1]

Bartlett based a number of experiments around the telling and retelling of this story, which he calls 'The War of the Ghosts'. See if you can recognise the following version of 'The War of the Ghosts':

Two Indians were out fishing for seals in the Bay of Manpapan, when along came five other Indians in a war-canoe. They were going fighting.

‘Come with us,’ said the five to the two, ‘and fight.’
‘I cannot come,’ was the answer of the one, ‘for I have an old mother at home who is dependant upon me.’ The other also said he could not come, because he had no arms. ‘That is no difficulty,’ the others replied, ‘for we have plenty in the canoe with us’; so he got into the canoe and went with them.

In a fight soon afterwards this Indian received a mortal wound. Finding that his hour was come, he cried out that he was about to die. ‘Nonsense,’ said one of the others, ‘you will not die.’ But he did. [2]

This version of 'The War of the Ghosts' emerged from the tenth person to be told the tale. While it is still recognisable as being related to the original story reprinted above, there are very significant changes in terms of its length, detail and overall meaning. In fact, if you were to read this last version without having first read the original, it would not make much sense at all, there being no real point to it.

Bartlett repeated the experiment using different stories and found the same result in each case. Like making copies of video tapes, as a story gets copied from person to person, the inaccuracies get steadily worse until much of the original detail and meaning is lost. The stark lesson here is obvious. Only first-hand eyewitness testimony can be considered to be reliable. The legal courts accepted this fact a long time ago and so must we in the paranormal.

A Matter of Time

Before leaving Bartlett's work entirely we must complicate matters further. It is not just the reproducing of a story from person to person that can cause radical changes in it - the details of even a first-hand experience can also change radically with the passage of time. The crucial factor in this is the length of time that elapses between an event and the person being asked to recall the details of it.

Human memory is not infallible, and the quality of a recollection fades rapidly with time. This degradation can introduce new details, or subtract original ones, from the original version of events.

Going back to 'The War of the Ghosts' again, look at the next two reproductions of the story. The first was told six weeks after the person first heard the story, the second after six and a half years.

After Six Weeks

There were ghosts. There took place a fight between them. One of them asked: ‘Where are the arrows?’ The other said: ‘They are in the canoe’. A good many of the combatants were wounded or killed. One of them was wounded, but did not feel sick. They carried him to his village some miles away by rowing in the canoe. The next day something black came out of his mouth and they cried: ‘He is dead’. [3]

Six and half years

Brothers. Canoe. Something black from mouth. Totem. One of the brothers died. Cannot remember whether one slew the other or was helping the other. Were going on a journey, but cannot remember why. Party in war canoe. Was the journey a pilgrimage for filial or religious reasons? Am now sure it was pilgrimage. Purpose had something to do with a totem. Was it on a pilgrimage that they met a hostile party and one brother was slain? I think there was some reference to a dark forest... [4]

Here we can see the degree to which the memory can alter or we forget key pieces of information.

It can reasonably be argued that the volunteers involved in Bartlett's experiments were not recounting an actual experience but merely a story that had been told to them.

A frightening paranormal experience could be expected to imprint itself on the mind more powerfully than a dull ghost story and so could be expected to be recollected better. Although this is to some degree true, experiments similar to those of Bartlett have been carried out on people who have had memorable experiences, such as being involved in street crime, and have produced the same results. [5]

Again, the conclusion from this must be that even first-hand testimony should only be considered to be accurate if the witness is interviewed within a short period of time of their experience having occurred. The greater the length of time between the occurrence of an event and the eyewitness' recollection, the less reliable the testimony will be.

A Matter of Perception

Bartlett's experiments show us some of the pitfalls inherent in eyewitness testimony. However, the actual set-up of his tests, which involve the rote learning of an oral tale, bears little relationship to undergoing a physical experience and then later having to recall it.

Judging how accurately a person can recall an experience that has actually occurred to them would seem to be much more relevant to the paranormal than being able to recount a ghost story word for word.

Considering how important eyewitness descriptions are in criminal cases, research into this field of memory was surprising late in coming, with the first useful experiments not taking place until the 1970s. Most of the work in this field has been performed in order to assess the reliability of people's reporting of events in court, but it can be directly applied to paranormal cases as well.

In general, various studies of memory have found that not only do we have differing means of storing memories, such as short-term and long-term memory [6], but that we have differing ways of recollecting different types of information.

For example, the way in which we memorise and recall a telephone number is different to the way in which we memorise and recall the events of a traffic accident. Those looking into the question of eyewitness memory have broken the field down into a number of different areas based upon the type of detail that the eyewitness is being asked to recall.

The field of research that most applies to the eyewitness testimony of paranormal experiences is called 'event memory', which focuses on people's ability to recall events that they were a witness to or participated in, such as accidents, robberies, fights, riots, etc. Most of these events are of short duration, occur unexpectedly and have an emotional effect on the witness. In this respect they are very similar indeed to the average paranormal experience.

Many people (including many psychical researchers, especially those using hypnotic recall techniques) treat the human memory as though it were some form of video tape recording that is capable of faithfully reproducing the sights, sounds and smells from any point in a person's life.

This view of memory as being infallible has led to great faith being placed in the value of eyewitness testimony by the police, legal system, paranormal researchers and others. Bartlett has already shown us how inaccurate the memory can be when repeating learned information, but how accurate are people's memories of physical events? In other words, how much faith can we place in the testimony of those who claim to have undergone a paranormal experience?

Over the last few decades many different experiments have been designed with the objective of quantifying the accuracy and reliability of event memory. Almost without exception these experiments have concluded that event memory is highly unreliable as a matter of routine. In fact, not only is it unreliable, but it can also be seriously affected by many external and internal factors.

There are many factors than can influence or change a person's memory. Here I will briefly cover the three that are most applicable to the reporting and investigation of a paranormal event. These are:

(1) the influence that can be exerted by an interviewer over his/her interviewee.
(2) the influence that personal bias can have on memory.
(3) spontaneous changes that can occur to memory.

Leading Questions

In order for news of a paranormal experience to make it into print, the eyewitness will normally have had to tell their story to a third party, such as a journalist. This extra link in the chain between the witness and the paranormal researcher can present a problem.

During my years of interest in the paranormal I have interviewed many people about their strange encounters. I have always tried not to put words into their mouths, preferring instead to let them tell me things in their own way. I also always try to tape record the interviews so as to avoid problems with my own inaccurate memory or with scantily scribbled notes that later do not make any sense. I hope that by doing this I introduce a minimum of bias into the interview process and can also later faithfully reproduce what was said to me. While this is probably the preferred means of operating, it is difficult to tell whether first-hand accounts presented by other paranormal researchers have been gathered in the same way. If the interview has not been carried out properly then there is a danger of bias entering the process.

A classic example of what can happen when the interview process goes wrong can be seen in some of the satanic ritual abuse scares which swept through America, Europe and Australia during the 1980s and 1990s [7]. At this time dozens of people were accused by the authorities of having kidnapped children and then having subjected them to vile black magic rituals.

Few of these charges ever stuck, with most of the court cases falling to pieces as soon as the prosecution witnesses took the stand, their testimony turning out to be highly unreliable and biased. Later investigations into some of the more spectacular court case collapses of satanic ritual abuse trials found that the testimonies were inaccurate because of bias introduced at the interview stage.

Dealing with interviewer bias is a very serious problem for both the legal system and the paranormal. In the case of one of the most famous satanic ritual abuse scares, that of the Broxtowe Estate in England, the government report into what went wrong found that social workers who had interviewed children had deliberately misled them into changing their testimony during the interview process [8].

This is a very easy thing to do both deliberately and by accident. A person interviewing an eyewitness can very easily change that person's testimony using leading questions. In one study it was found that volunteers who had watched a video recording of a car accident could have their testimony of the event changed almost at the will of the interviewer [9]. After watching the accident on video, several volunteers were subjected to close questioning about the actions of the drivers and other details of the accident. The interviewers found that when they asked 'About how fast were the cars going when they contacted each other?', the average answer was 30.8 mph. However, if they changed the question to 'About how fast were the cars going when they smashed into each other?', people's estimation of the speed of impact rose to 41 mph. The simple rephrasing of a question changed the estimation of speed by 10 mph. The same was found to be true for other aspects of the accident, including the car’s colour, the number of drivers, etc. This is a relatively minor example of how the wording of a question can affect a person's view of events.

Less subtle questioning can produce even more dramatic results. In the aforementioned Broxtowe Estate satanic ritual abuse case it was found that the social workers interviewing the child 'witnesses' had not only asked highly leading questions but also refused to accept any answers that did not fit in with their view of events. The following is a transcript of an interview between a social worker involved in the Broxtowe Estate satanic ritual abuse case. Note that the interviewer simply ignores the child's responses, choosing to follow their own agenda instead:

Interviewer (I): 'You had to eat babies more than once?'
Child (C): 'I can't remember.'
I: 'We think you did.'
I: 'Who brought it? A name? Difficult to remember who killed the baby?'
C: 'I didn't kill it.'
I: 'Who told you to? Did she give you the knife?'
C: 'No.'
I: 'I think she did. You were asked to kill the baby. You had to do it. How was it killed?' [10]

In this questioning technique there is no subtlety at all. The child is not given the opportunity to give an answer that differs from the preconceived beliefs of the interviewer, who clearly believes that a baby has been killed and eaten and will not accept answers to the contrary. Similar techniques were used in ancient witch trials where the accused would be tortured until they confessed. There was never any question of their innocence.

However, questioning need not be so severe in order to change people's point of view. In the aforementioned experiment involving the video of the car crash, leading questions like: 'He was driving too fast, wasn't he?' or 'How close was the car when the boy stepped into the road?' also changed the testimony considerably. Leading questions like these are not permitted in court, and we must be wary of them in paranormal cases too.

As the conditions under which an eyewitness to a paranormal event is interviewed are rarely published, it is difficult to know whether or not they have been asked leading questions. However, one of the most common criticisms of those sceptical of the paranormal is that interviews, particularly those conducted under hypnosis, have had an element of bias introduced into them by the interviewer. In some cases this is most certainly true. Look at this transcript of a female alien abductee being interviewed under hypnosis.

Abductee (A): 'My legs are up, and I'm getting snipped, but internally...'
Interviewer (I): 'They're using instruments for this, I guess?'
A: 'Very tiny, tiny, long, very long little itty bitty scissor things...'
I: 'Do they remove their instruments?'
A: 'Yeah, they removed something out of me...'
I: 'An embryo, you mean?'
A: 'Yeah, it's like...'
I: 'What do they do when they remove it?' [11]

Note how the interviewer uses leading questions to reinforce the story being given by the person under hypnosis, encouraging them to develop the story rather than just telling it. This line of questioning would not be allowed in a court of law and should be viewed with suspicion by the paranormal fraternity too.

Over-enthusiastic interviewers present a problem with regard to the accuracy of eyewitness testimony to paranormal experiences. The extent of this problem has, however, never been quantified and so for the moment we must simply be aware that it may have had an influence on some of the cases encountered.

Personal Bias

The introduction of bias into an interview need not just come from the interviewer, but can also come from the interviewee as well. Preconceived ideas held by witnesses themselves can be introduced into the version of events without their knowing it. Again we must turn to the experiments performed in connection with court witnesses.

A great many experiments have been done with regard to the degree to which racial stereotyping can affect a person’s view of events. A recent study asked volunteers to look at slides of an altercation between a black man and a white man on the London Underground. In these slides the white man was holding a knife threateningly towards the black man. The volunteers were then shown a second set of slides and asked to pick out the one that matched the incident they had seen before. A significant number of people picked out a slide in which the black man was holding the knife. [12]

The racial bias of the volunteers had led them to expect that the black man would be holding the knife and this expectation had either consciously or subconsciously filtered into their memory of the events causing them to radically change their belief as to what it was that they had originally seen.

The same bias can easily be introduced into paranormal cases as well. Many people have preconceived ideas as to what a paranormal experience should or should not be like, and doubtless some imaginary details can later get added by mistake. Testimony given under hypnosis is a particular problem. A great many alien abduction victims rely almost totally on hypnosis as an aid for recalling their memories of the abduction itself, the original memory having allegedly been 'erased' by the aliens.

The later reconstruction of memory where none previously existed leaves the whole process open to abuse by both the hypnotist asking leading questions and by the hypnotised subject simply basing their memories around the experiences of other alien abductees.

Although many will deny it, most alien abduction victims have a very extensive knowledge of the alien abduction experience prior to their own encounters. Such a strong and preconceived opinion of a paranormal experience can act in exactly the same manner as the racial bias did in the experiment with the slides above.

The power that preconception can have is illustrated in a piece of modern research by war historian Helmut Schnatz, who performed an in-depth study of the allied bombing of the German city of Dresden in February 1945.

After the bombing raids it had commonly been claimed that allied fighters flew low over the city, strafing its fleeing citizens. Over the years there have been a number of eyewitnesses who have come forward to testify that this apparently heartless attack took place. However, Mr. Schnatz examined records of flight paths, levels of fuel of the aircraft and official reports of the intensity of the firestorm that followed the bombing. His conclusions were that there could categorically not have been fighters flying as low as eyewitnesses have described. They would have had neither the time, the fuel nor the visibility to do so.

The conclusion was that people’s memories of the events of that night had been severely altered by a cultural belief, which had been heavily reinforced by the East German government, that the strafing had taken place. In other words, some survivors from Dresden had been led (or told) to believe that the attacks took place and so they adjusted their memories of the experience to accommodate them. [13] This is not as uncommon or as improbable as it may at first appear.

It may be, for example, that the wide cultural use of the 'grey' alien (those beings with the wide elliptical eyes, no nose and thin mouth that currently appear on everything from book covers to T-shirts) during the 1980s and 1990s could lead many who report alien abduction experiences to expect that their kidnappers would be grey aliens whether they were or not. After all, if racial bias can completely alter the sequence of events in an everyday experience, then cultural expectations about certain paranormal phenomena must be expected to intrude to some degree into a testimony of a paranormal experience.

Even though personal bias is very hard indeed to discern from within a person's testimony, there is undoubtedly an element of it in a great many first-hand accounts of paranormal experiences. It is something that must be borne in mind.

Other Factors

In addition to a testimony being affected by the preconceived ideas of both the interviewer and the witness, various research programmes have noticed a number of other factors that can affect the reliability of an eyewitness statement. I will not dwell on these factors but they are worth noting.

One of the strangest affects noticed about eyewitness testimony is the regularity with which the duration of the incident has been exaggerated.

In 1987 Elizabeth Loftus carried out an experiment in which she showed volunteers a video tape of a bank robbery that took exactly 30 seconds to complete. In later interviews it turned out that almost everybody had vastly overestimated the length of time that the robbery had taken, the average estimate being two minutes and thirty seconds - five times longer than the reality. [14] This is something to bear in mind, given that most paranormal experiences are estimated to be of very short duration indeed, with the longest ones, which are commonly the UFO encounters, being a few minutes long at most (alien abductions excluded). If the overestimation factor really is genuine, then this could mean that the average paranormal experience is actually only of a few seconds’ duration rather than the tens of seconds or minutes commonly estimated by the witness.

Other factors in the reliability of eyewitness testimony include a person's age, occupation, sex and confidence.

In general it is middle-aged people that have the best memory of events, those that work in the security forces (eg. police) or army that have the best eye for detail, and those that are confident that are less likely to later change their statements, even if what they have said is blatantly wrong. [15] Women are more likely to notice details about clothes and faces than men, while men are more likely to notice details about cars and other machinery. [16]

There is, as might be expected from Bartlett's experiments, a strong tendency for peoples' memory of events to change very seriously with both time and the number of times a story is repeated. The most accurate statements are those that are taken within a few minutes or hours of the event itself. When it comes to eyewitness testimony, nothing is as straightforward as it first seems, and various experiments have shown that sometimes an eyewitness description of a crime scene actually bears little resemblance to the reality, with people, objects and events being added, removed or changed to such a degree that little of the original series of events is memorised with any accuracy.

Is Nothing Sacred?

The lesson from all this is quite clearly that a person's memory of an event is not a fixed recording, but can become radically altered through a whole series of differing factors. The degree to which all these factors can affect the final testimony varies considerably from person to person. An old age pensioner being asked leading questions about an event that occurred several weeks ago is unlikely to produce a very accurate testimony. A thirty year old man being interviewed a couple of hours after an event is more likely to give a reasonable version of events.

It must by now seem to the reader that virtually any testimony given by anybody, whether in a court of law or to a paranormal researcher, is practically useless with few aspects of people's memories remaining unaffected by the influence of bias, age, etc. This is not entirely true.

Although it is recognised that a first-hand version of a paranormal experience will contain some inaccuracies, a knowledge of how a testimony can be affected may be able to give us an idea as to how seriously we should take such cases.

The police will not refuse an eyewitness testimony because it is several years old, but they will be aware of the fact that, while the broad gist of the story may be accurate, some of the finer detail may not be. The same is true for us.

Paranormal researchers are rarely, if ever, called out to the scene of a paranormal experience. In fact, we are lucky if we can get to a witness within months of their experience. More commonly it is several years. Given this, there is bound to be some embellishment or alteration to the testimonies they give, but that does not mean that these testimonies are useless.

I hope that this article has helped point out some of the problems that may be encountered during the interview process. To be forewarned is to be forearmed.

References

1. Bartlett, F. C. Remembering: A Study in Experimental and Social Psychology. Cambridge University Press (Cambridge), 1995 (Original 1932). Quote from p.65.
2. Bartlett, F. C. Op. cit., p.124.
3. Bartlett, F. C. Op. cit., p.76
4. Bartlett, F. C. Op. cit., p.77. This was originally presented as a long list of 17 points. Here I have removed the numbers from the list and have omitted points 14 to 17 for reasons of space.
5. For a summary of this information see Ainsworth, P. B. Psychology, Law and Eyewitness Testimony. John Wiley and Sons (Chichester), 1998.
6. I use the phrases short and long-term memory to illustrate the point. Most modern researchers do not hold to this theory any more, the reality being somewhat more complex.
7. Chambers, P. Sex and the Paranormal. Blandford Press (London), 1999.
8. As 7.
9. Loftus, E. F. and Palmer, J. C. 'Reconstructions of automobile destruction: An example of the interaction between language and memory.' Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behaviour, Vol. 13; p. 585-589. 1974.
10. JET Report; A report by the UK government into the satanic ritual abuse scares of the late 1980s and 1990s. Despite assurances that the report would be published, its findings were so damning that it remains unavailable to the public today. Fortunately a copy was leaked onto the Internet where, despite attempts to suppress it, copies can still be found on several web sites today.
11. Jacobs, D. Secret Life: First-hand Accounts of UFO Abductions. Fourth Estate (London), 1993. Quote from p.124. The quotes given by the abductee have been edited because of their length.
12. Boon, J. and Davies, G. 'Attitudinal influences on witness memory: Fact and fiction.' in Gruneberg, M. M. et al., Practical Aspects of Memory: Current Research and Issues, Volume 1. John Wiley and Sons (Chichester), 1988.
13. BBC NewsOnline; Daily Telegraph, 6/6/2000
14. Loftus, E. F., Schooler, J. W., Boones, S. M. and Kline, D. 'Time went by so slowly: Overestimation of event duration by males and females.' Applied Cognitive Psychology, Volume 1: p. 3-13, 1987.
15. For a summary of this information see Ainsworth, P. B. Psychology, Law and Eyewitness Testimony. John Wiley and Sons (Chichester), 1998. Chapter 3.
16. Powers , P. A., Andriks, J. L. and Loftus, E. F. 'Eyewitness accounts of males and females.' Journal of Applied Psychology. Vol. 64: p. 339-347., 1979.

This article first appeared in Anomaly vol 30

Post script: Confabulation
by Maurice Townsend

As if Paul Chambers' excellent article didn't give eyewitnesses enough problems, here is another - confabulation! Confabulation is essentially 'making up stories', usually to 'fill a gap' in someone's memory. It is not conscious lying but an apparent attempt by the brain to reconcile between past memories and current reality. People who confabulate are convinced that what they are saying is true ('false memory syndrome'). While confabulation has long been known to be common in people with Alzheimer's disease and similar conditions, it has now been, worryingly, replicated in people with no known conditions. Indeed, it may be widespread or even universal.

In experiments, when eyewitnesses are forced to make choices without enough information they will generally do so reluctantly. However, when questioned later, they will be convinced that their forced choice (which may be right or wrong) is correct. The effect can be enhanced by the use of hypnosis where people regularly 'invent' details of memories that are known to be wrong.

Imagine the situation where you see a fleeting shadow in a dark corridor. It might be caused by a curtain fluttering in the wind but, if the place is known to be haunted, your mind might 'decide' it is really a ghost. The 'decision' (essentiality about what is reality) is taken by your brain before it reaches your conscious mind (which is why it is so convincing).

When questionned about your experience you might, again, completely unconsciously, confabulate extra 'details' that back up your interpretation (perhaps turning the amorphous shape into a 'figure'). With no objective evidence, like CCTV pictures, to contradict your memory, it could be recorded as a convincing report of an apparition. ASSAP's own research in this area reinforces the idea that people will confabulate readily in 'eyewitness' situations.

If it appears odd that people should 'fill in' missing gaps in their memory through confabulation, a clue has recently appeared in neuroscience that could explain this strange behaviour. The same areas of the brain are involved both in recalling events as are used in imagining things that never happened (or thinking about things that might happen in the future)! It is therefore not surprising that memories of real events may be extended or altered and that the person doing so may be completely convinced that their memory is accurate, even when it is demonstrably wrong.