If you get accused of a crime, the charges against you may hinge on the testimony of one key witness. This person may claim that they were at the scene and witnessed the event in question. For this example, it doesn’t actually matter what you have been accused of. Almost any type of crime can be witnessed by a third party, who may then try to counter your claims if you go to court and say you did nothing wrong.
Witness testimony is powerful. A witness can be emotional and convincing. They can appear trustworthy. They may even believe what they’re saying. The jury often gets swayed by the right testimony. They know that the accused has something to gain by neglecting to tell the truth, but the witness doesn’t, so they assume the witness is being honest.
There are a lot of problems with that assumption. Let’s break some of them down.
Memories get reconstructed
First and foremost, your memory is not the same as a video recording on your phone. It can change. It gets reconstructed. A witness may spend days or months replaying events in their mind. If the memory changes a bit due to outside factors, are they really remembering the same thing when they get on the stand?
This is one reason that a witness may be convincing and appear truthful. They’re not intentionally lying. They’re just wrong. They think they are being honest and accurate; they really do. They would pass a lie detector test. But that does not mean that they are remembering things correctly at all. It’s important to know how memory actually works; it’s not what most people assume.
The influence of bias
Personal bias can also impact memory, as the brain generally attempts to make sense of what it experiences. It tries to make it fit the worldview that the person already has. Prejudice plays a role, as do the social norms that person has experienced all their life. The witness’s background and expectations can alter their memory significantly.
Finally, stress can play a massive role in how people take in the information around them, along with anxiety. People remember less when viewing something that stresses them out. On top of that, most witnesses have no idea they are about to see a crime, so the whole event takes them by surprise. No matter how long they think about it, they may not remember as much as they think they should.
As you can see, these three reasons show why we cannot always trust memories or witness testimonies. If you find yourself facing charges, make sure you know what rights and options you have.