By Dr. Ken Broda-Bahm
The law treats factual evidence as a repository possessed by the witness and elicited through testimony. Like a bucket, filled, in the case of your witnesses at least, with the sweet clear water of truth, you just dip in a ladle and out comes the descriptions, the observations, the facts. We acknowledge that the bucket isn't perfect: It holds only so much, and is prone to leaking. But we still treat testimony as the act of information retrieval, not fully accounting for the possibility that the bucket is at all times fundamentally transforming its contents. However, to a degree even greater than researchers expected, a new study (Bridge & Paller, 2012), confirms that transformation during recall is the norm, not the exception. That is, we rewrite every time we remember. In recalling, we reconstruct by mixing the original memories with our recollection of the previous times we've thought about and shared the same information.
So memory is creative rather than descriptive, and dynamic rather than static. That goes to the heart of a trial court's reliance on testimony. Eyewitnesses in criminal cases get the most attention (which makes sense based on what is at stake), but the problem bears on civil trials as well, because it influences how we should treat all testimony that depends on recollection...which is to say, all fact testimony. Even the civil litigation witness may be creating as much as he is remembering, and it isn't a conscious attempt to mislead. This post looks at the new study and unpacks a few ways that trial lawyers can adapt to the realities of reconstructive memory.