By Dr. Ken Broda-Bahm:
Without looking at the back of your laptop or phone, which of the images above is the true Apple logo? You probably see it every day, many times if you are in offices or airports. It is considered one of the most recognizable logos in the world. But which version is correct? In a 2014 study (Blake, Nazarian & Castel, 2014), 85 UCLA students were asked to pick the true logo from the choices above, and 84 picked the wrong image. And it wasn't due to a lack of familiarity: Fully 75 of those students owned Apple products, and 52 of them exclusively used Apple computers and handhelds. Asked beforehand, the students were very confident that they knew what the logo looks like, but all but one of them were unable to pick the right logo out of the lineup.
Why? Because memory is functional rather than photographic. If "knowing" the Apple logo meant having a complete image of it in our heads, then it would be easy enough to pick out the right one. But memory doesn't rely on images. Instead it relies on the "gist," for lack of a better word, of what is represented. We know it is an apple, and we know that it is stylized, and that it is a negative (white-space) image. But we don't necessarily know where the bite is, whether the leaf leans left or right, and whether there is a divot in the bottom of the apple or not. Why not? Because we don't need to remember that in order to remember the image. We tend to believe that experience equals knowledge and that confidence equates to greater certainty. But according to study author Dr. Alen Castel, it doesn't. “There was a striking discrepancy between participants’ confidence prior to drawing the logo and how well they performed on the task. People’s memory, even for extremely common objects, is much poorer than they believe it to be.” Witnesses and others carry that same flawed memory into court. Where jurors might expect memories to be either pristine photographs or to be nonexistent, the truth often lies somewhere in between: a gist that is remembered for functional reasons, but not the specifics. We remember what is important, but that sense of importance can be idiosyncratic or unreliable. In this post, I'll look at what that means for witnesses and witness examination.