By Dr. Ken Broda-Bahm:
Chants of "Hands Up, Don't Shoot" and "I Can't Breathe," continue to be heard at protests around the country. Motivated by the Ferguson, Missouri police shooting of Michael Brown, as well as the choke-hold death of Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York, these protests testify to a rising distrust of police killings, particularly when they involve African-American men. To some extent, these demonstrations are reactions to disproportionate impacts when it comes to police use of force, a reaction that is independent of the facts of any one or two given cases. But to another extent, these reactions reflect a lack of credibility in the judicial system's response. In the Ferguson case, for example, the nonindictment of officer Darren Miller was based on the grand jury's choice, some say a choice inappropriately encouraged by the prosecutor, to believe some witnesses and not others.
The idea that eye witnesses can be inconsistent is not new, but the dozens of Ferguson witnesses provide a timely example of that. To listen to the witnesses, Michael Brown was charging or surrendering. And he was either close or quite distant at the time. Intuitively, we would like to think that there is nothing better than a first-hand visual account, but we know that those accounts can be fallible. University of Nebraska-Lincoln psychologist Brian Bornstein refers to it as the "Eyewitness Paradox:" Everyone knows that perception and memory can fail, yet at the same time, eyewitness testimony is still enormously influential, with some 75 to 80 percent of overturned wrongful conviction cases being based on eyewitness testimony that was later found to be wrong. A look into that paradox highlights some important implications for litigators, as well as others interested not only in psychology but in their beliefs about psychology. While the research most often focuses on eyewitnesses in the criminal trial, the lessons from eyewitness psychology and folk psychology apply to witness evaluations in any situation where witnesses are remembering things that may or may not be accurate. This post will take a look at a few of the more important implications covered in a recent article and lecture.