False Witness Accounts in the News

I’ve learned about this phenomenon in my undergraduate psychology classes, but The New York Times profiles two witness accounts from a recent hammer attack in Manhattan that were false:

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Contrary to what Mr. O’Grady said, the man who was shot had not been trying to get away from the officers; he was actually chasing an officer from the sidewalk onto Eighth Avenue, swinging a hammer at her head. Behind both was the officer’s partner, who shot the man, David Baril.

And Ms. Khalsa did not see Mr. Baril being shot while in handcuffs; he is, as the video and still photographs show, freely swinging the hammer, then lying on the ground with his arms at his side. He was handcuffed a few moments later, well after he had been shot.

There is no evidence that the mistaken accounts of either person were malicious or intentionally false. Studies of memories of traumatic events consistently show how common it is for errors to creep into confidently recalled accounts, according to cognitive psychologists.

“It’s pretty normal,” said Deryn Strange, an associate psychology professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “That’s the hard thing to get our heads around. It’s frightening how easy it is to build in a false memory.”

Entire story here.

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Further reading: Scientific American on eyewitness testimony.

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