From Lab to Court: Memory and the Law – Association for Psychological Science

Posted: August 29, 2011 by scaryhouse in Uncategorized

By Wray Herbert

The New Jersey Supreme Court this week released radical new rules on the use and misuse of eyewitness testimony. The ruling has profound legal implications, essentially challenging the 34-year-old U.S. Supreme Court standard for the reliability of eyewitness memories of crimes, making it much easier for defendants to dispute eyewitness evidence in court. The New Jersey Court is considered a trailblazer in criminal law, and the ruling could well end up re-shaping the law of the land.

The ruling also reflects decades of scientific research on human memory, and its failings. Although this work has been done by scores of scientists in as many labs, the core idea—that human memory is untrustworthy—can can be traced back to Elizabeth Loftus, now at the University of California at Irvine. There are only a handful of psychological scientists whose work has so profoundly altered their field—and the public understanding of that field—that it’s difficult to imagine the world as it was before. Loftus is one of these, and this most recent ruling will broaden her influence on public policy and law.

To fully appreciate Loftus’s impact, simply recall that memory was once thought of as a filing cabinet, a more-or-less organized storage place for learning and experience, all the details of which were intact and accessible, waiting to be beckoned and retrieved. We now know how inadequate that metaphor is. Memory is not a filing cabinet, nor is it a videotape. Human memory is in fact fragmentary, malleable, and untrustworthy. But this new view was a long time emerging, and has been met with harsh criticism and stubborn resistance along the way, both in labs and courtrooms. In a recent “Inside the Psychologist’s Studio” interview—expertly conducted by psychological scientist and author Carol Tavris—Loftus touched on the highlights of her career-long effort to understand and describe the complexities of remembering and forgetting.

via From Lab to Court: Memory and the Law – Association for Psychological Science.

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