Memory is a cognitive process, that is in charge of storing, finding, and accessing knowledge. It enables people to recall and recognize entities, and to determine appropriate actions. However, memory is reconstructive – in the absence of information, we fill it in the gaps with schemas to make more sense of what happened. Therefore, memory is open to distortion. Studies such as Frederic Bartlett (1932), and Loftus and Palmer (1974) utilize schema and eyewitness testimony to prove that cognitive processes aren’t reliable.
However, Yuille and Cutshall (1986)’s study found that eyewitnesses’ memory was very reliable. Schema theory is a theory on how humans process incoming information, related it to existing knowledge and use it. If some information is missing, the brain fills in the blanks based on existing schemas which can result in mistakes such as memory distortion. Frederic Bartlett discovered that people had difficulties remembering a story from another culture, and that they reconstructed the story to fit in with their own cultural schemas, so instead of “hunting seals,” participants remembered that the men in the story were fishing. Through this study, Bartlett demonstrated that memory is not like a photograph or an audio recording, but rather that people remember what makes sense to them. This is why memory is subject to distortions. Although the study seems to support the idea that schemas affect memory, and it’s distortion, there are problems with the study’s procedures.
The research procedures are not specific nor scientific enough which has made it difficult to replicate Bartlett’s findings, as he did not standardize the intervals at which participants reproduced the material they had learned. This indicates that the findings have low reliability, and it is unsure whether we can use the findings to conclude whether memory is reliable. Loftus supports Bartlett’s idea of memory as reconstructive. Loftus claims that the nature of questions asked by an authoritative figure can influence witnesses’ memory. Leading questions and post-event information facilitate schema processing which may influence accuracy of recall.
Loftus and Palmer hypothesized that people’s memory for details of an accident could be distorted if they were asked to estimate how fast the car was going. Therefore, they set up two experiments where participants were shown videos of traffic accidents and after that, they had to answer questions about the accident. The study demonstrates the role that schema can play in how we recall an event.45 students participated in the experiment. They were divided into five groups of seven students. Seven short films of traffic accidents were shown.
These films were taken from driver’s education films. When the participants had watched a film they were asked to give an account of the accident they had seen and then they answered a questionnaire with different questions about the accident. There was one critical question which was the one asking the participant to estimate the speed of the cars involved in the accident. The participants were asked the same question but the critical question included different verbs. Nine participants were asked “About how fast were the cars going when they hit each other?” The critical word “hit'” was replaced by ‘collided’, ‘bumped’ or ‘smashed’ or’ contacted’ in the other conditions which each had nine participants answering the question. The mean estimates of speed were highest in the ‘smashed’ condition (40.
8 mph) and lowest in the ‘contacted’ group (31.8 mph). The results were significant at p ? 0.005. The findings were that the more intense the verb that was used, the higher the average estimate.
Loftus argues that when the different verbs are used, they activate schemas that have a different sense of meaning. When the question is asked using smashed, the connotation of the verb influences how the memory is formed. These two studies were controlled laboratory experiments, so we should question whether there are problems with ecological validity. The situation is quite artificial which lowers its external validity. When watching a video of a car crash, one does not experience the emotions that one would experience when actually seeing a real car accident.
Thus, emotion or stress, which are conditions normal for most eye-witnesses, are absent in her research. In addition, all of the participants were students, which means that the sample is biased. The research also begs the question of how well people are able to estimate speed. This too may have had an influence on the results. In response to Loftus’s research, Yuille and Cutshall (1986) carried out a study where they examined whether leading questions would affect memory of eyewitnesses at a real crime scene.
The crime scene was in Vancouver. A thief entered a gun shop and tied up the owner before stealing money and guns from the shop. The owner freed himself, and thinking that the thief had escaped, went outside the shop. But the thief was still there and shot him twice.
Police had been called and there was gunfire – and the thief was eventually killed. As the incident took place in front of the shop, there were eyewitnesses – 21 were interviewed by the police. The researchers contacted the eyewitnesses four months after the event. 13 of the eyewitnesses agreed to be interviewed as part of a study. They gave their account of the incident, and then they were asked questions. Two leading questions were used. Half the group was asked if they saw a broken headlight on the getaway car. The other half was asked if they saw a yellow panel on the car (the panel was actually blue).
They were also asked to rate their stress on a seven-point scale. It was found that eyewitnesses were very reliable, they were able to recall a large amount of accurate detail that could be confirmed by the original police reports. They also did not make errors as a result of the leading questions and those who were most distressed by the situation had the most accurate memories.
The key differences between the Yuille and Cutshall (1986) study and the Loftus & Palmer (1974) experiment was that Yuille and Cutshall’s study was a field study, this meant that it had a stronger ecological validity in comparison to Loftus & Palmer’s laboratory study. Because the participants had actually witnessed a crime, they had a different response to the students who watched videos of drivers’ education car crashes. In addition, there was archival evidence (police records of the original testimonies) to confirm the accuracy of the testimonies. However, Loftus and Palmer’s study has a higher level of reliability.
Yuille and Cutshall’s study is not replicable and also not generalizable since it was a one-off incident. There was also no control of variables, so it is difficult to know the level of rehearsal that was used by the different eyewitnesses. It could be that those that agreed to be in the study had spent the most time thinking and reading about the case.