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How Do We Forget

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How Do We Forget
227
Forgetting
This is exactly the sort of biased police
lineup that Eyewitness Evidence: A Guide
for Law Enforcement (U.S. Department of
Justice, 1999) is designed to avoid. Based
on research in memory and perception,
this guide recommends that no suspect
should stand out from all the others in a
lineup, that witnesses should not assume
that the real criminal is in the lineup, and
that they should not be encouraged to
“guess” when making an identification.
© The New Yorker Collection 2006 Tom Cheney from Cartoonbank.com. All Rights Reserved.
freed Charles Fain, who had been convicted of murder and spent almost 18 years on
death row in Idaho (Bonner, 2001). Maryland officials approved $900,000 in compensation for Bernard Webster, who served 20 years in prison for rape before DNA revealed
that he was innocent (Associated Press, 2003). Frank Lee Smith, too, would have been
set free after the sole eyewitness at his murder trial retracted her testimony, but he had
already died of cancer while awaiting execution in a Florida prison. Research on memory and perception helps explain how these miscarriages of justice can occur, and it is
also guiding efforts to prevent such errors in the future. The U.S. Department of Justice has acknowledged the potential for errors in eyewitness evidence, as well as the
dangers of asking witnesses to identify suspects from lineups and photo arrays. The
result is Eyewitness Evidence: A Guide for Law Enforcement (U.S. Department of Justice,
1999), the first-ever guide for police and prosecutors involved in obtaining eyewitness
evidence. The guide warns these officials that asking leading questions about what witnesses saw can distort their memories. It also suggests that witnesses should examine
photographs of possible suspects one at a time and points out that false identifications
are less likely if witnesses viewing suspects in a lineup are told that the real perpetrator might not be included (Wells & Olson, 2003; Wells et al., 2000).
Forgetting
䉴 What causes me to forget things?
The frustrations of forgetting—where you left your keys, the answer to a test question,
an anniversary—are apparent to most people nearly every day (Neisser, 2000b). Let’s
look more closely at the nature of forgetting and what causes it.
How Do We Forget?
Hermann Ebbinghaus, a German psychologist, began the systematic study of memory
and forgetting in the late 1800s, using only his own memory as his laboratory. He read
Fly UP