The speed of social media and constant news cycle give us impressions and a storyline far before all of the facts on a situation can be released. Science has long told us that eyewitnesses are unreliable and biased, and that memories can be faulty. Yet we use these first-hand accounts to draw conclusions about the news and current events.
We erupt over the injustice of traffic stops for broken tail lights that weren’t broken and led to a tragic death, only to later learn that it was never about a tail light at all, and that a witness to the shooting was unable to accurately describe the race of the officer in question, identifying him as Asian instead of Mexican.
Understanding psychology and the human mind can provide insights on why trusting the recollections of those who were present at an event can lead to wrong impressions and false narratives.
We Want to Believe
As people, we want to believe other people. Experiences and personal testimony frame events for us and allow us to connect with the humanity of a situation. This connection and resulting emotional reactions to news stories and unfolding events are dangerous, though. The rapid spread of a particular side of an explosive story draws more people in who add to the narrative and shape the reactions and experienced truth.
While the benefits to the near-instant spread of information are easy to see—it’s nearly impossible now for even totalitarian governments to ban and suppress news and censor the flow of information, for example—the downside is that before facts have a chance to be uncovered a situation is already tried and decided in the court of public opinion. Everyone knows the truth, they demand action, and then an immutable course is set.
“We often assume that memory works like a video camera. When we experience an event and then later want to remember what happened, we replay our memory like a video. However, our memory doesn’t quite work that way,” explains a basic psychology course. “Rather, our past experiences, beliefs, interpretations of the moment, and even events that happen afterward shape our memory of what actually occurred. The very act of recalling an event changes how we remember it. For example, we may add or omit details. We may also change or exaggerate certain aspects of the event. In other words, our memory is constructive in nature, meaning that it is constructed or created rather than simply recorded.”
Our minds are not computers, with information sitting unchanged, waiting for us to need it. Nor does this information enter our minds and memories passively and devoid of all of our past and current experiences. Stress, anxiety, and fear frame what pieces of a situation we take in and how we remember them.
All of this theory has practical implications for how trustworthy are the experiences of witnesses to crimes. Scientific American explains: “Since the 1990s, when DNA testing was first introduced, Innocence Project researchers have reported that 73 percent of the 239 convictions overturned through DNA testing were based on eyewitness testimony. One third of these overturned cases rested on the testimony of two or more mistaken eyewitnesses.”
Don’t Jump to Conclusions
This does not mean we should ignore the stories people relate about their experiences, but it does mean we should practice caution and try to hold off on drawing sweeping conclusions about important events from the initial reports and information available. Even when those witnesses are compelling and confident in recounting a situation, it doesn’t mean they know the full truth. “Other research has specifically pointed to this sort of confidence-inflation as a factor in wrongful convictions,” reports the Marshall Project. “Brandon Garrett of the University of Virginia School of Law, for example, recently analyzed 161 cases of eyewitness misidentification that later resulted in DNA exonerations.”
Viral videos, unreliable witnesses, and authorities’ delays in releasing their side of a story allows one side to become conventional wisdom and accepted truth. After more reasoned information begins trickling out, it has a hard time competing with the visceral and impassioned narrative that has swept our social media feeds and ignited other situations and protests. #oopswewerewrong is a far less catchy hashtag than the ones that evolve in support of the initial event, and by that point so much damage has been done to the lives of all involved.
Recent years have shown us there’s no lack of stories insisting there’s some broader ill or issue at stake related to emotional incidents, and that we all need to change everything we think, believe and do or we are a part of the larger problem. We are told that if we don’t call out whatever cause du jour we are perpetuating violence and social malaise, and that if we are really just we have to leap to action.
Then it all flips. The innocence we presumed was false, and the guilt we so readily laid was unwarranted. Taking back anger is impossible, and too often the results cause deeper wounds that may never fully heal. Stores are looted, homes are burned, violence sweeps through crowds, and even more lives are wrecked. None of this unifies us. None of this makes us better, safer, or more whole as a nation.