Craik & Lockhart (1972) investigated levels of processing together with rehearsal and looked at their influence on memory. Their findings showed that deeper and more semantic analysis of learning material improved long term memory retrieval. Unfortunately though, witnessing events does not provide this luxury, as an event is very soon passed and we are only afforded a quick snapshot in time. Eye-witness studies have highlighted that upto 5% of witnesses over-estimate the duration of events. And 27% of witnesses are affected by how questions are worded.
Also, confirmation bias comes into being, where an observer’s expectations have an influence on memory recall. Loftus ; Burns (1982) investigated memory impairing effects where violence caused pre-violence memory to be impaired. The dangers or shock during witnessing cannot be ignored. Also, when witnessing an event first hand, a witness will not necessarily be in full attendance and perhaps not initially aware that a crime has taken place. Studies in areas such as verbal versus visual, face recognition, confidence, bias, weapons and schema have all helped highlight the influencing characteristics.
Research into eye-witness testimony has helped build understanding of the fragility of human memory and how it can be distorted. Freud for example put forward a view that repression has a part to play in memory recall where some things are kept out of consciousness and therefore not recalled. While post-event information does distort memory recall, it is debatable as to whether the original information is destroyed. Dobson ; Reisberg (1991) highlighted that misinformation makes the original memories inaccessible.
Other studies have shown that a memory probe or question, activates memory traces having informational overlap with it, and so memories from different sources and events are activated. Therefore if the memories from different sources resemble one another then there is increased likelihood of misattribution, where misinformation can be recalled and associated to a different events. According to Bartlett (1932), retrieval involves a process of reconstruction, where all available information for an event is used to reconstruct details of the event.
New information can therefore affect recall of original events because the basis for reconstruction has changed. In terms of structures or representations of the world, pictures and diagrams represent a closer relationship and therefore aids recall. Word representations being abstract offers a different structure. When recalling events such as in eye-witness testimony, perhaps people compose a picture in their mind to help them ‘see’ the event and thus making it more visible and vivid to them.
However, representations of other events such as memorising for examinations tend to be by different methods such as acronyms and are using words and abstract methods to aid recall. The reason for recall and the events themselves give reason to draw upon different representations. For example, events of importance or those involving family or happy memories draw upon different schemas and representations than other less visual and vivid memories. Our organised structures of knowledge are obviously available to us and help us to construct our answers or replies as with eye-witness testimony.
In terms of problem solving, our memories work better when problems are broken down into sub-sections which make problems easier to manage. Searching is active and constructive and helps us move closer to the required goal. It is difficult to say whether an eye-witness event is broken down in such a way or whether retrieval is handled in a different way. Problem solving generally offers more time to think and construct answers, where eye-witness is generally a more pressure situation which probably has a part to play when eye-witness testimony draws upon the memory representations required.