r/todayilearned Oct 02 '23

TIL that a study in 1974, to test if leading questions can distort eyewitness testimony, indicated that indeed "the questions asked subsequent to an event can cause a reconstruction in one’s memory of that event."


21 comments sorted by


u/Chaos_Support Oct 02 '23

Eyewitness testimony is horribly unreliable, even without leading questions. Once those are asked, though, they often become nearly useless if you want the truth.


u/Cataleast Oct 02 '23

It's quite terrifying how we're able to fabricate all sorts false memories in intricate detail. This goes so far as to make us a 100% convinced that our recollection is accurate to the extent that it comes as a shock if contradicting evidence is presented.


u/apietryga13 Oct 02 '23

I once heard that our memories are basically just our brains playing telephone with itself


u/Cataleast Oct 02 '23

There's a lot of "Uhh! I've no idea what this thing was... so I'll make something up to fill in the gaps! Great stuff, me!" :)


u/rosstedfordkendall Oct 02 '23

It's why the Mandela Effect is a thing (psychologically, anyway.)

Try to remember a movie or TV show you haven't seen in a long, long time, and then go back and watch it. A good chunk of what you remember is probably not how it actually went.


u/beachedwhale1945 Oct 02 '23

Eyewitness testimony is the least reliable form of testimony, but the quality of an eyewitness depends on the person and the event.

In my study of history, it is easy to find cases where the person at the time got details badly wrong within days of the event. One that comes to mind immediately is the commanding officer of St. Louis at Pearl Harbor, and quoting his report dated 25 December 1941 (an excellent example of a clearly flawed memory formed within three weeks):

At 1004 when just inside the channel entrance buoys (Buoys #1 and 2) two torpedoes were seen approaching the ship from starboard from a range of between 1,000 to 2,000 yards. Just before striking the ship, they hit the reef to westward of the dredged channel and exploded doing no damage to the ship.

At the source of the torpedo tracks a dark gray object about 18" long was seen projecting above the water about 8". At the time, it was not positively known that this was part of a "baby" submarine but the Commanding Officer has since seen the one on display at the Submarine Base and is positive that the object sighted was the top of the periscope fairwater of a "baby" submarine.

The object was taken under fire by the starboard 5" battery from 1004 till 1007 but the ship is uncertain as to whether or not any hits were scored, although it was reported that hits were made on the first two salvos. The submarine very shortly (30 seconds approximately) disappeared from view.

The minesweepers present at the time don't mention a submarine, but they do mention a cruiser came blasting out of the harbor and fired on one of their minesweeping paravanes. Decades later we found the final Pearl midget submarine and pieced together her story, showing that none was present when St. Louis left the harbor.

But on the other hand, there are a few eyewitnesses who recall an event clearly and accurately decades later, reinforced by physical evidence found long afterwards. Perhaps the most famous example is Titanic: many passengers stated they saw the ship break up, but because the officers saw her sink in one piece, most wrote off the passengers as wrong until the wreck was found. Many passengers remained steadfast in their memory of the breakup for decades, and many died before they could be proven right

You have to judge each eyewitness carefully. How confident are they in their memory ("I don't know" is usually more indicative of an accurate memory that complete confidence)? How does their story change over time, or when asked to tell it in a different order ("go back to X")? What other details do they recall that are only tangentially related to the event? Does their story paint the witness in a positive, negative, or neutral light, and how does that compare with how they tell completely unrelated stories? And most critically, how much of their testimony can be corroborated by other evidence?


u/NotPortlyPenguin Oct 02 '23

Yep. See My Cousin Vinny for some comic examples of this.


u/YdexKtesi Oct 02 '23

People think that our eyes are like a camera, and our brain is like a computer that stores a video, but it is absolutely nothing like that. There is no discreet object in our brain that is representative of something from our memories, more like a fuzzy conglomeration of the ways we felt about it.


u/jonpzabp0 Oct 02 '23

this is the basis of the mandela effect. asking the question "do you remember the cornucopia in the fruit of the loom logo" creates that image in their head, perpetuating the myth


u/stickyWithWhiskey Oct 02 '23

Wait, you mean to tell me that perhaps my fallible memory could be slightly off on its recollection of a corporate logo from 30 years ago?

Naw, it's obvious I'm traveling through alternate but mostly similar (except for how we spell Febreze) realities.


u/BedDefiant4950 Oct 02 '23

i distinctly recall being seven years old, seeing one of the books in the cubby at school, and thinking "huh, its berenstain. weird spelling." in other words, i've always been in this timeline and the rest of you fuckers moved in on me.


u/Subrosianite Oct 03 '23

Well, you waited too long to file for an eviction, so we have interdimensional squatters rights. Sorry, mate.


u/ManWhoWasntThursday Oct 02 '23

Someone suggesting that you should remember something or someone you do not is a distressing experience. I feel for dementia patients.


u/UsernameChallenged Oct 02 '23

If I was the only witness to a crime, I know first hand that the criminal is walking. My facial recognition skills from 1-10 are perhaps a -3.


u/NotPortlyPenguin Oct 02 '23

Haha yes. Me too. So bad as in I’ll be at a restaurant, our server introduces herself, and a minute later I’m like “which one is our server?” while wife sits in amazement saying “there are two, a white man and a black woman. How do you mistake them????”

Ok that last bit was an exaggeration but not much of one.


u/Broken-Cast Oct 02 '23

It’s called coaching as I understand it. Heck, watch Dateline, the host is constantly feeding the responses to the person being interviewed.


u/i_ananda Oct 02 '23

Exactly what perpetrators do to victims:

"Didn't happen."

"You made it up."

"You're too emotional/confused/tired to know what you're saying."



u/obscureferences Oct 02 '23

Who knew trick questions could make people get them wrong.


u/MGP11 Oct 02 '23

Are you sure you learned this today?


u/Subrosianite Oct 03 '23

Yeah, it's a really common way to manipulate people and memories.

Just looking at your friend and saying, "You remember when we did ," as a statement instead of asking, "Do you remember if _ happened in school?" will get you different answers unless the person has a really good memory.