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How to avoid making memory errors

OSU Research Matters is a bi-weekly look inside the work of Oklahoma State University faculty, staff and students.

Have you ever forgotten a new acquaintance’s face? We all have, and usually with minor consequences, if any. This error becomes problematic in the legal system, though. Eyewitnesses to crimes sometimes make memory mistakes that lead to innocent people being accused and imprisoned of crimes they did not commit. People also sometimes fail to notice missing or wanted people in their midst.

In this episode, Meghan Robinson speaks with Dr. Kara Moore, an assistant professor in Oklahoma State University's Psychology Department. The conversation explains how memory is crucial to missing and wanted persons cases, and how we can avoid errors — or account for them — in the legal system.


Dr. Kara Moore
The CALM Lab
Dr. Kara Moore

MOORE: People make memory and attention errors in real life all of the time, every day. Usually those errors are mundane enough that we don't notice them or that they don't really matter. In the legal setting, though, those errors can become highly consequential. They can determine whether a person who is innocent is convicted, or whether someone who's missing is found, and that's where my research interest lies, and how those otherwise mundane errors impact legal processes.

A good example of a mundane error that someone might make is failing to notice that one of their friends is in the grocery store at the same time as them until the friend comes up and says hello. And so that could be really mundane in everyday life, but if that person is a missing person, then failing to notice them can have a major consequence.

ROBINSON: When it comes to missing person and wanted person searches, memory and attention are everything.

MOORE: Attention comes into play with regards to first noticing that there's an alert out for a missing person in one's environment, and then paying enough attention to one's environment to be able to recognize that person. And oftentimes, we're not paying enough attention to other people in our environment to maximize the odds that we notice someone who we should be looking for. With regards to memory, people unfortunately are really bad at recognizing faces of people who are unfamiliar to them, like a missing person. And that manifests in people failing to notice that that's the person they should be looking for in the real world.

ROBINSON: Dr. Moore says photos are a great way to help identify a missing person.

MOORE: The more exposure that we get to faces, the better we are able to remember them. We see people across multiple days, years, and different hairstyles – looking tired, not looking tired. And that's how we come to know generally what their face looks like. And so having lots of instances of a person's face in photograph form can help us to approximate that.

ROBINSON: False memories – or memories that alter what actually occurred – can also impact searches. So how do we remember correctly?

MOORE: First, there's some degree of memory shift that happens for all of our memories, and it is probably not worthwhile to try to resist that. But in the case that somebody's witnessed a crime, for example, probably the best thing that a person could do, is as soon as they are in a mental space where they can try to remember the event on their own before they talk to anyone else about it before they encounter any media about it. That way, so they're not being influenced by any outside sources. So try to remember, do so if you can mentally safely in the context of what had occurred. So put yourself back in that context of having witnessed the crime or the car wreck. Recall in multiple different directions, so from start to finish and then backward, and from a variety of different perspectives. Those are all evidence-based things that we know can help people to remember more and to remember more accurately.

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Meghan Robinson is the host of OSU Research Matters and the Multimedia Reporter/ Producer for Inside OSU, the official streaming platform of Oklahoma State University.
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