We have all read and/or heard about studies showing that witnesses more often than not misidentify a suspect in a criminal matter. Now, a recent study reveals that we also misremember our whereabouts at a particular time.

Entitled “Where were you on Thursday the 15th?” in The Economist, June 5th, 2021, edition, its unnamed authors report on a study by Yim Hyungwook of Hanyang University in South Korea and Simon Dennis of the University of Melbourne in Australia analyzing exactly how frequently “…people remember details about where they were when in the past.” (Id. at 70.)

To do so, the researchers selected 51 participants and had them download a GPS-enabled location tracking app (with periodic recordings) onto their smartphones. A week after the experiment ended, the participants were given a memory test in the form of 72 questions asking them to pinpoint on an electronic map where they were at various particular dates and times during the experiment. While they could “zoom” in on the map to read the street names, neither could they use the “street view” nor their calendars to assist their memories. (Id.)

As one might suspect, the researchers found that the participants misremembered:

Dr. Yim and Dr. Dennis found that participants got things wrong about a third of the time, and further examination of the data revealed that these errors were not random. People were more likely to remember evens incorrectly if they were similar in time or space than they were if they were not. Specifically, they chose the right day of the week but the wrong week 19% of the time and the right hour of the day but the wrong day 8% of the time.

The researchers also found that location errors occurred where their acoustics were similar. Yet, they also found that when the “… participants were confident in their answers, they were almost always right, and when they were not at all confident, they were much more likely to be wrong.” (Id.)

This article prefaces this study with the story of Ronald Cotton who spent almost a decade in jail for a rape and burglary he did not commit because he misremembered where he was on the night of the crime (He was off by a week.). It was DNA evidence that exonerated him.

Without a doubt, this study is important in civil disputes. Like criminal matters, a civil dispute is a story with a timeline. Who did what to whom when where and why? Thus, like Mr. Cotton, if the plaintiff or the defendant misremembers an event thinking it happened on the first Thursday of a month, when in fact it happened the week before or the week afterward, it will affect her credibility and thus the verdict (or potential settlement).

So, rather than assuming someone is not telling the truth when her story does not seem plausible because the timeline is out of whack, step back, slow down and ponder whether it is nothing more than an innocent misremembering of the events at hand.

…Just something to think about.



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