Psychology Of Testimony And Rumor
( Originally Published 1921 )
THE accuracy of reports of what has been seen or heard is a matter of wide interest. In courts of justice it decides the liberty or life of the defendant, and in the social world the narration of conversations or events often disrupts a community and destroys the happiness of all concerned. Assuming an earnest desire to relate the facts as they occurred, what are the chances for a truthful narration, and does the feeling of accuracy assure a reasonably correct reproduction? These questions are fundamental to court testimony and to social intercourse; and in the answers are revealed some interesting peculiarities of human psychology. Perhaps these questions may be best approached by a concrete case.
A few years ago the writer's attention was directed to a rather remarkable criminal trial. In 1871 Alexander Jester started east from Kansas in a light spring wagon with canvas top, drawn by two small pony horses. While fording a stream near Emporia, as the horses were drinking, he fell into conversation with Gilbert Gates, a young man who was returning from homesteading land in Kansas. Young Gates was travelling in what was then known as a prairie-schooner drawn by a pair of heavy horses. Jester had three young deer in his wagon, and Gates a buffalo calf. They decided to travel together and give exhibitions with their animals to meet expenses. When they reached Paris, Missouri, Gates had disappeared. Jester's explanation, at the preliminary hearing, was that he became homesick and sold his outfit to him that he might hasten home by rail. Jester was seen leaving Paris driving Gates' heavy team with his own lighter team tied behind. Later he sold the heavy horses and various other articles known to have belonged to Gates, but which he claimed were purchased. It is not the purpose of the writer to decide the merits of the case, but rather to call attention to certain exceedingly interesting psychological features.
Jester was soon arrested but escaped, and was not brought to trial until 1901. Thirty years had therefore passed since the events concerning which witnesses were called upon to testify. Besides, there was a blinding snow-storm at the time when the crime was supposed to have been committed; and, of course, this would have interfered with accurate observation. Further, when the witnesses "saw" the things which they related they were not aware that a crime had been committed. Two preliminary questions thus suggest themselves: First, would any one note, as carefully as the subsequent testimony indicated, the peculiarities of a chance traveller on the road, especially in a blinding snow-storm, and at a time when no reason existed, so far as known, for unusual observation? Second, would observers, under these circumstances, be likely to remember, after the lapse of thirty years, the minute details of what they had seen? The incidents were of the unimportant, uninteresting sort that were frequently experienced at that time. Even the prairie-schooner could hardly have been exceptional enough to attract special attention, since, as will be seen later, one of the witnesses was taking his wedding-trip on horseback, with his wife behind him on the same horse. But let us turn to the testimony.
When the trial was held, two women described the size and color of all the horses, the harness of the heavy team, the figure and appearance of Jester—height, a little over six feet, weight about one hundred and eighty pounds, with a hook-nose, gray eyes, powerful physique, and large hands. They further testified that, looking into the first wagon as it approached, they saw lying in the bottom the outlines of a human form with a buffalo-robe thrown over it; and they gave this testimony confidently, thirty years after the crime, notwithstanding they were twelve and fourteen years of age, respectively, when the events transpired, and though they were riding at a canter in the face of a heavy snow-storm, with veils tied over their faces, and the horses which they met were travelling at a fast trot when they passed in the storm. A farmer swore that the buffalo-robe was covered with blood, and still another witness that, while helping Jester start his wagon, the canvas blew back and he saw the body of a man with his throat cut. The description of the body was that of young Gates.
A man who had just been married, and was taking his wife behind him on his horse to their new home, described the horses attached to each wagon, the wagons, and the dog; and this in spite of the fact that his own horse was going at the "single foot" gait, that Jester's horses were trotting past, that it was snowing hard, and that, being on his honeymoon, other thoughts and interests would seem to be occupying his mind.
A man of thirty-six, who consequently was six years of age at the time of the crime, testified that later, during the thaw and heavy rains of spring, he and his father saw the body of a young man of eighteen or twenty years of age floating down the stream. He described the color of his hair and complexion, and said that he had on a blue-checked shirt and blue overalls. His description of the shirt agreed with that of Mrs. Gates of a shirt which she had made for her son. It is interesting to note, in this connection, that neither the father of the six-year-old boy nor the girls who saw the outlines of a human form in the wagon, nor the man who helped start Jester off, said anything about their observations until Gates' disappearance and Jester's arrest had been published.
It is quite evident that, whatever the merits of the case, the testimony of these witnesses, after a lapse of thirty years, was amazingly exact. Yet it would be unfair to assume that they were dishonest. All of those from whose testimony we have quoted were people of good standing in the community. They could be relied upon both in word and deed. The attorney for the defense,' to whom the writer is indebted for the facts in the case, speaks in the highest terms of these witnesses. "They were among the best people of Monroe County," he says. "They wanted to be truthful, and they were very friendly to me, entertaining me overnight when I was looking up evidence preparatory to the trial."
What then was the explanation of their remarkable exactness, even in the smallest and in some instances least noticeable and least interesting details? The key to the mystery lies in the way in which the case was worked up, in the publicity that it received, and in human psychology. After Jester's final arrest, Pinkerton detectives were employed and seven or eight leading criminal lawyers of Missouri and Chicago were engaged to assist the prosecution. The detectives, as they secured one fact after another, cultivated the information by suggestive questions and statements to those with whom they conversed. When, for example, a prospective witness said that there was a buffalo-robe in the wagon the detectives would ask if it covered the outlines of a human form. The man would think it likely, and soon that it did. Of course the case was featured in the county newspapers. It was a first-class news story. Pictures were published, pictures of Jester and Gates, pictures of the horses and wagons, pictures of the dog, and pictures of scenes in the chain of events leading to the alleged crime. The, pictures were based on what witnesses said they saw, and what the detectives said they must have seen, and reportorial imagination supplied whatever was lacking. The clothing of Gates was described, the articles he had with him enumerated, the facts to which certain witnesses would swear were told to other witnesses and reported in the news-papers. Indeed, all the events of the crime as it was conceived by witnesses, reporters, and detectives were portrayed and described with much the effect of a moving-picture representation, until fact and fiction were indistinguishable. It is a well-known principle of psychology that if you tell a man something often enough he finally accepts it; and as he continually repeats it, even as a possible fact, it ends by becoming firmly fixed. Then he believes that he saw or heard it.
We must not forget that all this happened thirty years after the events. The undetected vagueness of memory-details of the witnesses furnished a fertile soil for the growth of imaginary pictures. The attempt to see faces in the moon is comparable to their experience. With a dim outline, or a sketch with several possibilities, there is always a strong tendency to fill in the outlines, usually with what is in one's mind. As an illustration, ask a group of persons to indicate the kind of a figure six which is upon their watch-dial. They will be found to divide between VI. and 6. A few, whose "memory" is more accurate than that of the others, recalling that the figures take their line of direction from the centre of the dial, will write the figures upside down. All, except those to whose attention the peculiarity has already been called, will "remember" seeing the figure. Yet, in watches with a second-hand there is no six.
Despite the best intentions of truthful people, there are many ways in which the memory may be disturbed with-out the individual being aware of the alteration; and a brief reference to some of the causes of these memory distortions will reveal the fickleness of this reproducer of past experiences. These alterations of memory have a bearing upon reports of events given either as sworn testimony or in social intercourse, and all are intimately related to the psychology of the day's work.
One of the causes of unintentional perversion of memory is the constant talk that an exciting occurrence produces. There is always a tendency to say what we wish might have happened. This is especially true when we our-selves participated in the events. "The most frequent source of false memory," says James,' "is the accounts we give to others of our experiences. Such accounts we almost always make both more simple and more interesting than the truth. We quote what we should have said or done rather than what we really said or did; and in the first telling we may be fully aware of the distinction. But, ere long, the fiction expels the reality from memory and reigns in its stead alone." It is not necessary, however, that we be participants in the events. The tendency to enlarge upon a story is human. So strong is this inclination that if there is nothing unusual in the occurrence the story-teller transforms the common into the uncommon. This is especially true when the marvellous is involved. Man is saturated with the mysterious. James quotes a good illustration from Carpenter's Hours of Work and Play.
"It happened once to the writer to hear a most scrupulously conscientious friend narrate an incident of table-turning to which she appended an assurance that the table rapped when nobody was within a yard of it. The writer being confounded by this latter fact, the lady, though fully satisfied of the accuracy of her statement, promised to look at the note she had made ten years previously of the transaction. The note was examined, and was found to contain the distinct statement that the table rapped when the hands of six persons rested upon it. The lady's memory as to all other points proved to be strictly correct; and in this point she had erred in entire good faith."
Closely related to the effect of much talking is the influence of much thinking. Long-continued pondering over details which one feels must have happened, and trying to recall whether they occurred or not, usually ends in their recollection. The reasons behind this are much the same as those that produce this result through much talking. We think of what we wish had happened, of possible interpretations of actions, and soon we are unable to distinguish between things that actually happened and our thoughts about what might have occurred. Our wishes, hopes, and sometimes fears, are the controlling factors. At times this takes a form that may be called retroactive memory. Knowing what we ought to have done on a given occasion we think the action into the memory series. Again, it may be a transposition of events. We may have performed the act, but not at the moment when we locate it in the chain of events. It may be, for example, that we examined the ground where an alleged crime occurred, but our examination was made before the hour of the crime; we, however, insert this act later in the memory series, i. e., after the crime. This is especially noticeable in descriptions of occult phenomena where unusual care is needed to detect deception. Many times the slate has been cleaned by the sitter, and then allowed to pass into the hands of the medium. Afterward the cleaning is re-membered as having been done just before the writing, and the slate as not having left the sitter's hands. In all cases "in which a man frequently thinks over his experiences, he is very apt to come in the end to seem to re-member clearly things of which he was at first very doubtful; and his memory is likely to be wrong. This happens through a confusion of what he at first remembered and what he afterward often imagined. In other words, he forgets that he has only imagined a thing of which his memory was not certain, and then remembers what he has imagined as if it were a real memory of an actual fact."' The old soldier with his wonderful tales of events in which he participated, but which never occurred as he relates them, though he is entirely oblivious of inaccuracies, is an illustration.
Gross, commenting upon this influence of the imagination, finds striking departures from the truth. We must not think, he says, "that an honest witness will at all hazards stick to the truth. It is difficult to believe how far the imagination of emotional, though highly intellectual, persons will carry them. . . . One has only to note how easily emotional persons can be made to relate occurrences which they have never seen or heard, and that without any recourse to suggestion. In spite of their earnest de-sire to stick to the exact truth, on the first opportunity they strike off to the right or left, and at last can no longer distinguish between what they have really seen and what they have only imagined."
Moreover, a warm imagination often leads one to believe that events have been experienced when the only source of information concerning them is the narration of others. This of course subjects the "remembered" facts to all the inaccuracies of hearsay evidence. Boswell, referring to his first meeting with Johnson, gives an illustration of this. "Mr. Murphy," he says, "in his Essay on the Life and Genius of Dr. Johnson, has given an account of this meeting considerably different from mine, I am persuaded without any consciousness of error. His memory, at the end of near thirty years, has undoubtedly deceived him, and he supposes himself to have been present at a scene which he has probably heard inaccurately described by others. In my note, taken on the very day, in which I am confident I marked everything material that passed, no mention is made of this gentleman; and I am sure that I should not have omitted one so well known in the literary world. It may easily be imagined that this, my first interview with Doctor Johnson, with all its circumstances, made a strong impression on my mind, and would be registered with peculiar attention." Again, referring to Mrs. Piozzi's account of an incident and conversation between Doctor Johnson and himself, Boswell says: "Mrs. Piozzi, in her Anecdotes, has given an erroneous account of this incident, as of many others. She pretends to relate it from recollection, as if she herself had been present; when the fact is that it was communicated to her by me. She has represented it as a personality, and the true point has escaped her."
Another cause of false memory is that the purpose to do something at the moment may later lead us to insert the act in its proper place in the series of events without our being aware that we did not do it. An illustration of this tendency has been related by Hodgson . A Hindoo juggler was sitting upon the ground making wooden figures, and coins two feet from him dance around, leap from the ground and strike one another. An officer who was present "drew a coin from his pocket," Mr. Hodgson says, "and asked the juggler if this coin would also jump. The juggler replied in the affirmative, and the coin was then placed near the others on the ground, after which it displayed the same propensity to gymnastic feats as the juggler's own coin. Two or three other travellers were present at dinner in the evening of the same day, and in the course of the conversation the officer described the marvellous trick which he had witnessed in the afternoon. Referring to the movements of the coin, he said that he had taken a coin from his own pocket and placed it or the ground himself, yet that this coin had indulged in the same freaks as the other coins. His wife ventured to suggest that the juggler had taken the coin and placed it on the ground, but the officer was emphatic in repeating his statement, and appealed to me for confirmation. He was, however, mistaken. I had watched the transaction with special curiosity, as I knew what was necessary for the performance of the trick. The officer had apparently in-tended to place the coin upon the ground himself, but as he was doing so, the juggler leaning forward, dexterously, and in a most unobtrusive manner, received the coin from the fingers of the officer as the latter was stooping down, and laid it close to the others. If the juggler had not thus taken the coin, but had allowed the officer himself to place it on the ground, the trick, as actually performed, would have been frustrated." Evidently, the officer's imagination of himself as placing the coin upon the ground sup-pressed and finally obliterated the impression made by the juggler's action in receiving the coin. We not only allow our attention to be distracted by actions which are or are not intended to produce the distraction, but we also forget that it has been distracted; and then we fill in the gap by some conjectured or imagined events which form a juncture with the contiguous portions of the memory series and from that time on they appear to be an integral part of our memory of what happened. These interpolations account for many of our distortions of facts.
To the preceding causes of defective observation and memory disturbance we must also add biased opinions. They almost invariably lead one to overlook details op-posed to one's personal interests or convictions. This is a phase of the tendency to forget what one prefers not to believe, hopes is not true, or is in opposition to opinions which one holds and perhaps has already expressed. A person does not intentionally forget these things, but in some way they are repressed by the opposing ideas that are more congenial. Reference has been made in an earlier chapter to Darwin's observation of this failing in himself, and in courts of justice the testimony of interested witnesses is subject to this defect. Long-continued thinking about matters which have a controlling personal interest, and trying to recall whether certain things happened, is likely to end in the recollection of the desired circumstances. Because interested witnesses are persuaded of the justice of their case they have dominating beliefs, and imagination readily supplies the evidence for their truthfulness. This mental attitude renders the testimony of believers in the "occult" valueless for "supernormal" exhibitions. "Events that under ordinary circumstances, or if the witnesses were intent upon discovering a trick, would make a comparatively deep and lasting impression upon consciousness, glide past or are swiftly forgotten, simply because of the absorption of the spectator's interest in the supposed `supernormal' manifestations." Hodgson relates an incident which came under his own observation. "At a materialization seance given by Firman, at which I was present," he says, "a supposed `spirit-form' appeared, draped in a semi-transparent flowing robe—so transparent, in fact, that Firman's bare arm was visible behind it, waving it to and fro. When the figure retired to the cabinet, the door closed upon a portion of the robe. The door opened again slightly, and the end of the robe was drawn into the cabinet. Most of the sitters perceived this clearly, but one, a `believer,' averred conscientiously that the fabric was not withdrawn, and that he saw it slowly melt away."
Bias naturally prepares the way for the influence of suggestion as a mental disturbance to any one giving testimony or "repeating" conversation. Every one is susceptible to this subtle force, but an acquiescent state of mind enables the effect to be produced more easily. Scores of people have seen the face of a departed sister, brother, wife, or husband in the same illuminated mask.' An expectant, confiding state of mind is all that is needed. Then deception is easy. Here is an illustration. A conjurer, posing as a medium, produced a slate communication from the sister of a sitter. It was a common slate, washed clean and placed "flat upon the table with a bit of pencil about the size of a pea underneath. We then joined hands," one of those present states, "and after the lapse of about ten minutes, under the full glare of gaslight, we could distinctly see the slate undulate, and hear the communication that was being written, a copy of which I herewith append: `My dear Brother: You strive in vain to unlock the hidden mysteries of the future. No mortal has faculties to comprehend infinity. Charlotte.' These lines "were not only characteristic of my beloved sister while in the form," the recipient said, "but the handwriting so clearly resembled hers that, to my mind, there cannot be a shadow of doubt as to its identity." And again, "a short communication from my mother, in her own hand-writing," the same recipient insisted, "was found plainly written." Since the "medium" frankly says that he wrote both messages with his own hand, the resemblance to the writing of his sister and mother must have been imagined by a submissive mind yielding to the suggestion that he would receive messages from them.
The suggestions in the Jester case were given by the questions of the detectives and reporters, as well as, more directly, by published pictures and newspaper stories, and by conversation in the country stores; for the case caused great excitement. It was widely and daily discussed. So ideas were planted in the minds of those to be called to the stand, and when planted they grew. Lord Bacon, with that keen insight into human nature that he always showed, once said: "It is a good point of cunning for a man to shape the answer he would have in his own words and propositions; for it makes the other party stick the less." ' Kuhlmann, drawing on a number of investigations, enforces this view. "Memory illusion," he says, "is greater when statements made are answers to particular questions, than when the statements are made spontaneously on the part of the subjects without special questioning . . . questions are always more or less suggestive in the first place, and they may as frequently suggest the wrong thing as they do the right."
Experiments have proved that, in general, when the average man reports events or conversations from memory and conscientiously believes that he is telling the truth, about one-fourth of his statements are incorrect; "and this tendency to false memory is the greater the longer the time since the original experience and the less carefully one has observed." It should be remembered in comparing the results obtained by the experimental method that in most of the laboratory tests the subjects know that an investigation of observation and memory is being made. Consequently, they are more observant, and for this reason the results are more favorable to memory than in matters of everyday life when events come suddenly and unexpectedly upon the observers and when, so far as they are aware, they will never be called upon to make a deposition regarding what they see or hear. In the laboratory, also, the subjects are on their guard against such extraneous influences as suggestion; and this, again, is not the case with what they see or hear on the street or in social inter-course.
Further evidence of the influence of suggestion is obtained from the study of reports of different witnesses to a series of events, as, for example, a so-called spiritualistic seance. Whenever separate accounts of the same sitting are written by the different observers, without communication of any kind from the beginning of the seance till the reports have been finished, the witnesses are never in agreement even regarding critical matters.' When, however, the report is written by one of the observers and then passed to the others for criticism or approval, the account is usually indorsed as written, with few if any corrections. The inference from these two facts is strong that the "remembrances" of the cosigners of the account are greatly aided by the suggestions of the written report placed in their hands.
Another form of suggestion was recently reported to the writer by a physician. "My sister and I were standing at a street-corner one afternoon, waiting for a car," he said, "when suddenly a runaway horse and wagon came dashing by. The horse ran rapidly for a block, turned suddenly into another street, and then apparently stopped with a loud crash and shriek. We rushed to the corner to assist the injured. But to our amazement no horse or vehicle was in sight nor was there any evidence of a collision. We made inquiries and watched the newspapers but were unable to learn of any such accident. My sister and I are considered close observers, and we would have been willing to swear that the wagon was demolished and that some one was severely injured."
As will be recalled, we asked two preliminary questions regarding the value of some of the evidence given in the trial of Jester: First, would any one note, as carefully as the testimony indicated, the peculiarities of a chance traveller on the road, especially at a time when no reason existed, so far as known, for unusual observation? Second, would observers be likely to remember the details of what they had seen after the lapse of thirty years? These questions were asked with reference to a particular case, but the answers bear upon reports of events in general; and psychology replies definitely, No, to both questions. Indeed, as will be seen later, experiments discredit many positive statements made in reporting experiences or conversations even if the information is given shortly after the events occurred.
Interest and attention, to be sure, tend to fix facts and descriptions in memory. But persons are often called upon to give information regarding matters that attracted no special attention when they transpired, as in the Jester case. The keenest interest and closest attention, however, will not assure truthful accounts; for memory is exceedingly plastic and prone to error; and it is always exposed to the deflecting influences of repeated narration, with its generous mixture of error, continuous thinking about the affair with numerous fictitious insertions, intended actions not carried out, biased opinions, and suggestion.
Unreliable, however, as memory based on observation may be, second-hand accounts and those told or written some time after the events have occurred are still less dependable. Speaking of an abridged account of a seance, Hodgson says' that "a series of incidents which indicate, as I think, how the chief trick was performed, are entirely omitted; and writing, which according to the original re-port is described as having been obtained on an ordinary slate, is described in the later version as having been obtained between sealed double slates." Omission of things that actually happened, together with the substitution of events which did not occur, are evidently the rule in memory rather than the exception? Social gossip, of course, prepares the stage for innumerable omissions and substitu tions. Certain things are reported to have been said or to have occurred, and soon it is assumed that they happened. Then they become a part of the recollection.
As for the more general and fundamental question, Does the feeling of accuracy assure a reasonably correct reproduction, when an earnest desire to relate the facts as they occurred is assumed? the answer of psychology is equally definite: the feeling of accuracy is no proof of a correct reproduction. The omissions are forgotten; the substitutions, transpositions, and interpolations fit naturally into the memory series without mental disturbance. The honest narrator, or witness, feels that he is telling the truth, however far his statements may deviate from the facts; and it was so with the witnesses in the trial of Jester, though their stories were told and their testimony was given thirty years after the events which, when they were observed, did not have the element of interest needed to fix even the attention.
"I have every reason to think," says the attorney for the defense in the Jester case, "that all of the witnesses, even the man who was six years old when the events occurred and who described minutely the color of the shirt and overalls of the body floating down the stream, believed that they were testifying truly, and that they thought they actually saw all of the details which they related. I am convinced, however, that the general belief in the guilt of Jester, and the fact that the witnesses had talked over these details for many years, that they had been talked to by detectives, that they had been told the things to which others would swear, and that they had seen many pictures of the events, all produced such a psychological effect upon the witnesses that they confused what they remembered with the creations of imagination. This observation, I may say, has been verified by my subsequent experience in trial courts. I have seen many witnesses who unquestionably thought they were telling the truth but who wholly failed to do so."
The fickleness of the memory of well-meaning witnesses which this attorney has observed in court trials is equally true of the reports of events, actions, and conversations in every-day life. Observation is unreliable. Actions are transposed, omitted, substituted, and inserted in the series of events observed. The mental attitude at the moment, personal bias, and suggestion are always exerting their influence; and reports of conversations are subject to the same inaccuracies. Statements are misunderstood, qualifying remarks pass unnoticed, views are perverted, opinions added, and much is forgotten. Then that which has been lost from memory is replaced by products of the imagination. The speaker is made to say what we think he should have said—what we would like to have had him say; and in this last, the personal attitude toward the one whom we are quoting, or toward the whole situation, is a large determining factor.
Unfortunately, abundant proof of the waywardness of memory has not altered the practice of trial courts. The attorneys for one side endeavor to nurse remembrances, and those opposed to confuse them. Honest witnesses are subjected to the same sort of cross-examination as is applied to those under suspicion. Suggestions, so far as court rules and decisions permit, are given, and every effort is made to confuse the memory instead of to assist it in recalling. Then the task of separating truth from error or falsehood is left to the jury, which is too often composed of men who are inexperienced in making distinctions and in drawing inferences. The writer is aware that, in American practice, obtaining and producing evidence is the duty of the parties' attorneys; the judge is merely to decide on its admissibility. Theoretically, the purpose of the trial is to lay the facts before the jury. Practically, however, the attorneys too often try to confuse the truth.
Their aim is to acquit or convict. It is sometimes said in praise of a criminal lawyer that he has secured more acquittals than any other lawyer. It would seem as if the time had come when it should be some one's duty to discover the truth rather than to obscure it—to promote justice rather than to win cases. Though in court practice success is striven for regardless of its consequences to others, judges in their decisions are taking some of the facts of psychology into account. A few quotations will show this.
Referring to errors of memory from some of the causes discussed under the Jester case, Mr. Justice Brown, giving the opinion of the United States Supreme Court, said: "Witnesses whose memories are prodded by the eagerness of interested parties to elicit testimony favorable to themselves are not usually to be depended upon for ac-curate information."' And again, another judge says that courts are "fully aware of the ease with which honest witnesses can persuade themselves that they remember some bygone circumstance which they are ingeniously induced to think that they remember." 2 And, once more, in evaluing memory after a long period of time, Justice Brown expressed the opinion that "after the lapse of twenty-five years it would, in the nature of things, be highly improbable that any witness who saw this fence for the single day it was exhibited would be able to describe it accurately."3 Mr. Justice Swayne, thinking also of the element of time, said: "The confidence of the attacking witnesses is often in proportion to the distance in time that one is removed from the other. Their imaginations are wrought upon by the influences to which their minds are subjected, and beguile their memory."
Judge Choate, referring to the effect of much thinking and of the imagination, expressed the opinion that " the effort of the memory often supplies circumstances harmonious with the general impression of a fact or event, but which are supplied only by the imagination and the association of ideas." And, again, Mr. Justice Field, speaking of the influence of much conversation about a case, says: "Some, from defective recollection, will blend what they themselves saw or heard with what they have received from the narration of others." And still another judge gives the result of his experience with witnesses quite as definitely when he says that "things are told to persons till they verily believe that they witnessed them; and we repeat events until we are ready to swear, in the utmost sincerity, that we were spectators of their occurrence." When a matter becomes serious enough to be a persistent subject of conversation it assumes an importance in the minds of those who were present which it did not possess originally. Observers then become possible witnesses, and as they think about it and talk it over, they imagine that they gave it closer observation than was the case.
That we do not observe events and the persons engaged in them as accurately as is commonly supposed is often proved in matters of every-day life; yet people continue to have perfect confidence in what they "see." Now, if we can determine, approximately, the residue of fact left in the memory after an experience, we shall be able to strike a balance between truth and fiction, between what may be expected from the memory and that which is the product of the imagination stimulated by suggestion and the other mental excitants that have been mentioned. With this purpose in view the following scene was enacted before a small class in psychology.
The regular work of the class was in progress, one of the young women being engaged in making a report on an investigation which she had made. The instructor in charge —the writer—was sitting with the class. Since this is his custom when his students give reports, it caused no expectation of anything unusual. The only member of the class who was aware that anything out of the ordinary was to happen was the young woman who was to give the report. It was feared that an unexpected, violent interruption of her paper might give too serious a nervous shock, so she was informed just before she began to read that there would be a sudden interruption and that she should not be disturbed by it.
A few moments after the beginning of the report an altercation was heard in the corridor, then the door burst open and four students, two young men and two young women, dashed into the room. Miss R., immediately after entering, dropped a brown-paper package on the floor. This package contained a brick so that the occurrence might not be too inconspicuous. K. flourished a large yellow banana as though it were a pistol, and all struggled across the room to the side opposite the door, where the writer was sitting among several members of the class. He stood up at once, protesting at the interruption, and as he arose he threw a small torpedo on the floor. It exploded with the intonation usual with these children's Fourth of July torpedoes. H. fell back, crying, "I'm shot," and was caught by Miss R. All then hurried out the open door, Miss T. picking up the brown-paper pack-age which had been dropped near the door by Miss R. The entire scene occupied less than thirty seconds and it was startling to the class, all of whom jumped up and crowded back against the wall, believing that it was a real riot.
Some of the "witnesses," especially the young women, were in such a state of fright that it seemed a wise pre-caution to reassure them with the information that the scene was "made to order." This assurance cut out at once the element of reality. But it also produced a condition of comparative mental calmness, enabled the observers to review the events more clearly, and weakened the force of the one or two suggestions offered by the scene. This adds greatly to the significance of the meagre observations.
The effect of the announcement was at once observable. Those who had crowded back to escape the "danger" breathed again, and returned to their seats. Blank-books were immediately distributed and the members of the class were asked to write down what they had seen. Care was taken not to make any suggestions, but definite instructions were given to name the participants and to describe their clothing as accurately as possible. Three of those who burst into the room were members of the class, and since the class was. small—there were twenty-nine students in it—they were well known to their associates. The third, Miss R., was not a member of the class but she was a senior, prominent in college activities, and all of the class knew her. To avoid uncertainty regarding this the observers were asked, after they had finished writing, whether the names and faces of any of the participants were unfamiliar to them and they all said that they were not. None of those who took part were in any way disguised and the brief scene was enacted in full view of the spectators, since they were seated in an irregular circle, as was usual with that class, and the events occurred within the circle. Let us now see what was observed with sufficient accuracy to enable the "witnesses" to record the in-formation at once.
If the reader will turn to the "scene" it will be noticed that only a few things were done and that these few things were quite definite and conspicuous. The "play" was not overloaded. Four persons burst into the room. This number was not so large as to be confusing. They were readily discernible. Then there were two men and two women. It is doubtful whether an arrangement of persons could be planned more suitable for easy observation. Yet of the twenty-nine "witnesses," only three knew that four persons dashed into the room. These three also realized that two were young men and two were women. To the others it was an indefinite number, to a few less than four, but to the majority more; some characterized them as "a crowd" or "a mob." That only three actually observed the number was conclusively shown again when they tried to name and describe the participants. In doing this the "witnesses" were forced to face the question of numbers. It should be emphasized that the "witnesses" were definitely asked to name and describe the actors. This is important because, in this respect, narration was supplemented by what was essentially interrogation. though without suggestion. Failures and omissions were there-fore quite clearly due to inability to comply rather than to inadvertence.
Though the four participants were well known to the class and no disguises were used, no one recognized all of them. The result so far as concerns recognition by the twenty-nine "witnesses" is the following: 7 recognized 3.11 recognized 2.7 recognized 1.4 recognized 0.
Surprising as these figures may seem to those who think that, even under excitement, they could recognize an acquaintance whom they had seen at least three times a week for eight months, the results are nevertheless too favorable to observation and memory, for recognition by elimination of those present played its role. This could not well be avoided without taking chances of having the participants unknown to members of the class. It seemed the better plan, therefore, to select the actors chiefly from the class, but this left three vacant chairs, and probably some of the "witnesses" unintentionally noted the absentees though they were requested to rely wholly upon memory. The writer is of the opinion, however, that the observers tried honestly to conform to instructions, since by this time they were greatly interested in the experiment.
Now, as to mistaken identity. Eight "saw" persons who not only took no part in the performance, but who were either not present or who sat at a distance from the place where the scene was staged. Of these eight, three "saw" a member of the class who sat in the second row of the circle; one, a former member of the class who had withdrawn about three months earlier; a young woman who had never been in the class and was not present was "seen" by two; still another young woman, likewise not a member of the class and not present, by one, and, again, a member of the class who sat at a distance from the scene, by one.
The descriptions of clothing were so general as to be worthless for purposes of identification. Only thirteen of the twenty-nine attempted any sort of description even of those whom they recognized. All except one of these were women. Some "described" only one, and others two or three. The largest number of descriptions of any one actor was eleven. H., the object of these descriptions, wore a dark-blue suit, but none of the eleven made that distinction. They said either "dark suit" or "blue suit," with the exception of one who gave "bluish gray," the color of another suit that H. had occasionally worn. Only two noticed a conspicuous red tie, and one "saw" that his shoes were muddy and his face dirty, neither of which statements was true. As a matter of fact, he is one of those young men who are always neat, and who never have an article of dress out of order, and on this day his shoes were polished as usual.
The next largest number of descriptions of any one of the actors was six. These descriptions referred to Miss T., who wore a green skirt, white chiffon blouse, and a black hat. Only one of the six described her skirt as green. Three said she wore a green suit, without mentioning her white blouse. Evidently, green left an impression which later was "remembered" as the only color. One clothed her in a brown skirt. No one noticed her black hat, but four "saw" a red one on her. This was the color of the hat which she had worn in class up to this time.
Miss R. wore a black skirt, white blouse, and a brown hat. She was described by three. All of these said that her hat was black, two of them putting a feather on it, which was true of her brown hat. One saw her in a long grayish coat, and another in a tan coat. As a matter of fact, she wore none.
K., who wore a greenish suit, with coat collar turned up, was described by three. No one noticed that his suit was green. One said that he had on a dark-blue suit, and still another, a dark gray. One said that he had a black eye, which was not true, and no one observed that his coat collar was turned up.
The other attempts at description were either with mistaken recognition or without recognition. That the "descriptions" may be complete I will quote them. "Mr." [identity unknown] "wore a light suit. Another, "the young woman" [this observer saw but one] "had on a large, dark hat, the young man dark clothes." And again, "both of the boys had on dark suits and one of them a green and red striped tie." And finally, "I saw a man all painted, with a red handkerchief around his neck." Neither of the young men was painted, and neither wore any sort of handkerchief on his neck. Recall of the "red and green striped tie" on one of the young men is interesting because, though this observer saw practically nothing but confusion, and though she "recognized" one who had never been in the class and who was not present on this occasion, she, nevertheless, was the only observer who noted the tie of one of the young men minutely enough to recall its red and green stripes. Evidently, inability to recall and describe certain things is not necessarily proof of the worthlessness of all observations of a witness. An illuminative side-light upon the kind of things observed, even under excitement, is an accurate description, as was afterward learned, of an unplanned, trivial incident. One of the young women in her excitement dropped her purse, and in recovering it she and the young woman sitting next exchanged seats. All this was observed and recalled, and the women identified by a witness who was unable to de-scribe the clothing of any of the participants, and who, in addition, "saw" several things that did not occur.
These descriptions of the participants are all that were given—all that the "witnesses" were able to remember after the excitement through which they had passed, and without suggestions of any sort. Their inadequacy for purposes of identification is apparent. They fit scores of men or women who might have been in the vicinity of the "crime," quite as well as they apply to the actors them-selves. Of even greater importance, however, is the fact that the indefiniteness and vagueness of these descriptions indicate a state of mind that makes a fertile soil for suggestions in the form of questions, newspaper reports, and innuendoes in court trials. The descriptions illustrate the rough sketches mentioned above, which can be filled out in a variety of ways to satisfy the bias of the witnesses or the needs of the prosecution. I do not mean that lawyers deliberately set themselves to the task of bringing out false testimony. Examination and cross-examination, however, are in their very nature suggestive, and with soil so admirably prepared for the purpose, an abundant crop of imaginary pictures and scenes will be readily grown. Rough outlines which can be filled in are the structures out of which illusions are made, and the mind's imaginings are the material that gives life and reality to the picture. One who was seen shortly after the events, for example, is thought of in connection with them, and finally as present at the time.'
Several things done plainly in front of the witnesses were either not observed or were wrongly observed. Six saw one of the young women drop something and, of these, four noticed who did it. Only one of them, however, was able to describe the package as a brown-paper parcel. No one saw Miss R. pick it up as she hurried out. Six saw some one pick up the parcel, however, but five of these said it was Miss T., while one thought it was H. This illustrates the tendency to fill in the outline memories. Apparently, all that impressed these six in this connection was that something was picked up. The persons who were not present at the scene were inserted by some of the spectators for one reason or another. Conversation with some one shortly before entering the class, or merely the sight of him, might be sufficient to cause his insertion into the scene as one of the participants.
That sight alone is sufficient incitement to produce "memories" was shown in an exceedingly interesting manner. Two of the witnesses "saw" a dog in the room. Since no dog was present and the word was not used, this interpolation must have had its origin in a stray dog that had been wandering around the quadrangle during the morning and which these two witnesses afterward remembered having seen.
Five heard or saw a pistol-shot. Three of the five saw the flash. "I saw the blaze," wrote one of the young men. "I know some one fired a pistol because I saw the flash," was the statement of a young woman. This, of course, was the result of suggestion. The yellow banana was flourished and then pointed at H. At that moment the toy torpedo was exploded and H. staggered back, crying: "I'm shot." This was all that was said during the performance, except as the instructor protested the presence of the "rioters," and ordered them out. Further, the "witnesses" were asked to report what they saw, not what they heard. Hence, the pistol-shot was not suggested by the question. Several other things seen by the spectators but which did not correspond with the facts are also worth recording since, taken in connection with the things mentioned above, they reveal the illusory possibilities of the human mind.
One "noticed Miss T.'s necklace," though she did not wear one and had not been accustomed to do so in the college. As an illustration. of the different ways in which the same thing is seen by several witnesses, I will quote the statements of those who described the entrance of H. "Mr. H. was throwing his arms about wildly, and Miss T. was trying to quiet him." "All were beating H." "Mr. U. caught H. as he seemed about to fall." (U. was a member of the class.) "H. came rushing in and fell on his knees." "They seemed to be pursuing H., whom they dragged out of the room." "I recognized only H., and he seemed to be a kind of leader." "They appeared to be trying to subdue H." "H. looked as though he had been seriously injured." This was suggested by the fact that H. entered the room first, and the others seemed to be pursuing him. Besides, when the "pistol" was fired he was the one at whom it was pointed. Finally, one of the young men wrote: "They were attempting to hold back a man with long, black hair." This evidently refers to H., since the other young man had light hair and followed H. into the room. H.'s hair, however, was short. It is another instance of interpolation. The description is that of a young Italian who had been a member of the class earlier in the year, but who withdrew several months before the experiment. Later, this witness in his deposition named the Italian among the participants.
One short report is worth quoting in full because, except for the recognition of one of the participants, the "witness" unintentionally reconstructed the scene from her imagination. "All I saw," she wrote, "was Miss T. with a tin bucket in her hand. Then I saw a man all painted, with hair standing on end, and with a red handkerchief around his neck. I don't know who he was."
The testimony of the only member of the class who had been forewarned—the young woman who was to have given her report on an investigation—is especially interesting because surprise should have been largely absent in her case and fear must have been wholly eliminated. She had been told that she would be interrupted and that she should not be disturbed but should observe what happened. Her "testimony," therefore, was that of an intelligent young woman who calmly viewed an exciting scene in a more or less impersonal attitude. Yet it contains nothing of evidential value. "I heard screaming," she wrote, "the door was pushed open, a young man rushed in with a young woman hanging on his arm. They were followed by a young man. They went right in front of me; the struggle was followed by a report that I thought was a revolver. I cannot tell who the people were. The young woman had on a large, dark hat and a white shirt-waist. The young men had on dark clothes. They appeared to be below the medium height." The young men were not below the medium height, and, as we have seen, there were two women though she saw but one.
Finally, five of the reports did not contain an item of truth or fiction. These witnesses saw nothing except a mob bursting into the room, and confusion. Six others were unable to testify to anything more than the identity of one of the participants. To these, all else was a blank.
The writer is aware of the difficulty of arranging even a short scene and being sure that it is carried out exactly as planned. In the one of which we have been speaking, however, certain things were definite and these are the ones upon which we have judged the evidence. The number of persons bursting into the room, their identity, color of clothes, the yellow banana, dropping of the package by one and picking it up by another—these are all matters concerning which there can be no uncertainty. Further, for purposes of control, a departmental instructor, who had followed the rehearsals of the scene, was present to see that nothing was omitted and nothing done that was not provided for in the programme.
Identification is, of course, fundamental in criminal cases, and positive recognition by well-intentioned, uninterested persons is commonly accepted, unless the alibi is convincing. In our drama-experiment the observers were well acquainted with the participants, yet they were surprisingly incompetent as witnesses. Their minds were therefore prepared, had the affair involved a real crime, to recognize one against whom there might appear to be corroborative evidence. The "witnesses" had little definite knowledge of what actually happened. Had a crime been committed their testimony would have had slight value. Yet it would have been accepted because they were eye-witnesses. Only a few identified actors, and in several instances these identifications were so uncertain as to be readily transferred to some one else under the influence of suggestion.
A case in a German police-court illustrates this transfer of identification and also indicates that such mistakes may not be infrequent in actual court cases. A seventeen-year-old boy, named Zinny, was accused of having stolen certain articles from a house. The evidence showed that the thief, in the attempted flight and pursuit, threw the things away, and that Zinny, when caught and brought back was at once recognized as the robber by the wife of the janitor of the apartment. She also identified the defendant as Zinny, the thief. Further, two men swore that the defendant was the man whom they had seen carrying the things out of the gate, and who was pursued and caught. The identification seemed perfect and no witnesses were called for the defense. Before passing sentence the judges asked the defendant whether he had anything to say for himself. To the amazement of the court he re-plied that the verdict did not interest him in the least because he was not Zinny, but Nowakowski. The ex-planation of this farcical ending to a serious trial was that some days before Nowakowski had been convicted by testimony which he knew to be false, though perhaps not intentionally untruthful. He had, therefore, arranged with Zinny to exchange roles in the court proceedings. He took Zinny's place to show the judges how little reliance can be placed upon testimony regarding identity. The court felt that its dignity had been trifled with and its feelings cruelly wounded, and the judges could be convinced that the testimony of so many honest folk was erroneous only after the real Zinny and the jailer were brought before them and had verified Nowakowski's identification of himself. It was then learned, to the further discomfort of the judges, that one of the prosecuting attorneys in the trial of "Zinny," one of the presiding judges, and a subordinate court official, had participated in the original case against Nowakowski, and yet did not recognize him when he appeared before them as defendant in the assumed role of Zinny.
Returning now to the general question of observation and its evidential value, several drama-experiments similar to the one described from the classroom of Washington University have been enacted by others for the same purpose. Some of these scenes, in the opinion of the writer, are too complex—they test observation of details that could hardly be expected under excitement; yet all conform reasonably well to the conditions of an actual crime thrust unexpectedly upon the attention of witnesses who later are called into court to testify to what happened of Berlin, staged the following scene' in his seminar. The members of the seminar were discussing Tarde's investigations. Professor von Liszt asked: "Has any one something more to say before I give the floor to the first speaker to sum up the results?" One of the students arose and was given the floor. "I wish to discuss Tarde's doctrine from the standpoint of Christian ethics."
"That's all nonsense," exclaimed another student, rising excitedly.
"Keep still until you're spoken to," shouted the first. "That's an insult," cried the second, jumping up.
"If you say another word—" exclaimed the first, advancing with clinched fist.
"Drop your hands," shouted the second, drawing a revolver and thrusting it into his face.
Professor von Liszt seized the man's arm, the revolver dropped to the level of the breast of his adversary and was fired. The members of the seminar, who still believed that they had witnessed a real quarrel which just missed being a tragedy, were then told that, since the affair would doubtless be investigated in the courts, they had better write down what had occurred. Some of them did so at once, and others at varying intervals of time. As was to be expected, no one saw and heard what had happened. Those who took no part were made participants by word or deed, and the real actors were made to do things that had not occurred.
Drama-experiments, such as have been outlined, were first tried because of rather startling attacks upon the value of testimony. Binet had previously published a mass of convincing evidence of the subtle influence of suggestion. He insisted that all questions, even the most innocent, suggest details to the witness which he then honestly believes he observed. Even if they do nothing worse, in Binet's opinion, they force the memory to be exact in. matters that are vague and uncertain.. Forced memory, Binet found, gives 26 per cent of errors. When a moderate suggestion is combined with the forcing process the errors rise to 38 per cent. After the witness has committed himself there is a tendency to adhere to the statement and finally to believe it.
The growth and spread of suggestion is, of course, well known, but Defoe gives such a good illustration from the Plague of London that it is worth quoting.' "Another encounter I had in the open day also," he says; "and this was in going through a narrow passage from Petty France into Bishopsgate Churchyard, by a row of alms-houses. .. . In this narrow passage stands a man looking through between the. palisades into the burying-place, and as many people as the narrowness of the passage would admit to stop without hindering the passage of others, and he was talking mighty eagerly to them, and pointing now to one place, then to another, and affirming that he saw a ghost walking upon such a gravestone there. He described the shape, the posture, and the movement of it so exactly that it was the greatest matter of amazement to him in the world that everybody did not see it as well as he. On a sudden he would cry: `There it is; now it comes this way.' Then, "Tis turned back'; till at length he persuaded the people into so firm a belief of it, that one fancied he saw it, and another fancied he saw it; and thus he came every day making a strange hubbub, considering it was in so narrow a passage, till Bishopsgate clock struck eleven, and then the ghost would seem to start, and, as if he were called away, disappeared on a sudden." Again, to cite a more recent instance, every one remembers the Cossacks tiptoeing through London at the beginning of the present war. They were "seen" by many, and, though they vanished like ghosts, their number was variously estimated from 35,000 to 1,000,000. It was, then, facts similar to these that led Binet and Stern'. to doubt the accuracy of much of the testimony that is given, and to undertake the experimental examination of evidence.
Some of the experimental results were obtained by the so-called picture-method. The "witnesses" examined a picture for a minute, more or less, and then wrote a description of it from memory. Sometimes they were questioned about the things they omitted or upon which they only touched. The conclusions from these experiments were sufficiently impressive to attract the attention of jurists, but it was maintained that the picture-test is a long way removed from the conditions of every-day life with which courts have to deal. They are concerned, it was said, with events and "adventures", in which emotions play a leading part. So von Liszt, at Stern's request, pre-pared and staged the drama-experiment to which reference has been made.
As a matter of fact, however, picture-tests have demonstrated a number of things in the psychology of testimony that probably could not have been singled out and discovered in drama-experiments. Picture-tests easily lend themselves to scientific accuracy. Scenes, even short ones, are difficult to stage exactly as prepared. Something may be inadvertently introduced or omitted, and the change escape the observation of the participants. To be sure, these errors in the production may be to a great ex-tent eliminated by having some one present who knows what should be done, as was the case in the writer's drama-experiment. But even then something regarded as ' important may be slurred and the defect in the performance escape the attention of the control-witness. Besides, this control-witness is subject, if in a less degree, to the psychology of other observers. He is not altogether immune to the contagious emotions of the moment. So the conclusions from picture-tests must supplement those gained from scenes more comparable with the events of life.
Let us then briefly consider a few of the results of the picture-tests. All investigators agree that accurate testimony is the exception and not the rule. The imagination helps out the memory. Stern' tested a number of university students and professors, allowing them to examine a picture for forty-five seconds. They were then requested to write immediately a description of the picture. These descriptions were repeated at the end of five, fourteen, and thirty-one days. Since the observers were forewarned that it was a test of observation, and that they would be asked to write what they remembered, they naturally examined the picture in detail and with great care. There was the maximum of attention. Moreover, the test was devoid of excitement and of personal prejudices; and there were no suggestions either by questions or by conversation among the participants. Further, the observers were intelligent persons in the best years of their mental vigor, from seventeen to forty-six years of age. For these reasons the results may be regarded as revealing the least average errors for observation in daily life. Yet, even under these exceptionally favorable conditions, the errors were nearly 6 per cent in the reports written immediately after the observation, and averaged ro per cent in the subsequent descriptions. Out of two hundred and eighty-two reports only seventeen were correct, and fifteen of these were among those written immediately after examination of the pictures.
It is generally agreed that questions increase the range of testimony regarding what has been observed, but there is less accuracy than in free narration. Mlle. Borst' found a few more correct statements when the witnesses were questioned, but the number of replies in which errors were mingled increased in a greater proportion. The net result, therefore, was less reliable than in free narration. One is always prone to tell more than one knows, and every question is another temptation. Narration, on the other hand, is thought by some to give too loose a rein to fancy. It should not be forgotten, however, that the credibility of a witness is one of the things to be settled before accepting his testimony, and unlimited freedom to talk himself out gives valuable evidence regarding his ac-curacy. Indeed, quantity and quality of testimony are frequently in inverse ratio; and in this connection Mlle. Borst, with keen psychological insight, observes that forgetfulness is one condition of reliable testimony, provided the witness is aware of his tendency to forget.' Attention is rigorously selective, and this selection is based on the relative importance of the details; but it should be remembered that the choice of what is important is a personal matter. A thing has only the importance that one gives to it. Its significance as evidence may be quite different. Colors, size, and duration of time, for example, are often fundamental in court cases, yet evidence regarding these matters is commonly unreliable.
As to the effect of lapse of time between observation of an object or event and testimony regarding it, there is not complete agreement. As personal or public interest in a 'matter increases, however, accuracy seems to de-crease at a rate which may seriously discredit honest testimony, especially when the case is one that causes much talk and gossip during the interval. The experimental investigations of this question are probably too favorable to delayed evidence because the "witnesses" were usually asked not to discuss the matter with one another, and there were no personal or emotional factors involved.
Another approach to this subject of testimony is the influence of the oath. The manner of administering the oath in these investigations is to ask the "witnesses" to underline the statements to the accuracy of which they would be willing o swear. Mlle. Borst concludes from her investigations that about a twelfth part of sworn testimony is false. Stern puts a lower value upon it, and Larguier des Bancels, after reviewing various investigations, is of the opinion that, in general, a tenth of the honest evidence given under oath is untrue. One of the "sworn statements" obtained by Stern is worth quoting. This witness, a young man, occupied the eighteenth place in the list based on the percentage of errors. The statement, written three weeks after the observation of the picture, runs as follows: "The picture shows an old man seated on a wooden bench. A small boy stands at his left. He is watching the old man feed a pigeon. Another pigeon is perched on the roof ready to fly down to be fed." As a matter of fact there was no pigeon in the picture. The boy himself was being fed with a spoon by the old man from a dish held in the man's lap.'
Testimony is a solemn affirmation, usually given under oath in courts of justice. Its social counterparts are repetition of conversations, spreading of rumors, and reports of scenes which have been heard or read. These latter differ from testimony chiefly in the occasion that prompts them; and their social function gives them a peculiar interest. Let us therefore see how accurately such reports are reproduced.
In order to test memory of a short narrative the following newspaper item was slowly read to six college students, members of the beginning class in psychology in Washing-ton University—to which freshmen are not admitted—and each of these six immediately repeated it from memory to a group of five. All, both the leaders and members of the several groups, then wrote it down:
"A Greek naval officer who was on board the cross-Channel steamship Sussex when she was damaged by an explosion made a report of the occurrence in which several Greeks lost their lives.
"The officer asserts there is no reason to believe that the Sussex was torpedoed, and declares that the vessel must have struck a mine, possibly one of British make. According to this report, the Sussex carried only four life-boats, which were not sufficient to accommodate the passengers and crew.
"The captain of the Sussex was killed when the explosion occurred, and the first officer, on sending out a wireless call for help, gave the wrong position of the ship. As a result of this error the arrival of aid was delayed and the number of victims was increased."
In estimating the accuracy of memory, this selection was divided into six statements. The first corresponds to the first paragraph, the second to the first sentence of the second paragraph, and the third to the second sentence. The last paragraph was divided into three statements, that the captain was killed by the explosion, that the first officer gave the wrong position by wireless, and that as a result of the delay caused by this error the number of victims was increased. It would have been easy, of course, to further subdivide the "story," but it seemed best to take the large conspicuous features. This, of course, gave the story-teller the advantage in estimating the accuracy of the reports. In computing the results, omissions were counted as errors, but a statement was regarded as correct if the central thought was given. It was not expected that the hearers would remember the wording. Since only the substance of the statements was required the results are rather startling. Of the leaders of the groups, to whom the news item was slowly read by the instructor, and who wrote it down as soon as they had repeated it to their several groups, three made a record of sixty-six and two-thirds per cent of correct reproduction, one of fifty per cent, and two of. thirty-three and one-third per cent. Among the members of the groups to whom the leaders repeated the news story immediately after it was read to them, four made sixty-six and two-thirds per cent, one fifty per cent, four thirty-three and one-third, twelve sixteen and two-thirds, and two failed to remember any of the story. They were, therefore, marked zero. A number added incidents not contained in the selection. This was especially noticeable with those who remembered little or nothing of what they heard. The writer is aware that mathematical accuracy cannot be ascribed to these figures. Recollection, at times, was neither wholly right nor wholly wrong. In such cases the percentage of correctness had to be, in part, estimated. In the writer's opinion, however, the figures are essentially correct; and he believes that they are fairly representative of the accuracy of stories in the second and third repetition by different persons. It should be emphasized that these students knew that their memory of the story was to be tested. This increased their attention. Yet, even with this added incentive, their reproductions were not remarkable for accuracy. Evidently, memory of what one has been told should always be regarded with suspicion.
There is, however, another interesting question connected with this matter of reports and rumors. Through how many mouths must a story pass before it loses its identity
To test this the following newspaper clipping was read to one member of the class who, in turn, repeated it at once to the next, and so on to the end. As soon as a student had heard and repeated it, he (or she) immediately wrote it down. It will be observed that the story is shorter than the preceding:
"Thomas McCarthy, who has also used the names Burns and Hopkins, was arraigned yesterday on the charge of having conspired to forge and pass stolen money orders. His case was adjourned for a week. He was arrested on Monday night in a saloon. The Assistant District Attorney said yesterday that the score of money orders, which the man was accused of passing at department stores, were some of those stolen by yeggmen a month ago from a Post Office in St. Louis. The orders had been filled in for varying amounts, none of which were more than $100. Mc-Carthy was held in $10,000 bail."
The first paper, perhaps, had better be quoted that the readers may see how it started down the line. "Thomas McCarthy, who formerly gave the name of Burr and Buss, was arrested for forgery. The trial will come in a week. He was arrested last Monday night in a corner saloon. He tried to pass checks formerly used by Leighton in the department stores. Since none of the amounts were over $100 he was let out on $1000 bail before the district attorney."
Beginning with the second attempt at reproduction of the story there were continuous and increasing omissions and additions, with frequent changes in the aliases. The seventh report was so far reduced as to be worth quoting. It is as follows: "There was a man named McCarthy who went by the name of Burney. He forged a check for $100 and was arrested." Number eleven lost the surname and changed the alias to "Sussex," evidently because of the story heard two days before. The story now becomes: "There was a man named Thomas. He went by the name of Sussex. He forged a check for $100 and escaped." Here the story may be said to have lost all resemblance to that with which number one began. This test, like the pre-ceding one, gave memory an advantage that it does not have in matters of everyday life. We do not usually expect to be called to account for our information. Hence we are less attentive. These students were interested in the experiment. There was rivalry to see who could remember most accurately. They concentrated their attention to the limit of their ability. Yet the results were chiefly remark-able for their omissions and additions. Second-hand reports are undependable, and after they have passed through three or four mouths, in intervals of several days, they are quite certain to have little or no resemblance to the original story.
In conclusion, let us refer again to the questions asked at the beginning of this chapter. First, what are the chances for a truthful narration of that which has been seen or heard ? Clearly, the chances of even a reasonably accurate narration are small. We have found observation itself exceedingly defective and unreliable; and when to the inaccuracy of observation there is added the disturbing effect of intervening time, with the deflecting influence of conversation about the events and the excitement of the imagination, the testimony of witnesses becomes extremely undependable. Imagination reconstructs events with many omissions and substitutions, and the final out-come is likely to be so different from the original as to be almost unrecognizable. Expectation of an act may cause it to be seen, and intention to do something translates the thought into deed. Suggestion is always operative—suggestion of actions when one is an observer, and suggestion from questions, even of fact, in conversation or when on the witnessstand.
The second question was, Does the feeling of accuracy guarantee substantially correct statements in testimony or conversation? The evidence and experiments again enter a denial. Confidence and assurance signify little. A man may think an occurrence so intensely in connection with other events that it assumes a place among them. He then "remembers" that it happened. Bias, of course, is operative both in observation and in memory, and at the end it exerts a powerful influence upon the feeling of accuracy.
Finally, knowledge of the inadequacy of observation and memory, and conviction of the possibility of error by oneself are the best guarantees of truthful reports. The most positive witnesses and narrators of conversation are to be regarded with suspicion because of their very assurance of accuracy.