Friday, 25 October 2013

Counting humps

HumpsIt was only afterwards that I realized what I'd done. I was using my account of an incident from my distant past to support my view of a current news item. Then I was asked a question I hadn't anticipated. If I answered 'yes' then my account would still support my view. If I answered 'no', it wouldn't. It all depended on some details of my account which I could not readily recall. I searched my memory for the answer. I answered 'yes' but I had a nagging thought that I couldn't really be sure. And I could hardly go back all those years to check!

I have a feeling that next time I recall that particular memory, it will have changed a little as a result of this conversation. Every time we recall something, there is possibility that the memory of it will be modified. It is a bit like 'Chinese whispers' but involving only one person. Essentially, it is a process of confabulation. When we are asked questions about things which we cannot really remember, rather than say 'I don't know', we have a tendency, quite unconsciously, to 'fill in' our memories with details that were not previously present (see here for an ASSAP study). Worse, the 'new' memories are not usually simply random but often tend to support any belief we might have formed concerning the memory involved.

Unfortunately, this can happen when witnesses to paranormal incidents are interviewed. When asked 'what colour was the coat' the witness may name a colour rather than admit they cannot recall. And once they have done this, the coat will always be that colour in their memory. As the process is unconscious, it rarely feels like anything is wrong and the 'new' memory subsequently appears real and true.

I think we are in greatest danger of confabulating when asked for details that we 'ought' to know but don't. So, if I see a coat being worn by a ghostly figure on a well-lit street, it is reasonable to expect that I would recall its colour. But if I don't, I may well confabulate to 'fill in' that detail (because 'I must have seen the colour'!).

The problem is that, unless we make a conscious effort to memorize a scene at the time we view it, we will probably only remember one or two things that catch our attention at the time. If I saw the scene shown in the photo (above right), for instance, I would probably remember that there were unusual humps in the ground. But could I say how many there were, how tall they were, whether they were all the same size and colour, whether they were spaced at regular intervals and so on? I doubt it very much but I might 'fill in' some of these details, when questioned, if I'd formed my own theory about the cause of the humps.

This is something that people conducting interviews of paranormal witnesses should be aware of. Sometimes, whether a case has obvious xenonormal or paranormal causes may depend on quite trivial details that the witness did not actually notice. If you want an accurate answer to your questions about such a detail, including the possibility of 'I don't recall', you'll need to be careful how you proceed. This is particularly important if the witness themselves is aware that such details are of huge importance in determining whether the incident might have been paranormal or not.

I have noticed how often witnesses will recall 'new' vital details that support a paranormal interpretation of their case, despite having been closely questioned on the subject in detail before. Following my own experience above, I can see exactly why that might happen. There is a strong unconscious bias towards 'filling in' extra details that support your own interpretation of an incident even if, in reality, you can't really recall them.

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