Friday, 7 March 2014

Narrative illusion

Crows in a treeWitness X was sitting in a stuffy hotel room with the window, which looked out over a busy street, open. Suddenly, he heard the sound of screeching car brakes from outside. This was followed a second later by a loud bang. Startled, he went to the window but could see nothing amiss. He concluded that the vehicle collision, that must have occurred, had happened out of sight in a nearby side street.

This incident is fictitious but it could easily happen and probably has. The loud bang was actually caused by a large waste bin being accidentally knocked over by a pedestrian. No car was involved. The screeching brakes and the bang were not in any way connected. However, it easy to see why Witness X came to the conclusion that he did. We have all heard screeching brakes and anticipated a bang.

What this example demonstrates is how unconnected coincidental events can become connected in a witness's mind. I'm sure there is a proper scientific name for this kind if thing but, so far, I've been unable to find it. So, for my own convenience, I'm calling the phenomenon 'narrative illusion'. It means that the witness has a narrative in their head to explain what they've experienced when, in reality, things happened rather differently. I think this sort of effect crops up in paranormal reports.

Here's a real example (from 3 Sep 2009): Walking along a street today, I noticed a woman in a red coat ahead of me on the pavement. A few moments later, I noticed she'd vanished. I was surprised because there aren't many places to hide in that street! I looked along various side streets but there was no sign of her. Had I really seen a ghost? Then I noticed a similar woman walking away along one of the side streets. But she wasn't wearing a red coat. That's because she was carrying it! It was clearly the same woman who had, while I wasn't watching, taken her coat off.

The 'narrative' in my head in this example is that someone walking along a road does just that. They don't generally stop to take their coat off. Except, of course, that just occasionally they do. I could easily have concluded that the woman had simply vanished because she was a ghost. And that is another narrative - that ghosts are in the habit of disappearing.

The point is this. Never assume that a series of events in a witness's experience all point to one obvious conclusion. Investigators should check any obvious 'narrative' in a witness's testimony, especially if it appears rather unlikely or is contradicted by other evidence.

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