Memory is defined by the power or process of reproducing or recalling what has been learned and retained especially through associative mechanisms. The evolution of psychology and experiments within it have greatly contributed to deeper understanding of memory.
Using this complex understanding of memory researchers have been able to look into certain situations, such as eye witness testimony, that arise in modern day legal systems. Some early studies on memory, such as Bartlett’s War of Ghosts in 1932, indicate that memories are not accurate representations of our experiences, which contradicts common belief. Remembering is an active process making sense of the world according to previous and existing knowledge.
This knowledge, according to Bartlett, is organized by schemas. Schemas, by definition are simplified mental representations of knowledge. Schemas influence memory to a great extent as well as interfere with processing of knowledge which can create distortions. Bartlett conducted a study where participants from an english background were to asked to recite and summarize a Native American folktale. The English participants were unfamiliar with the style and content of the story, which changed their revolution of the story to fit their ideas of the world – the story became shorter, more coherent, and more conventional.
. These results support Bartlett’s idea of reconstructive memory- the participants tried to make sense of the story according to their existing schemas. Allport and Postman conducted a similar experiment in 1947 that supported this idea of the use of schemas. Bartlett’s view of memory is supported by Loftus, who mainly deals with the issue of reliability of eyewitness testimonies. A study of Loftus and Palmer (1974) found that the wording of a question can greatly influence the witness’ recall of certain events. The researchers tested the effect of changing single words in certain critical questions on the judgement of speed based on a video of two cars colliding. When the verb “contacted” was used, the average speed estimation was 31.
8mph, whereas “smashed” created an average speed estimation of 40.8 mph. Thus it seems that misleading questions influence the retrieval of memory, as the connotations of a word (the schema) will communicate information about the answer.
However, these findings were criticised by Yuille and Cutshall (1986), who investigated a real life event concerning the eyewitness testimony in a robbery case. The recalling of the witnesses was very accurate despite misleading questions. Although this is true, Loftus has pointed at great problems with the reliability of eyewitness testimonies. In spite of the criticism it is clear that schemas do play a role in retrieval, and so we decided to replicate the experiment of Loftus and Palmer with the aim of investigating whether schemas interfere with information processing.