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Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The Memory of Eyewitnesses

In yesterday's post, I discussed Jan Vansina's research regarding the reliability of eyewitness testimony. Today, I turn to Elizabeth Loftus' discussion of the subject. She is a world renowned expert on the matter of false memories. She is often called upon to testify at trials where eyewitness testimony is being used. She is the author of the leading book on the subject, Eyewitness Testimony (Harvard University Press, 1996).

In Scientific American (September 1997, vol. 277, #3, pp. 70-75), Loftus explains how memories can become corrupted:
Research is beginning to give us an understanding of how false memories of complete, emotional and self-participatory experiences are created in adults. First, there are social demands on individuals to remember; for instance, researchers exert some pressure on participants in a study to come up with memories. Second, memory construction by imagining events can be explicitly encouraged when people are having trouble remembering. And, finally, individuals can be encouraged not to think about whether their constructions are real or not. Creation of false memories is most likely to occur when these external factors are present, whether in an experimental setting, in a therapeutic setting or during everyday activities.

False memories are constructed by combining actual memories with the content of suggestions received from others. During the process, individuals may forget the source of the information. This is a classic example of source confusion, in which the content and the source become dissociated.
In a CBS newsreport on the subject, Charles Osgood says:
According to this theory, memories are not stored like snapshots, but are instead like sketches that are altered and added to every time they are called up. Loftus has shown subjects who are given false information about an event or scene tend to incorporate it into their memories, and "recall" the false information as a part of their original memory even two weeks later. In other experiments, subjects asked to imagine scenarios can then become convinced that the imagined scenario is a real memory.

In the November 2003 issue of American Psychologist, Loftus says:
But could one create an entire memory for an event that never happened? My first attempt to do this used a procedure whereby participants were given short narrative descriptions of childhood events and encouraged to try to remember those events. While participants believed that all of the descriptions were true and had been provided by family members, one was actually a pseudoevent that had not occurred. In this study, approximately 25% of participants were led to believe, wholly or partially, that at age 5 or 6 they had been lost in a shopping mall for an extended time, were highly upset, and were ultimately rescued by an elderly person and reunited with their family (Loftus & Pickrell, 1995). Many added embellishing details to their accounts(Make-Believe Memories, p. 869)
At the end of the above article, Loftus concludes: People’s memories are not only the sum of all that they have done, but there is more to them: The memories are also the sum of what they have thought, what they have been told, what they believe. Who we are may be shaped by our memories, but our memories are shaped by who we are and what we have been led to believe.(p. 869).

How does Loftus' research relate to the supposed eyewitness testimony found in the New Testament? Many apologists, such as Josh McDowell, have argued that either the disciples were lying or the events really happened. These apologists maintain that since no one would die for something they know to be false, then the events, including the resurrection of Jesus, must have actually taken place.

Loftus has shown that its not that simple. People can believe things happened that didn't really happen. These memories can be just as real and as strong for the individuals as events that did occur. Memory is a complex phenomena that is only now beginning to be understood.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. It reminds me of the "Fishsticks" episode of South Park. Where Cartman keeps changing his memory of the creation of the fishsticks joke, so that in the end Cartman is saving the world from robot Jews and offhandedly creating the joke. When in fact it was Jimmy who created the joke and Jimmy's mom that killed a black widow spider moving towards Jimmy, while Cartman sat on the couch eating potato chips. A funny example, taken to the extreme, of how people change memories themselves.

  3. Memories are odd. I can watch a TV show, and I have a memory of what was said and what I saw. Then, a few months later, I see the same episode of the show, and what the person says is slightly different from what I remember (even though, in my memory, the character says what I remember in his or her voice). And the picture is different---the angle of the camera may differ from my mental picture.

    I'm looking forward to reading, Ken, how you interact with the mass sighting of the risen Jesus that Paul mentions in I Corinthians 15. If my memory serves me correctly (:)), you were going to get to that, but haven't yet. Some have compared that to mass sightings of the Virgin Mary. But, if I'm correct, it was a few little girls who saw the Virgin and received a revelation, not all the people standing around them.

  4. James,

    Yes I do intend to get to the "sightings" at some point. As a little teaser, let me say that I am not at all sure that the passaage was written by Paul. If you want to get into the reasons why, you might take a look at Robert Price's artile: Apocryphal Apparitions: 1 Cor. 15:3-11 as a Post-Pauline Interpretation.

  5. Hi Ken,

    This post really does seem to be extremely weak. If you are preempting that the eyewitness testimony to the resurrection are unreliable then your hypothesis must account for mass optical illusions, extremely unlikely. Furthermore, auditory illusions. Moreover then you most posit a grave robber at Jesus' grave, again which there is no evidence whatsoever and you must account for no deniable documented evidence that people ever came to such a conclusion. To suggest that the resurrection of Jesus is a hallucination is a extremely hard hypothesis to construct, consequently it should be abandoned for the simplest explanation of the available evidence.

    Regards, Phil.

  6. Ken,

    Are you trying to destroy the foundation of science? If something cannot be observed, then science is not possible.

    For example, a person may confirm that flies exist. You may argue that he is experiencing an illusion. Another person comes along and confirms the existence of flies; however, you argue that he is experiencing an illusion too. You have an infinite regress of illusions so that no one is ever qualified or able to confirm the existence of flies.

    I just don't find your objection reasonable. While trying to undermine Christianity, you have actually undermined science and put us into some weird matrix movie.

    Human observation is the foundation of science and the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The only way to deny the resurrection is to deny science itself.

    Of course, I think you are trying to confirm your worldview of naturalism; however, science begins with human observation and not your worldview of naturalism. Your worldview is limiting your ability to understand accurately science.

    God Bless...

  7. Zdenny,

    YOu miss the point. I am not saying that eyewitness testimony is ALWAYS wrong. What I am saying is that it is SOMETIMES wrong and thus apologists like McDowell who say that the events either happened or the disciples were lying is misguided.

  8. Rev. Brown,

    This post and the last one are only talking about the reliability of eyewitness testimony. You are reading much more into it.

    As for what might have happened to the body of Jesus, there are many other possiblities besides he arose or someone stole the body. See

    As for how to explain the "sightings" of Jesus after he died, again there are many possiblities besides hallucination. I have not addressed this topic yet in my blog but will soon.

  9. Reverend Phillip Brown and ZDENNY:

    I think that both of you are misreading our host's argument. The "observable evidence" that we have is that the gospels were written, and that they make certain claims about the Resurrection. This is not, strictly speaking, "eyewitness evidence" of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection - especially given the apparent stretch of time between the writing of the gospels and the events they describe. (More to the point, unless someone creates a time machine, we can't put the apostles on the witness stand and cross-examine them.)

    Both of you seem to be assuming that since the apostles wrote that they saw those events, they must have either A) actually seen them, or B) been lying about them. Our host seems to be suggesting that the equation isn't necessarily that simple: the apostles could have genuinely believed that they saw what they claimed, even if it never actually happened. The degree of detail they use in their description is irrelevant, since Elizabeth Loftis' work suggests that such details can be (and often are) filled in retroactively, and then become part of the original memories.

  10. ..And, of course, our host responded while I was composing my post.

  11. How do we even know Jesus was buried in a tomb? The entire point of crucifixion was humiliation. A lot of times the dead body is left on the cross for vultures to pick at; a sign for anyone even thinking about rebellion that this was going to happen to you.

    Alexander Jannaeus crucified 500 Pharisees and slit the throats of their wives and children while they were suffocating on their crosses. There didn't seem to be any fuss about having to remove their bodies before the Sabbath - this was crucifixion of Jews by Jews.

    The first time we hear of an "empty tomb" in Christian tradition is Mark's gospel. If there really was an empty tomb, the tradition wouldn't have had to wait until Matthew's embellishment to create the apologetic about stealing bodies, guards being at tombs, and Jews paying off guards to say the body was stole. If any of that was historical, all of that would have been present in the earliest traditions.

    All of that seems like an add-on to the story after someone read it and realized potential objections to a literal resurrection.

  12. @J. Quinton

    I concur.

    Also, there would have likely been better evidence to support such a radical breach in protocol. There were many historians of antiquity who would have recorded a bodily resurrection if one occurred. Josephus and Philo would have had full accounts of such, but to catch the attention of historians who are in the service of Caesars and Kings is a little hard to do when you're simply a radical Jewish preacher.

    I tend to agree with Richard Carrier's article in the Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave, that much of latter Christian theology is based off a missunderstanding of Paul's usage of Judaic two-body resurrection theology, and later evangelical apologists distort Paul's writing to support a bodily resurrection which Paul never even mentions.

    The original Greek, as Carrier points out, Paul only ever talks about Jesus after the death in "spiritual" terms. The Gnostic texts seem to support this hypothesis as well. So it would appear modern Christians are doubly wrong.