How seeing a conversation helps people remember what was said

Numerous psychology experiments have demonstrated the limitations of eyewitness memory. But less researched is ‘earwitness’ memory – how well people are able to recall criminal conversations.

Now Laura Campos at the University of Granada and Maria Alonso-Quecuty of the University of La Laguna have tested the ability of 80 students to recall a conversation between two people discussing a planned theft. Some of them saw and heard a videotape of the ‘criminals’ in conversation as captured by campus CCTV. The other students were played an audiotape of the conversation only. “This issue is important for the psychology of testimony”, the researchers said “because in some cases a criminal conversation takes place under circumstances in which the participants in the conversation cannot be seen, for example the area is in darkness, but what they say is heard”.

When asked to recall the conversation four days later, those students who saw and heard the conversation recalled far more correct information (the gist of what was said) than the students who only heard the conversation, and they also recalled fewer false memories for things that were never said. However, all the students were poor at recalling parts of the conversation word for word.

Rather than being tested four days later, some of the students were asked to recall the conversation just 15 minutes after being presented with it – they too recalled little verbatim information, although they recalled more correct information than the students tested later.

Based on their findings, the researchers said “…accounts of ‘earwitnesses’ who could only listen to a criminal conversation should be treated with extreme caution in court”.
Campos, L. & Alonso-Quecuty, M.L. (2006). Remembering a criminal conversation: Beyond eyewitness testimony. Memory, 14, 27-36.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

Link to related article in The Psychologist mag