Do you have an alibi? Do you need an alibi? We’ve all seen it on TV. If you are innocent, you have an alibi. If you don’t have an alibi, you are suspect #1. What were you doing on the evening in question? Do you remember? Probably not. In life one goes from hour to hour, day to day, doing whatever things one does. Unless there is something exceptional, one probably does not remember the activities that occurred on any particular day. The exceptions become salient and memorable; normal and routine activities are not. A creative research study illustrates all of this. As reported in The Observer, (Sept.-Oct. 2021 edition, Observations, page 16, “Faulty Memories of Our Past Whereabouts: the Fallacy of an Airtight Alibi”), research subjects agreed to allow researchers track them and interview them about their memories of their life activities for a one month. Technology made this study possible because the researchers were able to track the movements of the 51 participants over this time period. Participants were then questioned about where they were at certain times. And, guess what, memories failed about 36% of the time. Maybe you don’t need alibis from people with whom you deal regularly. Those who are criminal defense attorneys have clients who may need them more than other people do. But, this study suggests it is not just alibis, or memories related to criminal activities, that cannot be trusted. Instead, the point is to demonstrate that memory is not the “steel trap” that some people think it is, especially in difficult situations. When things are running “normally,” there is no reason to “make a mental note” of anything. If you don’t know there is a reason to remember something you probably won’t. If you don’t know there has been a bank robbery, you probably won’t remember the tag number of the car which casually drove away from the front entrance of the bank. I was thinking about this recently when working on a medical malpractice case in which the intake information was being sliced and diced to suggest it was inadequate. If there were no anomalies, things which later might seem to have been signs that the patient was in distress appear to stand out as red flags but only when, or if, something goes wrong. Routine activities are just that. People go through life, follow protocols, or do things without necessarily looking beyond the obvious. Without some prompt to pay attention and remember, memory doesn’t necessarily record what is going on unlike a video camera which is constantly in the “on” position. All of this is to say that our expectations of memory are often unrealistic. People are sometimes faulted, or found guilty, for not remembering things no one should expect them to remember. One may think it is incredulous that someone might not remember what they had for lunch last Tuesday. It isn’t. Do you? Remember this when assessing memories, alibis, and explanations of others.
I am thrilled that David not only read an article from one of the psychology publications to which I subscribe, but enjoyed it to the point it inspired this post! It’s wonderful to me to share psychology with someone who appreciates the unique perspective it offers! As for alibis, the media have done another disservice to the general public in their portrayals of “the prime suspect” as the person who lacks an alibi. I wonder how many lay people, not to mention members of law enforcement, ascribe to the erroneous belief that, if one lacks an alibi for the time a crime was committed, then he or she must have done the dirty deed. The failure of most people to understand the workings of human memory have led to many horrendous miscarriages of justice. Thanks to efforts on the part of The Innocence Project and my colleagues in social and cognitive psychology (including my major professor, Dr. John C. Brigham), numerous people have been released from prison due to DNA evidence proving their innocence following a mistaken account provided by an eyewitness that led to a wrongful conviction. The recent research David mentioned in his post are another reminder that often, what many people accept as true is not supported by science, with results that can be life changing for other people. The fact is that, if someone cannot remember what he or she was doing yesterday, last week, or last month at precisely the time a crime was committed, this means he or she is most likely innocent, not guilty. Think about this phenomenon next time you watch a so called “true crime drama” on TV. And hooray for my colleagues for their continued efforts to educate people about science!