Is believing seeing? Early research into the unreliability of eyewitness testimony


Richard Wiseman
Richard J. Wiseman is a Professor of the Public Understanding of Psychology at the University of Hertfordshire in the United Kingdom. He has written several best-selling popular psychology books that have been translated into over 30 languages.

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This article originally appeared in The Skeptic, Volume 22, Issue 4, from 2011

The history of scepticism is full of trailblazing experiments that tell us a great deal about the human psyche. Take, for example, the pioneering work of Mr S.J. Davey.

In 1890 Davey announced that he had acquired the gift of mediumship and invited small groups of people to his London home to witness his remarkable abilities. Each group gathered in Davey’s dining room and searched the room for any evidence of trickery. Davey then asked everyone to join him around a small table and extinguished the gaslights. Slowly, a pale blue light materialized over Davey’s head. The light then developed into a full-form apparition that one guest later described as “frightful in its ugliness”. After this spirit had faded into the darkness, a second streak of light appeared and slowly developed into “a bearded man of Oriental appearance”. This new spirit bowed and moved just a few feet from those present, its complexion was “not dusky, but very white; the expression was vacant and listless”. The spirit then floated high into the air, and vanished through the ceiling.

Night after night people left Davey’s house convinced that they had made contact with the spirit world. In reality, Davey did not possess the ability to summon the spirits. Instead, he was a conjuror who had used his magical expertise to fake all of the phenomena. However, unlike almost all of the other fake mediums of his day, Davey was not interested in fame or fortune. Instead, his guests had been unsuspecting participants in an elaborate experiment.

Davey wanted to discover the reliability of eyewitness accounts of supposed supernatural phenomena. Davey asked his unsuspecting guinea pigs to send him a written account of the evening, and was stunned to discover that people frequently misremembered information that was central to his trickery.

For example, before the guests arrived Davey hid a large amount of fake spirit apparatus in one of his dining room cupboards. Before extinguishing the gaslight, he invited the group to thoroughly search the séance room. When he saw someone about to look in the cupboard containing his spirit stash, he quickly diverted their attention by inviting them to search him for any hidden paraphernalia. When the room was plunged into darkness, Davey’s trusted friend, Mr Munro, quietly sneaked into the room and used the objects to fake various spirit forms. The “apparition of frightful ugliness” was a just a mask draped in muslin and treated with luminous paint, while the “bearded Oriental” was simply the result of Munro dressing up and illuminating his face with a weak phosphorescent light. To create the illusion that the spirit levitated and then vanished, Munro stood on the back of Davey’s chair, lifted the light high above his head, and extinguished it when he reached the ceiling. Yet many of Davey’s guests produced elaborate accounts of what they had seen, describing amazing looking spirits performing impossible feats.

In 1887 Davey published a dossier cataloguing a huge number of these errors, and concluded that people’s memories for apparently impossible events cannot be trusted. The report caused a sensation. Many leading Spiritualists, including the co-creator of the theory of evolution Alfred Russel Wallace, refused to believe Davey’s findings and instead concluded that Davey may possess genuine mediumistic powers.

Davey contracted typhoid fever and died in December 1890 aged just 27. His ground-breaking work constitutes the very first experiment into the reliability of eyewitness testimony. Since then, psychologists have carried out hundreds of such studies that have demonstrated our inability to accurately recall everyday events.

An empty lecture theatre

For example, around the turn of the last century, German criminologist Professor von Lizst conducted some dramatic studies on the subject. One such study was staged during one of von Lizst‘s lectures and began with him discussing a book on criminology. One of the students (actually a stooge) suddenly shouted out and insisted that von Lizst explore the book from “the standpoint of Christian morality”. A second student (another stooge) objected and a fierce argument ensued. The situation went from bad to worse: the two stooges started to trade punches and eventually, one of them pulled out a revolver. Professor von Lizst tried to grab the weapon and a shot rang out. One of the students then fell to the ground and lay motionless on the floor.

Professor von Lizst called a halt to the proceedings, explained that the whole thing was a set-up, had his two stooges take a bow, and quizzed everyone about the event. Von Lizst was amazed to discover that many of his students had become fixated on the gun and so, without realising it, had forgotten much of what had happened just a few moments before: this included who had started the argument and the clothing that the protagonists were wearing.

In the 1970s psychologist Rob Buckhout conducted a similar experiment, staging mock assaults in front of over 150 witnesses. Again, the witnesses tended to focus on what they thought was important – the nature of the assault – and so failed to remember a much other information about the incident. When they were later shown six photographs and asked to identify the perpetrator, almost two thirds of them failed to do so. On another occasion an American television programme broadcast footage of a mock purse-snatching incident and then asked viewers to try to identify the thief from a six-person line-up. Over 2,000 people called the programme and registered their decision. Even through the footage clearly showed the face of the assailant, just over 1,800 of the viewers identified the wrong person.

Many people think that human observation works like a film camera. However, due to the pioneering sceptical work of Davey, we know that people are perfectly capable of misremembering what has happened right in front of their eyes.

Sceptics are often accused of simply debunking the paranormal. In reality, much of the work goes far beyond simply saying that the paranormal does not exist, and reveals a great deal about our brains, behaviour and beliefs.

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