False perception, false memory

The biggest social event of the year 1878 in Palo Alto, California, took place on a horse-breeding farm. Leland Stanford, former governor and co-founder of the all-powerful Southern Pacific Railroad, had retired and was indulging, here at the site where he would soon found Stanford University, in his passion, which was anything equestrian.

Stanford was, at a general level, an alpha male who trusted his own opinions. More specifically, when it came to horses, he considered himself “an expert”. So it was utterly clear to him that he, the expert, knew how horses galloped.

After all, all you had to do was look! And Stanford had looked, as had artists throughout all of human history. It was obvious that horses briefly “flew” by splaying their four legs in the air before alighting for the next leap. Like this:

So Stanford, as this account tells the tale, made contact with Eadward Muybridge, an eccentric Briton who had mastered the cutting-edge technology of the day, photography, and was able to take photos in rapid succession. Muybridge brought his kit to Palo Alto.

At Stanford’s invitation, large crowds turned out for the occasion. Muybridge was to document a galloping horse and thus prove common sense.

Eadweard Muybridge

Muybridge’s photos did nothing of the sort. Instead, they were shocking. For they disproved mankind’s common sense, thereby contradicting the direct observation of many generations.

You can see this disproof above, in the (deservedly famous) animation derived from the images. If you want to be sure, you can look at the stills in one of the other sequences:

During the only instant in the cycle when the horse is entirely in the air, its legs are actually tucked together, not splayed.

After Muybridge’s breakthrough, mankind thus had some adjusting to do, not least its painters:

Artists of the day were both thrilled and vexed, because the pictures “laid bare all the mistakes that sculptors and painters had made in their renderings of the various postures of the horse,” as French critic and poet Paul Valéry wrote decades later… Once Muybridge’s photos appeared, painters like Edgar Degas and Thomas Eakins began consulting them to make their work truer to life. Other artists took umbrage. Auguste Rodin thundered, “It is the artist who is truthful and it is photography which lies, for in reality time does not stop.”

(Does Rodin’s reaction remind you of anything today?)

The general insight

The big point here is really that we should be less confident in (= more skeptical about — however you want to put it) our own opinions and grasp of reality. That’s because:

  • we tend to “see” what we want or expect to see (as Stanford did with his horses),
  • what we notice is determined by what we pay attention to (which is why distracted driving is so dangerous), and
  • we can only make sense of the world by interpreting it through stories we tell, and storytelling can be problematic.

In that sense, this post is a follow-up on

This topic seems to strike a chord with writers and journalists in particular. The other day, for instance, I was discussing it with Rob Guth, a friend of mine at the Wall Street Journal. Rob recently wrote great stuff about the surprising recollections of Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen (surprisingly negative about Bill Gates, in particular). As Rob got deeper and deeper into his research — meaning: as he “fact-checked” his sources’s memories of Microsoft’s early years — the “truth” became ever more elusive. Was so-and-so in the room all those years ago when such-and-such happened? A says Yes, he was. B says No. Suddenly A begins to doubt himself (re-narrating the story in his mind). And so on.

Journalists, of course, are not the only ones relying on the recollection or observations of others. Judges, lawyers and jurors do as well, to name just one particularly germane area.

Can you trust eyewitnesses?

In this article, Barbara Tversky, a psychology professor, and George Fisher, a law professor, suggest that eyewitnesses cannot always be trusted. (Since witnesses are at the heart of the adversarial legal system, this undermines our entire tradition of justice.)

As Tversky and Fisher say,

Several studies have been conducted on human memory and on subjects’ propensity to remember erroneously events and details that did not occur. …

In particular,

Courts, lawyers and police officers are now aware of the ability of third parties to introduce false memories to witnesses…

But even without such tricks,

The process of interpretation occurs at the very formation of memory—thus introducing distortion from the beginning. … [W]itnesses can distort their own memories without the help of examiners, police officers or lawyers. Rarely do we tell a story or recount events without a purpose. Every act of telling and retelling is tailored to a particular listener; we would not expect someone to listen to every detail of our morning commute, so we edit out extraneous material.

In fact, these studies show what Rob discovered during his interviews of sources for the Paul Allen story:

Once witnesses state facts in a particular way or identify a particular person as the perpetrator, they are unwilling or even unable—due to the reconstruction of their memory—to reconsider their initial understanding.

Tversky and Fisher conclude:

Memory is affected by retelling, and we rarely tell a story in a neutral fashion. By tailoring our stories to our listeners, our bias distorts the very formation of memory—even without the introduction of misinformation by a third party…. Eyewitness testimony, then, is innately suspect.


It is not necessary for a witness to lie or be coaxed by prosecutorial error to inaccurately state the facts—the mere fault of being human results in distorted memory and inaccurate testimony.

33 thoughts on “False perception, false memory

  1. As a life-long (although inconsistent) journal keeper, I have often gone back to read about an incidence in my life only to find that I’d been remembering it wrong for years! It’s terribly disturbing to see details of an event written in your own hand and still be unable to remember it except the “wrong” way. Memoir, fiction, fact, truth…

    • Still thinking (which is a euphemism for “confused”).

      The question of how skepticism (i.e., your general insight) does/should impact the two kinds of enlightement seems interesting. But with respect to “enlightenment” it also seems provocative to think about your observations on the reliability of our perceptions–and may even make the distinction between eastern and western enlightenment more of a challenge. Am I making sense?

    • That’s one way to put it–if the validity of our perceptions is questionable and our perceptions of our experiences form the basis of enlightenment (as defined) is enlightenment possible or is it (worst case) merely a confirmation of our preconceptions that are filtering our perceptions.

  2. Something I firmly believe:

    We see what we want to see.
    We hear what we want to hear.
    We believe what we want to believe.

    We “filter” everything that we see, hear, or say, it seems.

    • I struggle not to filter things I observe. I am not always successful. I make the struggle because I was made aware of this filtering many years ago. What about those who either are not aware of the filtering or who assume that others may but they don’t?

      What I stated as “firmly believe” is, to me, a universal truth. I know, intellectually, that nothing is actually universal but I do believe that some things are effectively so.

  3. The Devlin Committee reported on the unreliability of uncorroborated eyewitness identification in 1965. Can anyone direct me to a copy of the report on the web?

  4. @Richard – I think the Devlin Report you refer to was published in 1976, not 1965.

    There was a Devlin Report published in 1965, but it concerned the decasualisation and dissension in the port transport industry.

    There was yet another Devlin Report published in 1959 in connection with policing methods in Nyasaland, which I vaguely recall reading about in the newspapers when I was but a boy.

    It seems that Lord Devlin’s metier was report writing!!

  5. hello andreas,

    this current blog entry of yours reminds me of why i first started following your blog. not necessarily because of the topics but because it still gives me “the perception” of interconnectivity.

    some one (sometimes you) usually posts my thoughts for me in some fashion.

    the article by your friend, i read when it came out… it may have been syndicated?

    the altoid commercial, i posted to my facebook page as soon as i saw it on t.v. a while back – hilarious!

    and the familiarity in which people will reply to your topics, after filtering out what we find most interesting.

    like richard, i find the reference to the inaccuracy of eyewitness accounts to be of most interest in your topic. i was blindfolded, yet my assailant was caught through an amalgamation of recollections of his numerous victims. he followed a pattern and separately we were able to furnish enough information to establish the pattern.

    for example – there was a scent of sanitization, most likely recalled by more than one victim, as the assailant worked in a hospital.

    so, can an amalgamation of semi-false memories/perceptions create a whole picture?

    • so, can an amalgamation of semi-false memories/perceptions create a whole picture?

      More likely, little bits of true observations were gathered from among the false recollections which led to the assailant. Like the antiseptic smell. Something, as you surmised, was independently noticed (without knowledge that others also noticed) by other witnesses and/or victims. One of the reasons I suspect that the police try to keep witnesses separated until after they have been questioned. And one of the reasons that the police (good ones, that is) do not ask leading questions (i.e. “Did you notice an antiseptic odor?”).

    • I, too, like the feeling of interconnectivity one occasionally gets here in the blogosphere, Dafna.

      You discreetly mention a crime committed upon you. I’m so sorry. I wonder how the trauma affects memory and cognition in a victim of crime. It’s interesting that smell is the sense that gave you the detail that endured. Smell is the most basic (in evolutionary terms) of the five.

      I think Douglas is right. Many separate accounts, each flawed, can, when subjected to logic, yield some truths in the overlap areas. Although that didn’t help in the case of galloping horses, where the flaw in perception was human and thus shared by all observers (who only seemed to corroborate one another)

    • @Andreas, I think that, before the advent of controlled lens openings and “high” speed film, the correct view of the horse’s gallop could not be easily perceived. I accidentally captured the proper shot using an old manual Pentax 35mm SLR using ASA250 B&W and a shutter speed of 1/400 at Del Mar racetrack around 1976. The result is a grainy photo but the legs can clearly be seen in the bent position and all hooves off the ground. That camera did not have an auto advance so each shot required I push the shutter button each time and then advance the film. This made the shot completely hit or miss.

  6. oops,

    the altoid commercial was spontaneous generated by the blog. voila! the illusion of connectivity.

  7. excuse me if i misunderstand your hypothesis… i.e. that false perception and false memories are human flaws?

    in my case, it was someone on this blog that coaxed the retelling of the crime which was suffered. the incident occurred more than half a lifetime ago. because the antagonist was to use an oxymoron “a rare archetype” – a serial pattern offender, i actually had to fact check myself.

    after sharing the first time, i went back and located the original newspaper articles to assure myself that it really had happened, because such criminals are the exception not the rule.

    in addition, i have heard that “children who survive their childhood”, tend to have few childhood memories, and those that live to 100 tend to augment good memories, de-emphasize the bad ones.

    therefore … is it possible that false-perception, false memory is a human, necessary and useful coping skill? not just a human flaw?

    • i’m sure you’re right, dafna. old soldiers remember the comradeship and blot out the horrors.

      i shift the ground slightly: freud deals extensively with human error in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. in this instance freud writes of normal psychology. this is where the familiar “Freudian slip” comes from.

    • “…is it possible that false-perception, false memory is a human, necessary and useful coping skill? not just a human flaw?…

      I think you’re right, dafna. In evolutionary terms, memory was only “useful” insofar as it allowed our forebears to remember dangers (to avoid) or, as you put it, to “cope” (by forgetting).

      Perhaps paranoia, ie a mal-adaptation, is exactly that: an inability to de-emphasize the bad memories over time.

  8. …There are other paradoxes; recalling something is an active, not a passive process; it is simply retracing a pathway made by Hebb synapses. Indeed there is good evidence that the act of recall, retrieval, evokes a further biochemical cascade, analogous to, though not identical with, that occurring during initial learning. The act of recall remakes a memory, so that the next time one remembers it one is not remembering the initial event but the remade memory from the last time it was invoked. Hence memories become transformed over time – a phenomenon well known to those who study eyewitness accounts of dramatic events or witness testimony in court. Once again, memories are system properties, dynamic, dependent, for each of us, on our own unique individual history. What they absolutely are not is ‘stored’ in the brain in the way that a computer stores a file. Biological memories are living meaning, not dead information. But even this is over-simple …

    [Steven Rose: The 21st-Century Brain (Jonathan Cape 2005)]

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