Our Unreliable ‘Eyewitnesses’

Paolo Toselli
Magonia 13, Summer 1983

‘I saw it with my own eyes!’ How many times we have listened to this statement designed to avoid doubt, to reinforce certitude.Usually, but erroneously, one believes that the witness is a perfect recording apparatus, that all that passes before his eyes is recorded and may be plainly reproduced through well-contrived questions. Numerous experiments show, however, that testimony is remarkably subject to error.

In order to discuss something as controversial as UFOs, it is first important to realize that the eyewitness is as much a part of the event as is the physical stimulus that led to the personal experience.
In fact, an objective stimulus seems to be there in the first place in a UFO experience, but the whole thing is channeled through our own personalities and comes out as an experience with greater or lesser ‘subjectivity’ elements.

Perception is not just a simple reproduction of what we see. Some psychologists have argued that in order to comprehend an event that we witness, various aspects of the event must be interpreted by us. Only part of this interpretation is based upon the environmental input that gave rise to it; that is, only part comes from our actual perception of an event. Another part is based on prior ‘memory’ or existing knowledge, and a third part is inference.

As remarked by Haines:
‘In an honest attempt to reduce the emotional and intellectual uncertainty which inevitably accompanies a novel experience, the witness may add certain types of percepts from his memory and/or delete other types; this helps reconcile the often unreal quality of the original percepts with an acceptable, reality-based, final perception. For instance (…) a UFO witness may add certain visual details gleaned from his imagination or memory. The addition of these details usually makes the object he describes appear more similar to objects he believes others have reported. Thus, what may originally have been the perception of a vague, greenish haze seen hovering silently above an open field late at night, may be reported as a well-defined, light green object which flew slowly and evenly over the field without making a sound.’ (1)
Another process influencing the responses that will be made to an ambiguous, novel (unknown) event is the psychological predisposition (also known as ‘set’) of the witness. Many times the concept of ‘set’ is expressed in the psychological literature with the terms of ‘hypothesis’, ‘expectation’, ‘meaning’, ‘attitude; they are quite similar terms emphasising the general concept that a person is prepared or syntonized to receive some kinds of information; so the perception depends on set and stimulus interaction.

Ron Westrum, in a paper on UFO witnesses, touches upon this matter:
‘A considerable folklore has grown up around UFOs, as I discovered to my surprise (…) in the course of making investigation of UFO sightings. (…) This folk-lore tends to set up an expectation that certain kinds of things will be seen or will happen during a UFO experience and this affects not only what the witness feels he ought to relate to others but also what the witness remembers as happening.’ (2)
The question of ‘mental set’ is especially important to consider when dealing with certain UFO/IFO cases. Because so few data exist, the distortion of only one factor can make an identifiable object apparentIy unidentifiable.

An example of the ‘mental set’ effect is supplied to us by Philip Morrison. It is a case of three radio-astronomers; one of these was a friend of Morrison, who stood outside Washington DC some years ago watching a large cigar-shaped object in the air, perfectly silent, with lighted windows, moving very rapidly past them.’Independently, they told each other they had each certainly seen the most remarkable kind of unidentified flying object. Suddenly the wind changed, and aircraft engines were heard; the distance adjusted itself, and they recognized they were seeing an ordinary airliner, much nearer than they had thought but not audible because of some peculiar sonic refraction of the wind. A change of the perceptual set changed their entire view of the phenomenon.’ (3)

When we experience an event, we do not simply record that event in memory as a videotape recorder would. The situation is much more complex.

Usually, we don’t retain the pure experience, but we elaborate it before storing it. In fact, we store in memory not the environmental input itself, nor even a copy or a partial copy, but only fragments of the interpretation that we gave to the input when we experienced it. A vivid, detailed photographic resurrection of the past is not the most efficient way to remember. Memories of everyday events are more similar to a syllogism than to a photograph; usually we go gradually towards the past and only seldom do we recall it as a ‘snapshot’. A grown-up person usually uses (verbal) symbols, to organize his memory in such a way as to find what he needs. We constantly translate our experiences by means of intervening symbols, store them in our memory and recover them instead of our original experience. When we have to remember, we try to reconstruct the experience from the symbols.

Research indicates that the experiences people remember about an event are influenced by the label associated with the event. Labels are not neutral, they carry explicit and implicit stimuli previously associated with them. As remarked by Michael Persinger:
‘A confounding interaction arises when one uses a label which is already heavily ‘loaded’ with emotionally laden associations. For example, suppose an observer sees a pulsating luminous light with dark stimuli moving within it. If the person labels the observation as a landed UFO, there the observation is no longer ‘neutral’ since the previously learned associations of the word UFO may now contaminate the observation. The operation of this process could result in a report like: “I saw a UFO landed on the hill, it was slowly materializing and de-materializing,, and there were aliens moving within.” (4)
People’s memories are fragile things. The tendency to invent or to introduce new material taken from a different structure can increase considerably with the passage of time

External information provided from the outside can intrude into the witness’s memory, as can his own thoughts, and both can cause dramatic changes in his recollection. Usually, this happens when witnesses to an event later read or hear something about it and are subsequently asked to recall the event. Post-event information can not only enhance existing memories but also change a witness’s memory and even cause non-existent details to become incorporated into a previously acquired memory. (5)

Many people believe that their memories are absolute and constant. But, contrary to apparent popular belief, the evi-dence in no way confirms the view that all memories are permanent and thus potentially recoverable.

A witness’s confidence in his memories and the accuracy of his memories often have little correlation. People are often confident and right, but they can also be confident and wrong. To be cautious, one should not take high confidence as any absolute guarantee of anything.

Memory isn’t the only place where the recognition processes can go on the wrong track. Many psychologists think that the main errors and misunderstandings depend on the retrieval processes.

The conditions prevailing at the time information is retrieved from memory are critically important in determining the accuracy and completeness of an eye-witness account. Reporting is one of the most crucial factors in the UFO problem. There are numerous ways to influence (and often drastically distort) the recollection of a witness.

The manner in which a question is phrased and the assumption it makes have profound effects on the accuracy and quantity of eyewitness testimony. By using leading questions, for example, an attorney can ‘shape’ the testimony of an eyewitness. A leading quest in is simply one that by its form or content suggests to a witness what answer is desired or leads him to the desired answer. We all probably ask leading questions without realizing we are doing so.

Dr Elizabeth Loftus, an Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Washington in Seattle, has demonstrated how altering the semantic value of the words in questions about a filmed auto accident causes witnesses to distort their reports. (6) When witnesses were asked a question using the word ‘smashed’ as opposed to ‘bumped’ they gave higher estimates of speed ant were more likely to report having seen broken glass – although there was no broken glass.

To summarize the issues involved in question type and structure of testimony, the notion of cognitive set, defined in terms of the specificity of the questioning situation, is a useful tool and also helps to illustrate the negative correlation between accuracy and quantity of testimony. When giving unstructured testimony (i.e. free elaboration without the use of any questioning) the witness’s cognitive set is under the least restraint, and witnessesare are likely to give only testimony about which they are somewhat certain, causing accuracy to be high and quantity low. As the questioning becomes more and more specific, cognitive set becomes directed and narrow, accuracy decreases, and quantity increases.

The studies in this area indicate, then, that the witness should first be allowed to report freely, or in a controlled narrative fashion. This free report can be followed by a series of very specific questions so as to increase the range or coverage of the witness’s report. On the contrary, asking specific questions before the narrative can be dangerous because information contained in those questions can become a part of the free report, even when the information is wrong.Summing up, the reported testimony – viz., the UFO report – on which we are bound to work is conditioned by many facts that affect the observation and reporting of an event, whose effect nevertheless we aren’t able to quantify and estimate a posteriori.

It is essential, therefore, that UFO investigators recognize the factors that might influence how well a person perceives, remembers and reports an event.
The purpose of this paper is to present an invitation to probe the numerous problems involved in dealing with eye-witnesses.

  1. HAINES, Richard F. Observing UFOs; An Investigative Handbook. Nelson-Hall, Chicago, 1980, p. 41.
  2. WESTRUM, Ron. ‘Witnesses of UFOs and other anomalies’, in HAINES, Richard F. (ed.), UFO Phenomena and the Behavioural Scientist. Metchen, New Jersey, The Scarecrow Press, 1979, p. 91.
  3. MORRISON, Philip. ‘The nature of scientific evidence – a summary’, in SAGAN, C. and PAGE, T. (eds.), UFOs a Scientific Debate, New York, Norton, 1972, pp. 285-286.
  4. PERSINGER, Michael A. ‘The problems of human verbal behaviour: The final reference for measuring ostensible PSI phenomena’. The Journal of Research in PSI Phenomena, Vol. 1, No. 1, 1976, pp. 80-81.
  5. LOFTUS, Elizabeth. Eyewitness Testimony. Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard University Press, 1979, p. 55.
  6. LOFTUS, E.F. and PALMER, J.C. ‘Reconstruction of automobile destruction: an example of the interaction between language and memory’. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behaviour, Vol. 13, 1974, pp. 585-589.