Once again…Skepticism At Work!!!

An interesting scenario the other day at work that served as an excellent reminder regarding the fallibility of human memory!

A female patient went “missing” (in actuality she did not go missing.  She had simply gone to go get some coffee from the hospital Timmy Hoes and forgot inform anyone.  Being as the Emerg that I work in is extremely busy with a high volume of traffic no one must have thought anything of her leaving the unit).  In order to facilitate her return to the unit a description of the woman went out. 

The description was as follows:

Caucasian female, approx 5’6, approx 130 lbs, blonde hair, wearing blue jeans and a pink tank top.

Approximately 30 minutes after the description went out the woman returned to the unit and all was well again.  Being curious regarding the human condition I went to introduce myself to the woman as one of the staff members (letting her know that if there was anything she needed to let me know).  While introducing myself I took note of her appearance and compared it to the description that had gone out not more than a half of an hour before.

She was definitely female.  She was also approx 5’6 and 130 lbs, but that is where the similarities ended.  She was Aboriginal, with jet black hair, and was wearing blue jeans (okay I guess that was correct as well!  haha!) with a black and white striped t-shirt!

A bit of a discrepancy wouldn’t you say!?

A large portion of the population seems to cling to the notion that human memory works similar to that of a camera, capable of taking snap-shots of moments in time.  In reality this is not even close to the truth.  Human memory is far from infallible and, depending on the circumstance, can actually be quite unreliable (trust me, I spend the majority of my professional life asking people to recall recent events surrounding an illness and am always amazed by peoples inability to remember what seem like the simplest details). 

So next time someone claims to have a photographic memory…

Be skeptical!


6 Responses to “Once again…Skepticism At Work!!!”

  1. so true. The descriptions we get from the original caller to who we actually meet are a lot of times totally off. The worst is when your running around looking for one description, harrassing close matches then the description changes to something totally different.

    • theskepticalsamurai Says:


      As a police officer…i can only imagine how frustrating this must be for you!

      And i am sure that you deal with it on a daily to weekly basis!

  2. Very true. This is exactly why I believe there are far more innocent people in jail than we actually know. The courts thrive on witness statements and eyewitness testimony. The truth is, that 99% of witnesses have to read and re-read their statements (mostly from 1-3 years prior) in order to “remember” what to say that day on the stand. They don’t actually “remember” at all. They simply repeat what they wrote on the statement that they filled out for the police WAY back when the incident happened.

    I worked as a doorman for many years, in big high volume night clubs, and had to go to court as a witness many times. I would often be completely amazed at the testimony of other witnesses, when it was completely different from what I recalled. Often, the other witnesses, who were idiots, would only serve to “balance out” or confuse the argument, resulting in an acquittal of someone who was clearly guilty of an assault, etc.

    In other cases, I would see someone who was innocent almost get convicted of a crime, if it weren’t for a sensible judge who would see slightly more value in the testimony of the sober, experienced, doormen versus the other idiot witnesses.

    Going to court for anything involving witnesses is a total crap shoot. DO NOT EVER trust that the system will serve you well. I have seen it in action……..it is a circus.

    • theskepticalsamurai Says:

      Great Post Ron!

      Thanks for your insight into this topic!

      You raise some excellent points…

      And touched on some issues that i plan to address in future posts (specifically, eye witness testimony and finger-printing)

      Again, great post/insight

  3. Really good, and scary, comments.
    This idea that people have of their memory being like a camera, or a video recorder, is really important – we’re such a visual culture in terms of images, that we take for granted how our minds actually recall information. We can’t “look” at a memory and pick out the details. Not only is recall often faulty at best, but very limited in terms of where our focus was at the time (not to mention that it changes over time, can easily be influenced, and, with or without scripts or prompting, can change drastically from one telling to the next – as Ron mentioned).
    There is a reason nostalgia has taken on a negative connotation; our memory of something is almost always off.

  4. Ive been to court a lot, People who are sober seem to have no problem with witness statements.
    Trust me there are a lot more guilty people getting off in court then the other way around.
    crimes that happen between stupid young drunk people out a bar is not reflective of all crimes and witnesses going to court as a whole. In my experience most bar fights do not even make it to charges unless someone gets stabbed or overly beaten. drunks are definitly not reliable witnesses.

    Ive also been on cases where defence keeps asking and being granted another court date and with each court date less and less witnesses show up until yes 3 years later no one cares and no one show up, charges dropped.
    yes court is always a big guessing game.

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