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What the Butler Saw… or Thought he Saw

By Jeremy Ireland, Psychotherapist on November 9, 2018 in Other

We find what we’re looking for, by John Waddington

Who remembers the board game Cluedo, the classic murder mystery game where you had to work out who murdered the victim? Each player was a detective, sifting through the various clues to work out who the killer was. Was it Mrs White with the revolver in the library or was it Reverend Green with the knife in the kitchen? My go to perpetrator was always Colonel Mustard. Never Miss Scarlet, though; she’s way too hot to be a killer, or so my adolescent mind would reason. With a name like ‘Mustard’ it had to be him, probably with the lead pipe in the billiard room.

The truth is, even if the game was real-life and I actually did see Colonel Mustard kill someone with a lead pipe in the billiard room, could I be relied upon to provide an accurate eyewitness report and convince a jury in a court of law? An eyewitness identification is very powerful to a jury, especially if I came across as clear, confident and articulate. But would my testament be enough to put Colonel Mustard away for good?

Well, there are many reasons why the Colonel might live to see another day away from the confines of a prison cell. Perhaps the number one reason is our memory. How accurately do we recall the events we saw? Eyewitnesses are not perfect and are prone to be swayed by certain personal and situational factors, and above that, we as humans tend to perceive and remember things in a selective manner. Each of us interprets the world around us slightly differently, perceiving and sensing things based on our personality, attitudes, beliefs and culture. We see and do not see things because of this. As a result, what Mrs White ‘saw’ in the ballroom could differ from that which Mrs Peacock saw due to such selective perception.

We also have a tendency to be selective with our attention and exposure by placing ourselves in situations that reinforce our attitudes, beliefs, values and behaviours. It might be fair to say that Reverend Greens’ beliefs and values could differ from those of Professor Plum, meaning their statements on what they saw could differ.

But surely a fact is a fact, I hear you say, and indeed you are right. However, it is how we recall such a fact from our memory that is of most importance. This selective recall is an unconscious process whereby we tend to remember the things we want to remember and suppress things that are unpleasant, uncomfortable or just unimportant to us.Here’s more food for thought. Let’s say for the sake of the exercise that our accused actually is the Colonel on a charge for murder using a lead pipe in the billiard room. Our lawyer has our witness, Miss Scarlet, in the stand. The language the lawyer chooses when questioning Miss Scarlet can have a huge effect on what memories she recalls and the level of meaning for such memories.

For example, when describing how the Colonel killed his victim, if we say “violently clubbed to death” rather than “softly tapped on the temple”, the former description will invoke different memory recall for the witness than the latter. Leading questions can also change what our witness recalls. The difference between questions beginning “Did you see a…” and “Did you see the…” is subtle but powerful in getting a different response.

And what if our witness is a child? Research by the Australian Law Reform Commission shows that children as witnesses can certainly hold up, however, they are more prone to memory loss with the passing of time than adults. Children recall less correct information over time while maintaining as a constant the inaccurate information.

Further, children are more vulnerable to suggestion, otherwise known as the ‘suggestibility effect’, where a certain memory or recollection of the original event becomes distorted or replaced after being exposed to post event information.

Additionally, to avoid punishment or to avoid revealing embarrassing information, most children will deny knowing information about an event that they know occurred.

So back to Colonel Mustard. Well, he’s not off the hook yet. Mistaken identity and wrongful arrest as a result of it are more common than you expect. Bad news for the Colonel, perhaps, though in recent times DNA testing may seal his fate. Either way, may he take heed of the words of C.S Lewis: “What you see and what you hear depends a good deal on where you are standing. It also depends on what sort of person you are.”