Memory theory and interviewing victims of crime

With a view to determining as to how memory theory can help to inform interviewers in relation to the best way to go about interviewing witnesses and victims of criminal activity, this essay’s discussion will first look to recognise the nature and scope of memory theory. On this basis, there will be a need to show an understanding of the differences that are recognised as clearly existing between long-term and short-term memory with regards to criminal investigations and the interviewing process of victims and witnesses. In addition, there is also a need for this essay’s discussion to look to consider the different types of memory theory that there are recognised in relation to matters of psychology along with the impact of other factors that may be considered to effect memory and its recall. Then, more specifically, this essay seeks to focus in upon the best ways in which the authorities can go about conducting interviews with both witnesses and victims of criminal activity with regards to the most appropriate methods in this regard. Moreover, as part of this process, there is also a need to show an appreciation of the difficulties that have been recognised as being involved with the interviewing process of both witnesses and victims of criminal activity. Finally, this essay will conclude with a summary of the key points that have been derived from this discussion with regards to as to how memory theory can help to then inform interviewers as to the best way to go about interviewing witnesses and victims of criminal activity with a view to then enhancing the process of criminal investigation.

At its simplest it has been recognised in the study of psychology that the idea of the concept of ‘memory’ focuses upon an individual’s ability to be able to store, retain, and recall information that they have garnered of a particular event from their point of view. Over time, however, there is a need to understand that there have been some considerable advancement in the study of memory so as to become increasingly technical in both its nature and scope as theories in this regard have developed (Geiselman, et al, 1986). Such a view is illustrative of the fact that traditional studies of the concept of memory were started in the area of philosophy before, during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the study of memory theory was taken on into considering cognitive psychology’s paradigms for the purposes of interviewing witnesses and victims as part of the criminal investigation process. More recently, however, it has been recognised that the theory of memory is now the focal point of a science that has come to be referred to as cognitive neuroscience, since it falls within the areas of both science and psychology with a view to enhancing the criminal interviewing process for the purposes of more effective investigation. At the same time, however, there is also a need to show an appreciation of the fact that there is something of a difference between short-term and long-term memory that needs to be understood for the purposes of this essay’s study and discussion with regards to the conduct of criminal investigations and the interviewing of witnesses and victims in practice (Judges, 2000).

To this effect, short-term memory generally serves to allow for the almost instantaneous recall of moments of time without any practice. As would be expected, however, short-term memory’s capacity is clearly somewhat limited. By way of illustration, one George A. Miller (1956), a theorist working in this area, whilst conducting work at Bell Laboratories found that short-term memory was generally for ‘7±2’ items only. In more contemporary times, however, it has been recognised that capacity is actually typically around 4 to 5 items but that this could be increased through ‘chunking’ – i.e. when recalling a telephone number most people remember it in three chunks of the area code, then the first part of the number and then the second (Cowan, 2001). Such an understanding of this method of enhancing memory is effectively illustrated by the work of one Herbert Simon (1991) who found ‘chunking’ should always be done in the order of three subsections of the information that someone is seeking to learn and then recall. But there is also a need to understand that short-term memory has been recognised as being largely reliant upon acoustics for the purpose of more effectively being able to store quantities of information allied to the occasional use of a visual code – although it was interestingly found in one study that test subjects had substantially greater difficulty with the free recall of words sounding the same such as, for example, dog, hog, bog, and log because of the difficulty with differentiating the words put before an individual subject in practice and their order as they appear (Conrad, 1964).

Conversely, however, there is a need to understand that (as its name would suggest) long-term memory can retain significantly greater quantities of information for what may amount to an unlimited period of time up to an entire lifetime as part of an infinite capacity (Baddeley, 2003). By way of illustration, it has been recognised that whilst a random six-figure number may only be remembered for a couple of seconds, telephone numbers may be remembered for a much longer period because of its ongoing repetition and practical use so it is considered to have been stored in an individual’s long-term memory semantically – although in one study it was Baddeley (1966) found after just a 20 minutes test subjects had the most difficulty recalling words with even similar meanings like small, tiny, minute, short. Therefore, long-term memory is clearly somewhat different to short-term memory supported by transient patterns of neuronal communication, whilst long-term memory is founded upon more stable and permanent changes throughout an individual’s brain allied to the power of sleep for consolidating information learned because memory is dependent upon getting sufficient sleep between training and test since the ‘hippocampus’ part of the individual’s brain serves to replay activity from that current day (Baddeley, 2003).

As part of this essay’s study, however, there is also a need to show an appreciation of the fact that there is a third type of memory – sensory memory. Sensory memory has been recognised as corresponding to the immediate aftermath of a particular even being perceived because, for example, being able to simply look at something for a second and remember it is an example of this in practice. The first recognised experiments in this regard were undertaken by George Sperling (1960) as part of his research who then looked to utilise the ‘partial report paradigm’. In this regard, Sperling (1960) looked to present subjects as part of his study with a 12-letter grid that was arranged into three rows of four letters in front of them. Then, after a short practical presentation, the subjects experimented upon in this regard as part of the study undertaken were then played a high, medium or low tone so that they would then know the rows that they should report to the person running the experiment for them. With this understanding of the study practically borne in mind, Sperling (1960) ultimately found that sensory memory’s capacity was around about 12 individual specific unrelated events that degraded away very quickly in practice so that participants would then see the display but be unable to report all of the items presented before them before they decayed and could not really be prolonged in any way via a period of practice.

Aside from the way in which an individual’s memory works, it is to be appreciated that there are many types of memory theory – although there is some considerable controversy in relation to as to whether there are different memory structures because Tarnow (2005), for one, found there is only actually likely to be one memory structure in existence between 6 and 600 seconds. One such example is that of Atkinson-Shiffrin’s Memory Model that arose in 1968 from the work of Richard Atkinson & Richard Shiffrin (1968, at pp.89-195) but it has been subjected to some considerable criticism for its apparent simplicity. Such criticism is founded upon the fact that long-term memory is believed to be based upon the recognition of multiple subcomponents and also proposes rehearsal is the only means available for developing long-term memory recall – although it has been recognised that individuals may, in fact, remember things regardless (Baddeley, 2003). In addition, whilst Atkinson-Shiffrin’s Memory Model (1968) has shown that all an individual’s memory stores are part of one and the same single unit this is in fact something of a misnomer, the reality is that other research does not bear this out since it has been shown that it is possible to break the recognition of short-term memory into visual and acoustic information (Baddeley, 2003).

Another memory theory to have developed is that of the working memory model that was developed in 1974 by Baddeley and Hitch (1974, at pp.47-89) who recognised that the theory is founded upon the recognition of three basic memory stores – (a) the central executive; (b) the phonological loop; and (c) the visuo-spatial sketchpad – that was later expanded with the recognition of a multimodal episodic buffer in more contemporary times (Baddeley, 2000). The central executive refers to attention since information is then channelled to the phonological loop, the visuo-spatial sketchpad, and the episodic buffer. It is then for the phonological loop to look to retain auditory information through the ongoing continuous silent rehearsal of sounds or words through the process of articulation (Gobet, 2000). The visuo-spatial sketchpad the refers to the storage and retention of information of a visual and spatial nature that arises when tasks of this nature are performed like determining distances or the number of windows on the front of a building (Baddeley, 2003). Finally, the episodic buffer is focussed upon being able to link information across domains to form integrated units of the types of information already identified as part of this essay’s discussion regarding the need to follow a clear chronology such as with a movie scene that is also linked with long-term memory (Lustig, May & Hasher, 2001). As a result, it is arguable that through the use of the working memory theory it is possible to then look to explain why it has come to be recognised as considerably easier to do two different tasks rather than two similar ones – although the recognition of a central executive as part of this theory has been criticised for being too inadequate and vague in its remit (Lustig, May & Hasher, 2001).

Additionally, however, there is a need to appreciate that a University of California, Los Angeles research study in the June 2006 issue of the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry found it is possible for people to improve their cognitive efficiency by utilising lifestyle changes including memory exercises such as that which is supplied on the Nintendo DS ‘Brain Training’ program, eating more healthily, and improving physical fitness through training with a view to reducing stress in their daily lives (Champeau, 2006). Moreover, in a report released by the International Longevity Center-USA in 2001 (at pp.14-16) a number of significant recommendations were made for then being able to aid the functionality of individuals minds into old age. Ostensibly, in much the same way as the University of California, Los Angeles research study of June 2006 found in this regard (Champeau, 2006), the International Longevity Center-USA’s report (2001) also served to stress the importance of staying intellectually and physically active, to socialise, reduce stress, keep sleeping times regular, avoid emotional instability and observe good nutritional activity by eating good and healthy food and keeping the intake of both sugary and alcoholic drinks to a minimum in view of the effect that these differing substances can have upon an individual’s mood.

With this kind of knowledge borne in mind, however, with a view to interviewing witnesses and victims the police have generally been found to have made three specific errors in the interviews that they have undertaken. First, the police commonly fail to obtain sufficient information, then they often contaminate the witness or victim’s memory through the process of investigation that may amount to suggestion and they succumb to systemic pressures aimed at achieving a particular result (Judges, 2000, at pp.247, 250 & 252-253). Therefore, the police have looked to take action to minimise such problems with the process of investigation through varying the way in which they interview witnesses and victims of criminal activity according to their individual needs to generate enhanced memories of events as they transpired (Leonard, 1971). On this basis, it has been recognized that there are two accepted principles of memory theory that may aid the interviewing process for investigating criminal activity (Geiselman, et al, 1986) – (a) ‘the memory trace’ made up of several features is founded upon the feature overlap with the encoded event and (b) the recognition of many retrieval paths to a particular criminal event so that information that could prove inaccessible with one retrieval cue can be obtained with a different cue (Tulving, 1974).

In addition, one Ronald Fisher determined through his research and analysis of subjects as part of his studies that there were two significant solutions recognised for potentially increasing the police’s ability to undertake witness and victim interviews. (Fisher, 1995, at pp.754-755) He argued those involved with the interview process should not know the identity of the suspect in any given criminal case to limit the potential for them to influence those whom they are interviewing’s views on the matter at hand under investigation. (Fisher, 1995, at p.754) Moreover, there is also a need for the police to allow those who are being interviewed to have legal representation present where they require it in keeping with the recognition of an individual’s right to a fair trial under Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights 1950 (domestically the Human Rights Act 1998) to limit the potential for procedural improprieties in the interview process that is undertaken.

As a result, it would seem that the criminal investigative interviewing process was founded upon principles of psychology in this regard by looking to – (i) establish rapport with the witnesses and/or victims; (ii) enhance the witness’/victim’s memory through mnemonic devices and keeping a record; and (iii) improve communications through open-ended questions allied to the use of effective directions (Judges, 200). On this basis, it has come to be understood such a cognitive process of interviewing also serves to enhance an interviewees memory of a criminal act by minimising distractions and following a slower pace that adapts to the individual interviewees needs and level of understanding of the events that have transpired and the questions that they have put before them. This is because this it has come to be understood that this will then serve to make the witness or victim feel they are an important part of the investigation not only during the interview itself but also after the event by encouraging the witness/victim to contact the interviewer should they later remember any additional information that could be important however insignificant they themselves may consider it to be as it is really for the police to judge (Wise, et al, 2007).

Nevertheless, it has been recognised that children as witnesses and victims are still somewhat problematic in this regard in relation to the utilisation of the cognitive interview process. This is because, for example, in the United States of America it has been recognised that research on children’s capacities as witnesses has focused heavily on preschoolers, who have been proved to be disproportionately susceptible to the power of suggestion (Ceci & Bruck, 1999). By way of illustration, investigations in Satz v. Superior Court and State v. Michaels featured particularly problematic interviews with large numbers of very young children. With this in mind, knowledge of cognitive development principles caused child witness researchers to predict preschoolers’ relative cognitive limitations could eventually lead to greater susceptibility to suggestive influences and a variety of problems for their interviewers (Coxon & Valentine, 1997). Researchers are, however, increasingly including older children in these kinds of studies and, although the findings indicate suggestibility generally declines as children age, even adolescents can be significantly more suggestible (Coxon & Valentine, 1997) – although some studies have found older children and adults can be more suggestible than the very young (Warren & Marsil, 2002). Therefore, it is arguable that this only serves to further emphasise the points that have already been alluded to in this essay’s discussion with regards to the need to look to adapt to the needs of the individual witnesses or victims in the circumstances of a given case of investigation undertaken by the police.

To conclude, having sought to determine as to how memory theory can help to inform interviewers in relation to the best way to go about interviewing witnesses and victims of criminal activity, it is clear that there is a need on the part of the authorities to get the best information from witnesses and victims of criminal activity. To this effect there is a need to look to implement the cognitive interviewing process with a view to then enhancing police investigations of criminal offences through the use and development of effective interviewing of victims and witnesses derived from understanding the psychological principles associated with deriving effective information for the purposes of investigation. On this basis, it is important to look to consider the nature and scope of the development of psychological principles relating to memory theory and its impact upon the investigation of criminal events domestically. This is because it has been found there is a need to look to appreciate as to what steps can be taken in relation to the cognitive interview process to enhance the criminal investigative process by focussing in on the individual witness/victim of crimes needs and feel considerably more valued in relation to the criminal investigation process.