Melbourne: Memories can`t be trusted and become contaminated when people discuss their recollections of an event with others, according to a new study, which may have legal implications regarding reliability of witness accounts.
Researchers at Sydney University have carried out the study and found sharing memories could contaminate people`s recollections and create false memories.
Lead researcher Helen Paterson said: "A false memory is the recollection of an event, or details of an event, that did not actually occur. The research focuses on how people can contaminate each other`s memories for an event by discussing it with one another."
According to the researchers, a key finding of the study was that misleading information presented through discussion with another person who observed the event can also lead to memory distortion.
"That is, witnesses who discuss an event with a co- witness are likely to incorporate misinformation presented by the co-witness into their own memory for the event. Once their memory has been contaminated in this way, the witness is often unable to distinguish between accurate and inaccuratememories.
"Critically, our research has shown that co-witness discussion is an especially potent delivery mechanism for misinformation; information provided during discussions with a co-witness is more likely to be incorporated into witness`s memory than information encountered through leading questions, inaccurate media reports," she said.
Paterson added: "Furthermore,our research has shown that memory contamination persists, even when people are warned that they have been exposed to misinformation by their co-witness. This suggests to us that people sometimes find it difficult, if not impossible, to distinguish between genuine memories and false memories of an event."
The researchers said the study may have implications regarding the reliability of witness memory.
"Legal procedures are designed to counter dangers which arise when civilian witnesses discuss an event with one another. Witnesses are often prohibited from hearing each other`s testimonies and lawyers may question witnesses regarding whether or not they have discussed the incident.
"Despite these attempts to keep witness testimony independent, it is clear that witnesses often do talk to each other about the event. Discussion among witnesses is difficult, if not impossible to prevent," she said.