Memories of highly charged events such as the July 7 bombings can be totally inaccurate and too unreliable to use in court, a psychologist has found.

by Graham Tibbetts The Telegraph

More than a third of people questioned in a survey about one of the London terror incidents claimed to have seen footage which does not exist.

Dr James Ost, of the University of Portsmouth, said people create false memories which can pose problems for police investigating major crimes, social workers investigating families where abuse is suspected, adults who believe they have “recovered” memories from childhood trauma and for the courts where witness testimony is relied upon. He told the BA Festival of Science in Liverpool many people can be persuaded they have seen things which never happened.

His findings were based on a study carried out over a two-week period in October 2005, three months after the attacks on the Underground and a bus in central London.

A total of 300 people, half British, half Swedish, completed a questionnaire about their memories of the No 30 bus bombing in Tavistock Square.

Of the British respondents, 40 per cent claimed to have seen non-existent CCTV footage of the bus explode and 28 per cent claimed to have seen a non-existent computerised reconstruction of the bombing.

Some went much further when asked to describe what happened at the moment the bus exploded – which none of them could have seen.

Some answers revealed a high degree of skill in fabricating imaginary memories including:
One wrote: “The bus has stopped at a traffic light. There was a bright light and a loud bang and the top of the bus flew off and lots of screaming and then everything seemed still.”

Those who came up with false memories were significantly more fantasy-prone than people who did not, Dr Ost said.

This suggests that people who are more creative, or who have better imaginative abilities, might be more prone to these kind of errors.

The incidence of false memories is in line with other research published by Dr Ost’s team and by colleagues in Sweden and The Netherlands.

He said: “There have been numerous studies now demonstrating this basic effect.

“For example, another study we conducted at Portsmouth showed that some people believe they have seen video footage of the moment Princess Diana’s car crashed, taken by paparazzi photographers. But, again, no such footage exists.

“Taken as a whole, this is further evidence that our memories are not perfect. They are not like a videotape you can rewind and replay for perfect recall.

“Because of this, memory alone is not reliable enough to form the basis of legal decisions.

“We find some people are susceptible to fantasy; they are highly prone to believe they have witnessed something they cannot possibly have seen. They have fooled themselves into believing they saw things.”