Edinburgh Fringe 2017

Eyewitnesses Are Futile

Fair Pley / Salt ‘n’ Sauce Productions

Genre: Spoken Word

Venue: New Town Theatre


Low Down

Are our memories really as accurate as we think they are?  Stephen Darling explodes a few myths surrounding our ability to recall events accurately.


The lady greeting us at the door had blue eyes and brown hair, I’m sure of it.  Or was it brown eyes and blue hair?  Or was it a “he” who was bald and carrying a white stick?

Ever been in the situation when you’ve been asked to recall what you saw and heard, only to find out that your grasp on reality is not quite what you believe it to be?  Stephen Darling of Queen Margaret University hypothesises that, when it comes to the nitty gritty, our memories are really not all that reliable and he has plenty of examples to prove it.

“Play it again, Sam.”  That’s what Humphrey Bogart says in the film Casablanca, isn’t it, as Lauren Bacall lingered alluringly in the background?  Well, he doesn’t.  Bogart’s character actually says “Play it, Sam” and it’s Ingrid Bergman who stars opposite Bogart, not Bacall.

And the way a question is phrased, particularly in terms of the verbs used, can materially influence the way in which it is answered.  The contentious statement during the EU Referendum campaign that the UK was regularly sending £350 million per week to the EU that could be better used elsewhere got a different response when it contained the word “fund” rather than “support” the NHS.  Leave voters were apparently much more likely to identify with “fund” than with “support”, a verb which tended to attract the Remainers.

And an impromptu identity parade involving a few members of the audience and a supposed member of the stage crew who made a cameo appearance at the start of the show was arranged to see if we could correctly pick out the latter when faced with a choice of similar looking individuals.

Except that each of these admittedly less than scientific experiments turned out to fool no-one in the observant and attentive audience at this Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas (CODI) evening discussion in the New Town Theatre’s cavernous basement.  No-one was fooled by the Bogart “Play it again, Sam” error.  And we all knew it was Bergman, not Bacall that played opposite dear old Humph.  We were all aware that the “£350 million per week” claim is complete stuff and nonsense, so it mattered not a jot what verb had been used in the question.  Finally, every member of the audience instantly recognised the fact that the “identity parade” didn’t actually contain the rather corpulent member of the stage crew we were supposed to pick out.

So, were we all so-called and rather special “super-recognisers” that are supposed to possess extraordinary powers of recall and have brains with a capacity to file and retrieve information in a way that mere mortals can’t?  Leaving aside the fact that there is considerable academic doubt as to whether such individuals actually exist, statistically, we couldn’t all have been outliers on the distribution spectrum in terms of our observational skills.

More likely, we were an audience whose antenna was attuned to look out for just the kind of tricks Darling was trying to get us to fall for.  But our success in rumbling our host had the interesting effect of emphasising the point Darling was making; that we remember stereotypical situational basics, filling in the details only if we are required to recall events subsequently.  It’s just that we are not very good at the detail bit.

Now, most of the time, that isn’t important.  Remembering how many axles were on the Brexit bus with the erroneous EU spending claim is what we’d all class as a forgettable detail.  But if that Brexit bus was instead in the vicinity of a major heist, such detail could prove vital in identifying whether it was an innocent bystander or played a role as the getaway vehicle.

Darling’s central point, and a good one, is that we need to guard against relying exclusively on eyewitness testimony in certain situations, especially the prosecution of alleged criminals.  Citing the fact that, in the last decade, over 1000 people in the US have had convictions overturned due to DNA related evidence that has subsequently come to light, he would appear to have a point.  The Birmingham Six would certainly support Darling’s hypothesis.

Memory is malleable, by people, by events.  It really isn’t as reliable as you think.  Now, where’s that lady with the blue eyes and brown hair? Or was it the other way around?

This was a one-off in a series of CODI events covering a wide range of topics that are running throughout the Fringe.  As such, it’s difficult to provide with you with a recommendation but, if you like the idea of listening to an expert in their field outline a different take on a subject, take a look at the rest of the programme.  There are certainly a number of others in this series I would like to attend.