The Psychology of Eyewitness Memory And What’s This All About Anyway?

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by Neil Godfrey

The third paper of the first day of the Memory and the Reception of Jesus in Early Christianity Conference (10th-11th June 2016, St Mary’s University) was by Richard Bauckham: “The Psychology of Eyewitness Memory”. Helen Bond followed with her paper on the Gospel of John’s use of Mark (see previous post) and then there was a discussion between the two presenter and audience. It was the discussion that I found most interesting.

Richard Bauckham
Richard Bauckham

Richard Bauckham’s talk was indeed about the psychology of eyewitness memory and with little in the way of specific applications to biblical studies. His primary concern appeared to be to assure the audience that though one often hears how unreliable our memories are, including how unreliable eyewitness testimony so often can be in courtroom situations, nonetheless, when it comes to the sort of episodic memory we are talking about when we think of Jesus’ followers, memories are generally pretty sound for most purposes.

Events that are remembered well are those that

  • are unique or unusual
  • are consequential, salient
  • involve us emotionally

And of course such memories are cemented in our brains the more often we rehearse them.

Very broadly we can speak of three types of memory: procedural, semantic or conceptual, and episodic.

  1. Procedural memory refers to remembering how to ride a bike, etc.
  2. Semantic or conceptual memory refers to remembering concepts, book learning, etc.
  3. Episodic memory refers to events that happen to us, the stuff that makes up major events in our lives.

It is the third type of memory that we are addressing when discussing gospel narratives and their eyewitness source material. That type of memory is more stable than the other two. If you are injured in a car crash you are not likely to think back years later and wonder if your injuries resulted from falling off a mountain.

Many stories highlighting the unreliability of memory derive from laboratory conditions and involve semantic or conceptual memory exercises. There is little real-life relationship to these findings. You life-situations are not so vulnerable to forgetting major or unusual events in your life.

All of that makes sense to me. But of course it does not address directly the reliability of the Gospels. For that question Bauckham referred occasionally to his book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses.

The Discussion — and Tough Questions

I should say that I considered them tough and I thought the answers were very slight, as if they had no solid response at all. But that may just be my bias so I have copied the discussion below for you to see for yourself.

First question was for Helen Bond:

“What do you mean by John’s cultural memory? Do we mean social and cultural frames rather than memory?”

Helen Bond did confess in her reply that we are not helped by the literature discussing social memory because there is very often a vagueness and ambiguity in the published arguments. (Tim Widowfield has been expressing some frustration about the same point.)

But the next question or cluster of questions was the one that I thought went straight for the jugular. Again I paraphrase:

“Is the whole eyewitness debate just another version of ‘Can’t we find out what really happened?’ The whole debate on memory seems to be beside the point:

(a) Whether we are dealing with memory at all in the gospels is rarely asked. We can assume the gospels are sourced by memories but that can never be proved. Besides, no-one regards the gospels as transcripts of eyewitness memory. So I have to wonder if the question of what type of memory we are talking about and how reliable it is really so important.

(b) Much more important is the question of how memory, experiences are recorded and repeated to construct identity and what happens when you put your thoughts to a page and share it with the community — all this is much more important than the question of eyewitnesses.”

Bauckham’s reply was to emphasize the importance of getting the psychology right; it’s important to know if the information we read in the gospels does come from eyewitnesses because that adds a measure of stronger credibility to their narratives. We have to start by asking if the gospels give us the general features that assure us of their reliability. If so, we can have a sense of “general probability” in their reliability. Don’t trust those who say “if we don’t have a reasonably high level of certainty then we don’t know anything.” That’s not how history works. Most of history is about probability.

Rome probably ruled the Mediterranean at the time of the Jewish War? Jerusalem and its temple were probably destroyed around 70 CE? The Greeks probably colonized much of the Middle East and Mediterranean lands, spreading their culture in those regions? There were probably tensions from time to time between Jews and their neighbours in places like Alexandria and Cyrene? Persian ideas probably had some influence upon Judaism? Slavery was probably commonplace in the ancient world?

Technically we can say everything must be reduced to a probability but in real life historians can be pretty certain that there were two world wars in the twentieth century, that Rome did rule the Mediterranean world and more, that Julius Caesar was assassinated, etc. I can’t help but suspect that when New Testament scholars start insisting that our knowledge of “what really happened” that led to the gospel narratives is no different from the probability status as any other event in ancient history that they are trying to cover for just how lacking they are in the kind of evidence other historians have at their disposal with, say, the study of Socrates and the emergence of Greek philosophy. The differences are vast.



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Neil Godfrey

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4 thoughts on “The Psychology of Eyewitness Memory And What’s This All About Anyway?”

  1. Neil: “Many stories highlighting the unreliability of memory derive from laboratory conditions and involve semantic or conceptual memory exercises. There is little real-life relationship to these findings. You life-situations are not so vulnerable to forgetting major or unusual events in your life.”

    No, there is much real-life relationship to these findings. In fact many recent experiments deal with people’s actual recollections of events — especially with respect to those “flash-bulb” events Bauckham likes to talk about. And it turns out people are bad at remembering them.

    Let me back up. We’re bad at remembering things, if by “bad” you mean “doesn’t match up with what really happened.” But such a judgment implies that the chief purpose for memory is to get things “right.” In real life, memories that have a great impact on our lives are re-remembered, rehearsed, rehashed, re-explained, retold. And long the way they get re-formed. The interpretation of the memory overshadows the memory of the event itself, often because that interpretation is tied up with self-understanding, world-conception, and community identity.

    Of course the gospels, even if not entirely fiction, are not eyewitness memories. At best, they represent a snapshot of community memory, already heavily reinterpreted over years of physical ritual and rehearsal. Only in NT Studies would Bauckham’s arguments receive such a prolonged, serious, unwarranted hearing.

    1. The next presentation Jens Schroeter’s and it contains some strong corrective (in my view) to some of Richard Bauckham’s remarks. Unfortunately that presentation cuts off half way through and I’m still trying to see if I can find another format where his thoughts on theories of history can be accessed.

      One of the points that surprised me in Bauckham’s comments (I think it was in the discussion) was his claim that by finding in the gospels general features we normally associate with reliability we can have confidence in their “general” reliability. That strikes me as an astonishingly naive presumption for anyone, let alone a scholar. Fiction writers know how to write with verisimilitude and historians, autobiographers and biographers know how to embellish untruths with the cloak of truth. It’s the sort of statement that tempts us to ask,”Is Bauckham also among the apologists?”

  2. Talking about the unreliability of memory, this is about an experiment done with 2000 people in 2000, taken from “The Memory Illusion: Remembering, Forgetting, and the Science of False Memory” by Julia Shaw:

    They examined two events: Margaret Thatcher’s resignation as prime minister of Britain, which had occurred 19 months before the study, and the Hillsborough football disaster, which had occurred 37 months before the study. They wanted to see whether the public could date the events accurately, which they defined as dating the events within one month of their actual occurrence. The results were fascinating. Overall, only 15 per cent accurately dated the resignation of Margaret Thatcher, and even fewer, around 10 per cent, accurately dated the football disaster. Performance was equally poor across all ages, so it did not seem to matter how old the participants were at the time the landmark events occurred. Instead of accurately dating the events, the overwhelming majority of participants engaged in what is referred to as temporal displacement, or ‘telescoping’, which means moving things around in time. We have a tendency to do this. In particular, we often remember things that happened more recently as having happened longer ago than they actually did. Conversely, we often remember things from long ago ‘as if it were yesterday’. The telescoping study by Gaskell and his colleagues found that most people reported the event as happening more recently than it actually did (forward telescoping), so closer in time to today. A significant number, however, reported it as being earlier than it actually was (backward telescoping), so being longer ago. For the more recent event, Margaret Thatcher’s resignation, which had only happened 1.5 years before the interview, 40 per cent of participants forward-telescoped, while 31 per cent backward-telescoped.
    The opposite was found for the event that happened over 3 years before – with 29 per cent forward-telescoping and 42 per cent backward-telescoping. Although these effects have been shown in different configurations by other researchers, what they all agree on is that in the time estimation of our memory we have a tendency to push some events even further into the past than they really were, while others we draw closer to today.

    1. Yes, it’s details that do not register strongly at the time that are easily confused. At another level, I recall (reasonably accurately in gist for anyway) the time I was called to a court hearing as an eyewitness. I had witnessed in front of me while driving on the highway a fight between a motorbike rider and car driver. The bike rider reached over to wrench at the rear-vision mirror of the car; the car suddenly swerved into the motorbike to push it away — and the bike went out of control, crashing off the side of the road, with severe injuries to the girl pillion passenger.

      What did they ask me after I took the witness stand? At the time of impact between the car and bike, was any part of the car off the bitumen road surface and on the dirt alongside.

      Of course I had no idea! That’s not the sort of detail that registered with me. I was a damn useless eyewitness. Everyone knew the car and bike collided. They wanted me to remember a detail like the exact position of the car in relation to the road surface at the moment of impact.

      Bauckham was right in one respect when he said that the claims of eyewitness testimony being unreliable are often based on courtroom evidence where details that were not central to the experience of the witness are necessary to establish specifics of arguments.

      (There are also more significant details that can be falsely remembered, too, we well know. — And even recollecting the above now, I could not recall stopping after witnessing the incident, but can only deduce that I must have stopped or else I would not have been called as a witness — someone had to have had my name and contact details from the day of the “accident”.)

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