#TheDress and How it reveals the problems of Eye Witness Testimony

The human mind is an amazing thing, however, it can play tricks on us. #thedress is a perfect example, which is important if the sole evidence against you is eyewitness testimony.

Like most people on last Thursday night I was highly confused about exactly what color was this dress, and confident I was right.

#TheDress and How it reveals the problems of Eye Witness Testimony

The Problem with Human Perception

The color of the dress is irrelevant. What is relevant is how this is a perfect example of the problem with eye witness testimony. If I was called to testify in court about what color the dress was, I would have sworn under oath that the dress was white and gold…and I would have been wrong in reality the dress is black and blue.

A lot of people think our eyes work like video camera, that what we see is exactly what reality is. But what is really happening is that our brains are the ones 'seeing' our eyes merely send information about wavelengths of light, it's our brains that have to sort that all out and interpret what that data means.

If our brain faces data that it is unsure of, sometimes our brains use clues to determine what it is seeing. In #the dress's case, some people's brains interpreted the clues to decide the dress was white and gold, others interposed the clues to mean the dress was black and blue.

So sometimes what we think we see is not real, which is very troubling if the sole evidence in case is eyewitness testimony. What is even more troubling is that our memory of what we see can also be wrong.

Even if our brains interpret what we are 'seeing' correctly, our memories are also fallible.

It is universally accepted that the memory process takes place in three stages: (1) perception of the event, (2) retention, and (3) retrieval of the stored information. Psychologists explain that information is transformed as it passes through each of these stages, and it can be distorted by internal and external factors that can eventually cause retrieval failure.

Perception can be affected by exposure time, stress, expectation, and prior experiences can affect perception. People often don't realize that their cultural expectations and past experiences can affect their memory of events. In other words, if you expect to see a man with a gun, you will be more likely to testify the man had a gun.

During the questioning of a witness, witness's memory can be altered by how a question is asked. For example if the question is asked: "did you see the broken headlight?" vs. "did you see a broken headlight?" could affect the witness's memory and that is changing a simple adjective.

The Innocence Project that studied eyewitness accuracy and has stated that eyewitness misidentification is the greatest contributing factor to wrongful convictions. They have estimated that in 75% of overturned convictions there was eyewitness testimony used to convict the innocent defendant.

An eyewitness who is initially uncertain can become much more certain over time. Often the police will give the witness feedback if he/she identified the suspect the police had in mind, saying things such as "that was who we suspected" etc., which makes the witness more confident in their choice, even if wrong. In scientific studies, researchers have even been able to create false memories in normal individuals, and many became convinced the false memories were real.

The act of remembering, says eminent memory researcher and psychologist Elizabeth F. Loftus of the University of California, Irvine, is "more akin to putting puzzle pieces together than retrieving a video recording."


Cindy J. O'Hagan, When Seeing Is Not Believing: The Case for Eyewitness Expert Testimony, 81 Geo. L.J. 741, 747-48 (1993)

Hal Arkowitz and Scott O. Lillenfield, Why Science Tells us not to rely on eyewitness accounts, Scientific American. January 8, 2009.

Dan Darcy, #thedress shows the quirks of human perception, February 29, 2015 at http://blog.dolby.com/2015/02/thedress-shows-the-quirks-of-human-perception/