Tuesday, July 2, 2013

I Witnessed A Murder... Or Did I?

Recently, unbeknownst to me, I was a participant in a fascinating social study.

Someone in my Facebook feed posted a suggestion I couldn't resist.

If you type coordinates 52.376552, 5.198303 into Google Maps, you'll find a man dragging a body into the lake.

No way, I thought.

But I did...

And I'll be damned. There it was!

Haven't seen it? Go ahead and look. Don't forget to zoom in. I'll wait.


Do you see it too? The trail of blood on the pier behind the body? The man getting ready to drag it over the edge? This is, without a doubt, an image capturing a violent and horrific crime. Are you as ready to call the FBI as I was?

Hold on. Don't make that call just yet.

So what if I give you the same coordinates, but make no mention of a body? What if I never planted the suggestion of murder in your mind, and you pull up the image without any pretense? What might you see then? How might your mind interpret this image differently? Still not sure?


What if I give you the same coordinates and tell you that the big, brown dog with the two men on the pier has been swimming, and just climbed onto the redwood walkway, soaking wet, leaving a happy trail of water behind his big, furry feet?  Look at the picture again. Do you still see a crime in process? In the middle of the day? In a public place? When there is no trail of blood leading to the pier at all? 

Still ready to call the FBI?

Or are you second-guessing yourself?

Apparently, so were a lot of other people. You can read more about the "body into the lake" viral post on Snopes. Normally, these kinds of urban legends in my Facebook feed irk me. But this one really got me thinking about the power of suggestion on eyewitness testimony, and how many variables affect how we interpret what we see. Did we really see something as it was? Or did we see what we expected to see, based on preconceived ideas within our own cognitive framework?

A brief filed in 2011 by the APA explains that "... juries don't understand the many factors that can influence a witness's ability to accurately identify a suspect, including how much stress a witness is under, whether a weapon is present, the amount of time a witness had to look at the person, the lighting present at the time, how long it's been since someone first witnessed the crime or suggestions of guilt by police." Azar, B. (2011). The Limits of Eyewitness Testimony - American Psychology Association.

This experiment reminds me that each of my characters, and each of my readers, has his own schema -- her own cognitive framework for interpreting the world. Life experiences, cultural understandings, societal influences, stresses, fears and memories -- we all understand the world around us through a very complex lens. Experiments like this remind me that the richest mysteries don't focus on the blood on the pier, but on the hearts and minds of those who think they saw it.

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