Don’t believe your own eyes

Which are you most likely to believe?

  • Something you read about in the paper?
  • Something you hear about on the television?
  • Something you’ve seen first hand with your own eyes?

Unsurprisingly, most people would likely put things they’ve witnessed on the top of this list. But are they right? Is the evidence of your own eyes more reliable than information from other sources?  After all, if you can’t trust yourself, who can you trust? But maybe you shouldn’t trust yourself, and seeing is not always believing. 

Do the wrong thing: don’t believe your own eyes

Back In the 1990s, when I was living in New York City, I used to help run a soup kitchen in Greenwich Village. It was a place where the homeless and indigent would come in for a hot meal and a bit of a rest. Often, there would be problems or conflicts between our clients (as we called them). Occasionally there’d even be a threat of violence or a fight between clients, often over some perceived slight. Sometimes we brushed these incidents off, but every once in a while, we’d encounter someone angry and scary enough that the only sensible thing to do was to call the police. Here’s how it went, the first time I called 911 to ask for help:

“What is your emergency?
I quickly described what happened, and that the client was making threats and refused to leave. I described the specific wording of the threat, which if I recall correctly was “I’m going to start stabbing people if you don’t get out of my face.”

“What is your address?”
I gave them the exact street address

“What is your name?”
I gave them my name

“Can you describe the person making the threats? What are they wearing, so the officers can identify them?”
……. – awkward silence-

I went completely quiet as I had no idea what to say in answer to this obvious but unanticipated question. Couldn’t I just point out the person to the officers when they arrived? It turns out that police dispatchers want a description of the person, in case they leave the scene and have to be found later. Perfectly sensible. But there was just one problem – I didn’t know how to describe the person physically at all, apart from their race and their gender. Not very specific, and not very helpful.

wooly-willy-mustache-magic-toyMoments earlier, I had just been looking at this man, I was talking to him and even arguing with him. But in the 45 seconds it took me to walk away and pick up the phone, I discovered I couldn’t bring to mind virtually any detail that would be useful in identifying him. I could not recall what he was wearing, what colour shirt he had on, whether he was wearing a hat or a coat, not even if he had a moustache or a beard.

The only way I could give the dispatcher useful information, was to ask them to hold on for a moment, while I peered my head around the corner to look at the person, and then actively describe them over the phone as I stared – it was as if I was seeing them for the first time.

It turns out I’m a terrible eyewitness.

Or am I? I suppose I could blame the adrenaline of the moment for distracting me and making me forgetful. After all, it’s not every day that you find yourself calling the police. But I don’t think this was a question of memory. After all, I could recount exactly what had happened, and precisely what the person had said to me- I remember those details more than 20 years later. I just couldn’t remember visual aspects of what had just happened less than a minute ago. I was so busy assessing the threat, and trying to defuse it, that I didn’t notice other details. They didn’t seem important, so I didn’t pay attention to them.

It turns out that most, if not all of us, have trouble focussing on information that isn’t what we’re concentrating on, and this, as any defence attorney will tell you, makes eyewitness testimony surprisingly unreliable.

Don’t believe me? Watch this video, and follow the on-screen instructions. Make sure to watch all the way until the end:


How did you do? Did you notice the gorilla? Maybe you did better than me the first time I watched the video, as I clued you in that there was something to look out for? It turns out there is a way to make yourself a better eyewitness – just being aware of the problem of selective attention seems to help you pay better attention to things going on around you.

I wound up calling 911 many times during my tenure at that soup kitchen. New York City was in the midst of the crack epidemic, and there was a significant subset of our clientele for whom violence and aggression were normal parts of life. I confess it wasn’t until around the third or fourth time calling the police that I got any better at all at being an eyewitness. The trick, I learned, was to force myself to actively notice details and to be self-aware about the need to memorise them, the very moment that I realised that I was in the midst of a serious incident I might have to give ‘testimony’ about later. If you let something “click” in your head, you can make yourself to pay attention to relevant facts and you can be more likely to recall details that you otherwise might ignore. Another trick I used was to recite details to myself aloud, as I walked to the phone, away from the scene: “Tall, heavy-set white male, with a red shirt, tall , heavy-set white male with a red shirt.”

These tricks worked and I think I became a better eyewitness. Even if my memory was no better, I had learned not to rely on what I had seen, but rather on what I had paid attention to, and what I could recall. It was a lesson that stuck with me for a long time, even after I moved away from New York.


Fast forward twenty years or so…

I relocated to London nearly a dozen years ago, and I’ve only had to call the police once since moving here. One morning I heard shouting that turned into panicked screaming coming from the flat next door. I didn’t know if it was domestic violence or a home invasion, but clearly something awful was happening. Just as I did back in New York City, I went into “hyper-vigilance mode” and hustled to actively think and notice as much as I could while I got my phone out to dial 999. When I got through, the dispatcher began asking me the usual set of questions. I had stepped out into my doorway to assess the situation and gather information, and just then someone came out of the flat and hurriedly jumped into a car parked just in front.

“Sir, what is your name?”
“Hold on, I’m going to read out a license plate to you.”

“Sir, tell me your name first.”
“Will you shut up about that for one second and listen to me carefully, he’s driving away!” I then read out the tag number on the car.

It was a terrifying experience, and my adrenaline was going full throttle. I wasn’t sure of what to do, but there was one thing I felt sure of – that I was going to capture that person’s license plate number, no matter what.

My memory might be unreliable. My attention might be focussed on the wrong things. But a license plate, recited out loud, as I was looking at it, was an empirical fact, and that was far more important than my name, or my recollections of what I heard or what I saw.

Unfortunately, there’s not really a happy ending to this story. They did catch the man straight away. But since it turned out that it was a domestic violence assault – I doubt my license plate number recital made any difference, since the attacker was known to the victim.

For reasons unknown to me, the police never called on me to testify in court. Maybe he didn’t contest the case, or maybe the case was dropped, I don’t know. Or maybe they didn’t need my ‘eyewitness’ testimony and they had better evidence than what I had seen with my own forgetful eyes.

When I look back on it now, it seems clear my memory and my ability as an eyewitness never really got any better, despite all of my efforts. To this day I can’t remember what the person from the attack next door in London looked like, what he was wearing, or what kind of car he drove. But I’ll never forget exactly how I felt when I first heard that screaming from next door – I was scared,  and I was confused about what was happening and what I should do about it.

It’s very hard to recollect details about things that happen around us, even if we’ve seen them first-hand. but apparently it’s pretty easy to remember how we felt about those things. If only those memories had any empirical value, then we’d all be much better eyewitnesses.

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