Saturday, April 6, 2013

Question Phrasing Affecting Memory

The article I read is titled, "Reconstruction of Automobile Destruction : An Example of the Interaction Between Language and Memory". It described a couple of experiments by Elizabeth F. Loftus and John C. Palmer which prove that the way a question is phrased strongly influences the answer given. The first experiment had 45 students watch 7 short films, each involving a car accident. Afterwards, in a questionnaire about the films, one of the questions asked how fast the cars were going when they hit each other. However, for each group of 9 students  other words were used instead of "hit" (i.e. smashed, collided, bumped, contacted). When the mean speeds given were analyzed, it was clear that the students who were asked the question with a word like "hit" guessed that the cars were moving slower than the students who were given the word "smashed".

The second experiment studied if this effect is translated into skewing other parts of memory, too. Thus, this experiment showed the subjects a short film with multiple car accidents. Afterwards, fifty subjects were asked, “About how fast were the cars going when they smashed into each other?”. Fifty subjects were asked, “About how fast were the cars going when they hit each other?”. Fifty subjects were not asked about speed. A week later, the subjects returned and were given another questionnaire. This one asked if they remember seeing broken class during the accident. Those who were asked the question about speed the with the word "smashed" were far more likely to say they saw broken glass than the group of people who were asked with the word "hit" or weren't asked at all. In fact, there was no broken glass in the film and the students constructed this memory based on inferred information and the association of a severe accident that most people have with the word "smashed".

This is a really intriguing set of findings that also poses a number of problems. It is difficult to judge which phrasing of a question is the most "neutral" and is least likely to sway the answer. Also, it calls into question how reliable eyewitness testimony is, especially if questions must be asked to get information from the witnesses. It makes me question this issue not just in legal justice but also in my own life. If I use certain words to phrase the questions I pose to friends and family, would I be able to get the answers I want more often? Would those answers be sincere?

This study makes me wonder what would happen if other words in the questions were given alternatives. I found it odd that the questions asked "How fast were the cars going when they hit/smashed?" instead of a more neutral wording like "What was the speed of the cars when they hit/smashed?". What is some people had a question that said, "How slow were the cars going when they hit/smashed?". I'm sure all of these differenced would've had an effect on the answers of the participants- once again concerning me about the ability of asking a "neutral" question. 

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