Embellishments of memory: the unreliable nature of eyewitness testimony

ABSTRACT: In news of the past: UFO study finds no sign of aliens. But there will be no shortage of people who subscribe to the notion that UFOs are aliens from other worlds. Indeed, there are many pseudoscientific claims that stem from the fallible nature of people to accurately recall or interpret what they observed when party to an event that is unusual or extraordinary. While these events might unusual and extraordinary to the observer, it doesn’t imply that there are explanations that cannot be prosaic or mundane or even fascinating but far from what is assumed or believed. A UFO might simply be an aircraft, military flares, a weather phenomenon, or oil wells burning on the horizon, as the Phoenix Lights and Campeche, Mexico UFO sighting in recent times would indicate. They could also be the work of a hoaxer, as the Prophet Yahweh would seem to have been. This blog entry explores the nature of embellishment and exaggeration of eyewitness testimony.

Note: the term UFO in the context of this blog is synonymous with “alien spacecraft” unless otherwise noted.

It has been suggested on many occasions in discussions on the internet and elsewhere that the sheer quantity of eyewitness testimony is enough to support a wild claim, such as the notion that extraterrestrial intelligences are responsible for the sightings of UFOs in the world.

Oft mentioned are the so-called Disclosure Project‘s 400 witnesses of UFOs. These mentions are usually accompanied by citing the credentials of the witness (airline pilot, Army general, law enforcement officer, etc.) and making the assumption that these people are somehow more credible than the rest of society. Never mind that they are Homo sapiens, constructed of the same materials and subject to the same psychological faults as the rest of the species.

The UFO believers would have the rest of society believe what they do: that people with a higher station in life do not fall victim to the same fallibilities that the rest of society does and that their memories and observational abilities are somehow more reliable. With regard to observational ability within the scopes of their professions, I’ve no doubt that experts and professionals can be considered more reliable. I would expect a doctor, for instance, to notice something about health care that I might not. I would expect a law enforcement officer to recognize a crime in progress or suspicious behavior of another person much faster than myself. I would expect an airline pilot to be more observant than myself with regard to atmospheric conditions, the condition of his aircraft, and the behavior of other aircraft than I.

That last example is where the UFO believer hopes to grasp a bit of witness credibility with regard to UFOs. But the third hand accounts of UFO believers re-telling the anecdotes of these pilots has a flawed methodology aside from the fact that the accounts are often not even secondary but tertiary -the UFO believer tells an account of another UFO believer who alleges to have taken an account from the original observer and the primary source of the interview (the full transcript) is often not available. The additional flaws in the methodology include confirmation bias, lack of appropriate contexts, inconsistent and leading interview techniques, etc.

Confirmation bias is when the researcher begins with a desired outcome and organizes all of his questions to support this outcome. UFO believers rarely ask skeptical questions and criticize those that do.

The contexts that are ignored include the environment of the event, the circumstances surrounding the event, sometimes the observations of others regarding the event, the physical condition of the observer(s), etc. There are as many separate contexts as there are events and observers of events.

Ruling out other possibilities is important as well. Ask skeptical questions. In a crime, investigators will develop a list of suspects and people of interest. If there is DNA evidence, DNA samples get collected from anyone connected to the case (including investigators). These samples become the controls and are used to rule out the possibilities—even if there is a primary suspect.

But the thing that deserves mention the most is the fallibility of human memory when a person, regardless of their status or station in life, is faced with an event that is unusual to them, even if it isn’t unusual to the universe.

Human memory is fallible. I had a biology professor that said once, “everyone has a photographic memory; it’s just that most people are out of film.” It is this “film” that is the problem, because the film that is our memory isn’t the best quality for the majority of the human population. A 2003 article in Science News (4/19/2003) discusses how researchers have concluded that people recall more of what they hear if the speaker communicates with relevant hand gestures, suggesting that a single source of information input is insufficient for aiding in recall.

Seeing is believing

… it just isn’t necessarily what happened. Scientists researching the fields of criminalistics and cogitative abilities have determined (Wells & Olson, 2003; Wells, Olson, & Charman, 2003) that eyewitness accounts are far less reliable than many people may think. They also believe that major changes need to be instituted in how law enforcement and criminal investigators do things such as conduct line-ups and obtain testimony. They’ve discovered that even the most innocuous questions can be leading and influence the witness’s memory of the events.

For example, suppose a woman who observed a fatal traffic accident is rehearsing her testimony with a lawyer. The lawyer says, “How fast was the car going when it went through the red light?” At the time, she didn’t notice the color of the light, but the way the lawyer phrased the question plants the suggestion in mind that the car ran a red light. As a result, the woman may form an image of the traffic light in her mind’s eye—an image she didn’t really see at the actual event.

In investigating UFOs, the UFO “investigator” has a predetermined belief that UFOs are real. In addition, so may the witness. A recent poll conducted by Fox News (2003) shows that 34% of all Americans believe in UFOs. With this large a percentage, it is extremely probable that the UFO witnesses that go on record are already believers in the phenomenon. They may already assume that what they observed was a UFO and not something far more prosaic or mundane. The event was unusual to them; therefore they apply the most unusual explanation they can. It doesn’t help if the UFO investigator begins a question, “so when you saw the UFO, was it cigar-shaped or classic saucer-shaped?”

Belief isn’t restricted to status or station in society either. President Reagan was said to have consulted an astrologer. I know an airline pilot that considers himself a Wiccan and his wife believes she can conduct “spells” in the “craft.” They’re strange, but fun folks. The current U.S. President believes he is doing God’s work and that God wanted him to be President (Bush was quoted to have said as much, though I forget where).

Belief creates bias right off the bat. Another caveat to eyewitness testimony is that witnesses will very often share information, so that in the final testimony, what they actually observed and what
they testify to are different. The perceptions as well as the misperceptions of the other witnesses are used to fill in the gaps of their own observations. When they get information from one another and from investigators, their own memory becomes contaminated.

But just seeing an event that is emotionally arousing can interfere with both memory and attention to detail (Hulse, Memon, & Allan, 2003) due to chemical substances released in the brain during states of arousal and stress. I would suggest that when one sees what one truly believes is an alien spacecraft; one is “aroused and stressed.”

Psychic Study of Eyewitness Reliability

Singer and Benassi (1980) conducted a study with college students that they had divided into two groups: one group was told that they were going to watch a magician pretend to be psychic; the other group was told they were about to see a demonstration of true psychic ability. Singer and Benassi’s stage magician wasn’t psychic and used cold reading techniques and other tricks to make it look like he was. Following the demonstration, both groups were asked their opinions and in spite of the fact that one group was told in advance it was fake, approximately two-thirds of both groups stated they believed the performer to be a genuine psychic.

They did the experiment again this time the experimenter told all students that the performer was a magician and not a real psychic before the performance. And yet, 58% still believed he had true psychic ability.

Sheep and Goats (a.k.a. Believers and Skeptics)

Believers and skeptics have preconceived notions prior to an extraordinary event (psychic reading, UFO sighting, magic show, etc.). Believers expect to see something “unexplainable, magical, alien, psychic, etc., where as skeptics expect to find the flaws in the demonstrations, pose questions that challenge the belief, expect earthly explanations for UFOs, etc.

In 1921, Eric Dingwall hypothesized that these expectations would distort eyewitness testimony: “The frame of mind in which a person goes to see magic and to a medium cannot be compared. In one case he goes either purely for amusement or possibly with the idea of discovering `how it was done,’ whilst in the other he usually goes with the thought that it is possible that he will come into direct contact with the other world.”

Later researchers (Wiseman and Morris, 1995) took Dingwall’s hypothesis and applied a test by showing a group of sheep and goats (believers and skeptics) a film which contained fake psychic abilities and then they were asked a set of questions to rate the “paranormal content” and measure their abilities to recall information.

The sheep, as expected, rated the paranormal content of the film much higher than did the goats. The goats, however, were able to recall more information that was significant to seeing through the tricks being performed.

With regard to the UFO phenomenon, I think what we have is a case of sheep and goats. The believers (sheep) expect to see alien space ships, and therefore see them whenever event occur that goats (skeptics) would typically find better, more earthly explanations for, if they bothered with the sighting at all.

In the end, we have a body of “sightings” that ETI-UFO believers look at as credible evidence for the existence of alien visitation to our planet. But what this really represents, for the most part, is the biased, one-sided accounts of “sheep” that saw exactly what they expected to see. Skeptics see things in the sky too. They just don’t bother with them or recognize them for what they are and, therefore, don’t report them.


It’s interesting to note that the idea that the UFO phenomenon cannot be readily discounted due to the volume of eyewitness reports appears to have originated from J. Allen Hynek—the government skeptic turned believer—in the 1970’s. Allen Hendry was an early investigator for Hynek’s CUFOS and apparently a regular contributor to International UFO Reporter. Hendry argues in two articles in IUR (July 1977; June 1978) that it is valuable to identify those reports that can be considered “IFOs” from the UFOs. He points out those witnesses nearly always describe the same type of UFO—a “domed disk”—even when investigation reveals an identified source of the “ufo,” such as an advertising plane or celestial body. Hendry’s evaluation of this tendency to embellish or exaggerate notes that it isn’t one limited to hardcore believers, but one that has cropped up in all demographics.

Hendry also cites in the 1978 article a case in which rash of UFO reports in the Aurora, IL area in April 1978 were directly attributed to an ad agency in Chicago which confirmed that their plane was in the exact time and place of the sightings. In these sightings, witnesses described silent, slow moving craft that “twirled like a carnival ride” and was as “large as a football field.” One witness even claimed that his television went out for two hours and several witnesses “theorized” that the UFO was a “mothership.”

A couple things to keep in mind: the debunking in this case comes from an “ufologist” (Allen Hendry) and the event occurred just after movies like Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind cleaned house at the theaters.

Hendry also pointed out that in 300 UFOs that he was able to attribute to advertising planes, 91% of the witnesses reported that the “UFO made no sound.” Here’s an excerpt from Hendry in IUR.

…distorted observations regarding “domed discs,” “treetop heights,” gigantic size estimates, claims of being deliberately followed in cars, false assumptions that the ad plane’s sign turning-off equated to the “UFO” rushing away faster than the eye could follow, the causality attempted between the UFO and the TV interference, and most of all, the wholly unwarranted emotional reactions exhibited by the witnesses and the immediately, nearly universal reactions exhibited by the witnesses and the immediately, nearly universal conclusion that the ad plane was from outer space… The key issue here is not that the sighting was “only an ad plane,” because such a “solution” cannot in itself account for the independent witnesses’ behavior and inaccuracies. I do not see this IFO as the “garbage” to be weeded out while the “real” UFOs are retained as “data,” when there is a wealth of data present here about UFOlogy’s old bugaboo: the reliability of human testimony [emphasis mine].

Hendry was in no way trying to discredit the value of eyewitness testimony, but rather pointing out that its reliability cannot be taken as an a priori assumption. He has been quoted (though I cannot readily verify it) as saying, “Insulting ad hominem attacks on the witness’ basic reliability are one way to gauge the strength of a case.” I believe he was saying that if a debunker has to resort to attacking the witness as the only means of explaining the case, then it is more likely that the sighting is genuine. I think this works in reverse as well: when the true believer resorts to ad hominem attack, it because evidence is stacked against him.

Unfortunately, Hendry’s own data shows that witness reliability itself must be suspect. Also many sightings simply haven’t the data to draw from in order to investigate properly and, in such cases, it wouldn’t be logical to assign more points of probability—the witnesses are just as likely to be wrong as with those cases where there is enough data to investigate and subsequently identify the source of the observation.

Note: This article was originally published on May 9, 2006, but was edited and refreshed to be republished. While the primary focus was UFO sightings, the reliability of eye witness accounts and first-hand anecdotes is equally problematic in anything from legal testimony in court to collecting archaeological data.


B.B. (4/19/2003) Gestures help words become memorable. Science News, Vol. 163 Issue 16, p254

Connell, Mary (2002)The Use of Eyewitness Research in the Courts. Presented at training seminars for Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Project

Dingwall, E. (1921). Magic and mediumship. Psychic
Science Quarterly
, Vol. 1, No. 3, pp. 206-219.

Hendry, Allan (July 1977). “UFO or IFO? How IUR draws the distinction.” International UFO Reporter (IUR), pp 5-7.

Hendry, Allan (June 1978). “A Case For IFO Study: A Recent Example.” International UFO Reporter (IUR), pp 6-7.

Hulse L, Memon A & Allan K (2003) “Affecting memories: Emotional arousal and eyewitness testimony”. Fifth Biennial Meeting of SARMAC, Aberdeen, Scotland

Singer, B. and V. A. Benassi. (1980). Fooling some of the people all of the time. Skeptical Inquirer, Winter, pp. 17-24.

Wells, Gary L. and Olson, Elizabeth A.. (2003). “Eyewitness Testimony,” Annual Review of Psychology, Vol. 54, pp. 277-295.

Wells, Gary L., Olson, Elizabeth A., and Charman, Steve D. (2003). “Distorted retrospective eyewitness reports as functions of feedback and delay,” Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, Vol. 9, No. 1, pp. 42-52.

Wiseman, R. J. and R. L. Morris. (1995) Recalling pseudo-psychic demonstrations. British Journal of Psychology, Vol. 86, pp. 113-125.

About Carl Feagans 397 Articles
Professional archaeologist that currently works for the United States Forest Service at the Land Between the Lakes Recreation Area in Kentucky and Tennessee. I'm also a 12-year veteran of the U.S. Army and spent another 10 years doing adventure programming with at-risk teens before earning my master's degree at the University of Texas at Arlington.

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