Trauma memories can feel more disorganised than more mundane memories. That may be problematic in legal contexts. Here we examined: (a) whether that disorganised feeling makes people more susceptible to suggestive questioning during direct examination; and (b) whether cross-examination is the safeguard it is purported to be: that is, we examined whether cross-examination can uncover and correct distorted trauma memories. We showed participants a film depicting a graphic car accident. For some participants, the film unfolded in a temporally disorganised way. We then interviewed participants immediately after the film regarding what they had seen: this ‘direct examination’ included free recall, cued recall and yes/no questions, some of which were misleading. Then, 48 hours later, a second interviewer cross-examined participants. Contrary to our predictions, neither manipulation of the film's temporal organisation, nor participants’ self-reported feelings of event disorganisation significantly affected their accuracy of the film during direct or cross-examination nor their recognition memory of the film. Instead, we found that regardless of whether participants’ memories were distorted by the direct examination, the suggestive nature of the cross-examination introduced sufficient doubt that participants were willing to change their answers. We conclude that traumatic memories are vulnerable to suggestive questioning and, unfortunately, cross-examination is not the legal system's fail-safe corrective influence.
- recognition memory
- Trauma memory