“The brain abhors a vacuum,” noted one forensic psychologist who has studied the flaws in eyewitness reports.
SAN BERNARDINO, California — In the aftermath of the San Bernardino shooting, some eyewitnesses suggested that three white men had carried out the attack which had been perpetrated by Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik, the married couple who died later that day in a shootout with police.
This divergence certainly isn’t an anomaly. Police, media and eyewitness reports often conflict in the aftermath of a chaotic situation such as a mass shooting, as those present and the first responders who must cope with the victims struggle to grasp the details of the traumatic experience.
“[E]yewitness have since come forward, claiming they saw three men in black masks fleeing the scene with long rifles in hand,” offered an archived report from Dec. 2 on HollywoodLife.com, a California-based blog, citing a CNN report that has apparently since been pulled from the media conglomerate’s website:
“‘Witnesses told police they saw three men with long rifles,’ a law enforcement source told CNN. The source also said, ‘the suspects got into a black SUV and drove away.’”
But the police later cleared a third person, a man found running near the scene of the shooting. They have since placed full responsibility for the attack on Farook and Malik, who are now the subject of an ongoing terrorism investigation by the U.S. government and local police.
While some online writers have latched onto the conflicting initial reports and the final suspects as proof of conspiracy, multiple psychological experts insist that diverging details stem from a natural tendency by the human brain to try to construct a coherent narrative from a confusing and troubling occurrence.
Even in the wake of smaller incidents of gun violence, eyewitness accounts have proven disturbingly unreliable. For example, in May, genetic evidence cleared Angel Echavarria of murder. Echavarria had spent 21 years in prison after two eyewitnesses swore he killed a drug dealer in 1994.
In 2012, Scott Fraser, a forensic psychologist who specializes in understanding witness behavior, appeared at the TEDxUSC forum to describe the case of Francisco Carrillo, who was freed from prison after 20 years. Carillo was convicted on the basis of the testimony of six eyewitnesses who swore they saw Carrillo fire from a moving vehicle, fatally wounding their father. But when they appeared in 2011 before a Superior Court judge in California, the Los Angeles Times reported that their testimony fell apart:
“[F]ive of the six witnesses testified at the Compton Courthouse that they had not clearly seen the gunman. Among them was the victim’s son, who said he made his identification because one of his friends at the scene said he recognized Carrillo as the shooter. That friend also recanted.”
Fraser explained that “[t]he brain abhors a vacuum,” noting that witnesses are only capable of absorbing “bits and pieces of the entire experience.” So, when called on to recall an event, the human mind will unconsciously piece together a fuller, more coherent narrative of what occurred:
“Below awareness, with no requirement for any kind of motivated processing, the brain fills in information that was not there, not originally stored, from inference, from speculation, from sources of information that came to you, as the observer, after the observation.”
In 2005, London police shot Jean Charles de Menezes, a Brazilian man, in an underground train station. The BBC’s Finio Rohrer reported:
“On the day Mr Menezes was killed, a picture was quickly painted by eyewitnesses of a suspect who had vaulted over a ticket barrier, ran away from police, and had worn a bulky jacket that could have concealed a device.”
Rohrer noted that the police encouraged this version of events, only to have it fall apart in the days that followed:
“According to [leaked] documents, Mr Menezes was wearing a light denim shirt or jacket, walked through the barriers having picked up a free newspaper, and only ran when he saw his train arriving.”
Fiona Gabbert, a forensic psychologist at Aberdeen University quoted by Rohrer, emphasized the influence that group thinking plays in these situations:
“If there are two people witnessing a crime it is very likely that you are going to ask the person next to you or say ‘I can’t believe what just happened.’”
The media also plays an important role in spreading errors during the rush to report on rapidly developing events. On Dec. 14, 2012, Adam Lanza fatally shot and killed 20 children and six adult staff members at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, before killing himself when police arrived at the scene. Initial media reports contained numerous inaccuracies, including temporarily blaming the massacre on Ryan Lanza, Adam’s brother, and claiming that Lanza’s mother, Nancy, had been been shot at the school rather than dying at home.
Five days after the shooting, NPR’s media correspondent David Folkenflik blamed the rapid sharing of questionable information that can occur in the news when few reliable sources are available to reporters:
“I think there was an incredible echo chamber here, as tends to happen when there are very few genuinely authoritative sources, where, you know, reporters, particularly those based in places like Washington and New York, where their expertise are with federal law enforcement agencies, are saying, what do you got? What have you heard?
… And people got what they felt was confirmation of other media reports and they went with it. It is an understandable impulse, in the minutes and hours after a terrible event, to try to say definitively what’s happened. But as often as not, a lot of the key details get to be wrongly presented on the air and in print.”
Watch “Why eyewitnesses get it wrong – Scott Fraser” from TED-Ed: