Friday, March 29

The Limits of Memory and Suggestive Memory

The limits of memory and suggestive memory are factors that should not be overlooked in the Sandusky case. 

Ray Blehar

After the Ziegler release of the interview of "Victim 2," I got a phone call regarding the statement he made that "incriminated" Curley and Schultz because "V2" said Sandusky told him he'd be getting a call from Tim Curley because McQuery saw them engaged in a sex act. 

In an earlier blog post, I quoted Jim Clemente, who said:  "after ten years or twelve years or thirteen years, you can't remember specific words that you used in a conversation.  And it's irresponsible for somebody to quote somebody ten years or twelve years after the event and say those are the specific words they used in a specific conversation.  That is absolutely not done it's - it's not proper in a criminal investigation at all."

I reminded the caller of Clemente's statement and added that any "quotes" from 2001 can't be considered as an accurate account of what was said based on two things: the ability of memory and suggestive memory. 

Long Term Memory

First, what is retrieved from long term memory is typically part of a schema that your mind has established for retrieving information. For example, I can recall things that I learned from many years ago because my mind has built a system for retrieving it that relies on relationships between the information. New information is added to the schema.  I don't memorize it, rather, I understand how one piece of information relates to the next and my brain has established a schema.  The depth of processing builds the network for recalling it as needed.  

Certainly, there are things retrieved from memory as a matter of rote or repetition.  I like to use the Bill Clinton quote, "I did not have sex with that woman, Miss Lewinsky,' as an example.  This was a quote played over and over again in the news cycle, thus I remember it quite well.  It is doubtful that anything said in 2001 was repeated over and over again by any of the parties involved during that timeframe, thus was not committed to memory by rote.

In listening to Ziegler's interview of Sandusky. it appeared as if he could recall the events of that night in the shower with amazing clarity. He may have been able to do this because he was not recalling that particular incident, but the repeated pattern of horseplay he had with all the victims. Victim 4 reported very similar activities. Ziegler's "V2" and Sandusky worked out and showered on several occasions. It is likely the same activities occurred each time, thus March 1, 2002 or the correct date of Feb 9, 2001 are essentially the same occurrence as retrieved from the schema of memory.  

Ziegler's "Victim 2" recalled what happened that night as well, but it was essentially the schema he had built regarding the multiple times that he had horsed around in the shower with Sandusky.  Obviously, not exactly the same events transpired each time, but the mind had formed a lasting impression of the shower activity that was recalled from long term memory.

However, I highly doubt that he had built a schema for remembering the exact words of a phone call from 12 years ago.   The interjection of new information very likely made its way into the recollection of what was said in that phone call.  That was likely a result of suggestive memory.

Suggestive Memory
On November 9, 2011 (the date of the interview), the person claiming to be Victim 2, just like the rest of us were subject to an unrelenting news cycle that repeated the WRONG DATE of the incident (which he repeated) and that McQueary witnessed a sex act/rape in the shower. This information was interjected into his memory of events, so that when he recalled the phone call from Sandusky he added the information that he had been hearing over the days leading up to his interview.(i.e., McQueary was the reporter - unknown to Sandusky until November 2011- and that McQueary believed he witnessed a sex act) 

This article from LiveScience explains it quite well.

Some of this failure of reliability happens at the scene of the crime, said Maria Zaragoza, a psychologist at Kent State University in Ohio. Things happen quickly; the emotional charge of witnessing a crime may keep people from cuing into important details. If there's a weapon, Zaragoza said, people tend to become hyper-focused on it. They pay more attention to a gun than to the face of the person holding it.

Often, "the information getting into the memory system is very limited," Zaragoza told LiveScience.

The next source of memory uncertainty happens during the investigation. Suggestive questioning can distort memories, Zaragoza said. Each time you relive the crime, either out loud to an investigator or in your own head, that distorted memory is strengthened.

In one famous case, 22-year-old college student Jennifer Thompson was raped at knife point by an intruder in her bedroom. Through her terror, Thompson tried to categorize the details of her assailant's face. She went to the police and worked with an artist to draw a composite sketch. In photo, in a lineup and in court, she identified her rapist as Ronald Cotton.

"I was completely confident," Thompson (now Jennifer Thompson-Cannino) wrote in a 2000 editorial in the New York Times. "I was sure."

But 11 years later, new DNA techniques disproved Cotton's guilt. He'd spent more than a decade in prison for a crime committed by another man, Bobby Poole.

It's likely that working on the police sketch altered Thompson's memory of her rapist's face, Zaragoza said. Later, when she'd picked him out of a lineup, her confidence only grew. Cotton's face started haunting her flashbacks. When she met her real rapist in court, she didn't even recognize him.

What happened to Cotton and Thompson, chronicled in the book "Picking Cotton: Our Memoir of Injustice and Redemption" (St. Martin's Press, 2009), wasn't a weakness of Thompson's, Zaragoza said. Anyone's memory can become twisted with time.

Mike McQueary

So, as Mike McQueary glanced into the shower, was his focus on the victim, who was behind Sandusky or was it on Sandusky (the threat)?

And did the questioning by investigators have an effect on McQueary's memory?  Ziegler's "Victim 2" was a 14 year old boy in 2001, yet McQueary identified the boy as being 10 or 11.  Did the investigators suggest that Sandusky had a habit of showering with young boys that influenced McQueary to state the boy was of a younger age than he actually observed?

These are legitimate questions that aren't posed to make the case that Sandusky is innocent.  As a matter of law, every time Sandusky showered with a minor, he was committing two felonies and one misdemeanor.  However, the science suggests that McQueary's memory of the 2001 incident may have distorted the incident over time or that his recollection of the event was influenced by information provided to him by police during the investigation.   This does not mean McQueary is lying because he may indeed believe that his recollection of events is truly what he saw.  

But I would be willing to be any amount of money that Mike McQueary's recollection of offensive formations and offensive football plays is far superior to his recollection of the events of  February 2001 because his brain has established the schema for performing the recall of that information.


The limits of memory regarding an isolated incident preclude one from remembering exact words or exact details of the event.  It is likely that no one involved in the 2001 incident remembers exactly what was said.  Tim Curley, as athletic director, had many other things on this plate that demanded his attention, particularly the expansion of Beaver Stadium in 2001,  that would taken precedence.  Similarly, Gary Schultz, Joe Paterno, and Graham Spanier, would not have focused on this event, given the multitude of issues they faced on a daily basis.



  2. Thank you, Ray! Perhaps because of the unreliability of memory of details long past, we could attempt to shift focus from punitive $$ claims to constructive efforts to stop child sexual victimization going forward. E.g., the link below describes a huge opportunity...last week's two-day conference of 50+ national organizations to develop specific actions aimed at just this. And they credit "the aftermath of the Sandusky scandal" (which I think is you guys' and the Paterno family's
    efforts to make sense of all this) with providing their impetus. Plow on!

  3. Just read any article by Elizabeth Loftus, an expert on false memory, and you will find out how fickle our memories are.

    1. Dear JLish, THANK YOU for the link above.

      A few thoughts:
      1. We must know a LOT more today about the brain's ability to develop false memories than even when this article was published (1997)! What an opportunity to make a difference.

      2. A key to distinguishing truth from false memories lies in corroboration. Without reliable corroboration, some truths of years ago may simply not be knowable.

      3. Perhaps the most effective way to stop child sexual victimization, then, is to teach everyone everywhere the signs of such. A comprehensive, multi-media, global effort to disseminate the teachings such as those in the Clemente report and the research of Dr Loftus et al. could REALLY make a difference. Such an effort led by the Paternos and PSU alumni would be magnificent on many counts.

      4. The concept of resistance seems to counter the concept of susceptibility to memory implanting. I would love some professionals' thoughts on this SPECIFICALLY regarding Jerry Sandusky and his continued insistence that he never "did those things" to the boys. He has certainly been exposed to horrific details, repeatedly perhaps. Yet he claims it didn't happen. I.e. JS has apparently been resistant to memory implanting.


  4. From Dr. Jonathan Dranov's trial testimony: "And then he (McQueary) said he looked toward the locker or shower and a young boy looked around. He (McQueary) made eye contact with the boy. I asked him - to the best of my (Dranov) recollection, I (Dranov) asked him (McQueary) if the boy seemed upset or frightened. He said no. An arm reached out and pulled the boy back.

    Yes, Dranov is recalling a conversation from 11 years ago, so his memory could also be hazy. But asking if the boy seemed upset or frightened and McQueary saying no is a specific point remembered and Dranov did not have multiple conversations with McQueary about this or similar topics to cloud his memory. If Sandusky was molesting, let alone raping this boy, the boy would have shown some type of distress on his face that McQueary would have conveyed.

    I think the account provided by Dranov of what McQueary told him on the night the incident actually occurred is probably the most accurate one available, especially given that it was from an independent 3rd party.

    1. It's possible that the boy (maybe 14-yrs-old as per Ziegler) was compliant and not visibly stressed. It's also possible that Dr Dranov is covering for his lack of reporting back then. It's significant I believe that the trial jury did not convict Sandusky on this specific claim by McQueary.

      The PSU BoT really mucked up this case by proceeding to offer $$ as quickly as possible to victims and their lawyers. We need to find some young men of The Second Mile who want to protect kids rather than having lawyers focused on financial rewards. Some of these victimized boys could really make a difference now...they could become heroes, as has Aaron Fisher.