False memories: Why marijuana users may not be the best eye witnesses

| | May 19, 2020
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When Lilian Kloft stumbled across a 2015 study showing a connection between cannabis use and susceptibility to false memories, she found herself wondering about the legal implications of the results.

Kloft and collaborators recruited 64 volunteers for a series of experiments. Participants, who were occasional cannabis users, were given a vaporizer containing either cannabis or a hemp placebo and then told to inhale deeply and hold their breath for 10 seconds.

Kloft and colleagues designed two immersive virtual reality scenarios involving common crimes. In the first, the “eyewitness scenario,” participants observed a fight on a train platform, after which a virtual co-witness recounted the incident but with several errors, including falsely recalling a police dog that wasn’t part of the altercation. In the “perpetrator scenario,” participants entered a crowded bar and were instructed to commit a crime themselves—to steal a purse.

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When researchers interviewed the participants afterward using a combination of leading and non-leading questions, those who were intoxicated showed higher rates of false memory for both the eyewitness and perpetrator scenarios compared with controls. 

[Study coauthor Elizabeth Loftus] says that the team’s study should prompt people to think about best practices when it comes to intoxicated witnesses.

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