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Using Memory Context

by Stan B. Walters, CSP
“The Lie Guy®”

I was doing shopping recently at a department store in my town. I encountered a familiar face in the store. Being polite I smiled said “Hello” and “How’s it going?” I received a polite response but a rather puzzled look from the person. My wife asked how I knew this person to which I replied that I knew them but couldn’t remember why. After about three hours of searching my brain I remembered. I was responsible for helping to convict them almost 25 years ago for fraud and two counts of perjury. My problem was I couldn’t remember the person outside the context or the frame of reference in which I had encountered the person.

We all tend to remember people, things or events in terms of the context in which we were exposed to the stimulus which we have stored in our memory. When you find yourself interviewing your subject who appears to be genuinely having trouble remembering, try using that person’s frame of reference in which they may have exposed to the details.

Some examples would include having a waitress try to recall a customer’s order, a big tipper, noisy patrons or busing a very dirty table. A mechanic might remember body damage, engine repair, or a unique paint job. A patrol office remembers certain traffic stops based on location, violation, time of day, unusual passenger. Teachers will remember kids based on the class they were teaching, a student who excelled in a particular area or even by their parents or a sibling they had as student. Some people remember better when you mention smells, sounds, or specific colors.

All of us can have our memories jogged when we try to remember the emotional state in which we found ourselves before, during or after the encounter. Just listen to your friends telling about funny, exciting, thrilling or even traumatic experiences and you’ll hear frame of reference at work.

Human memory is quite complex in it’s function but once we understand the basics of how memories are acquired, stored and retrieve we can greatly improve the content quality of information we can gain from our exploratory, narrative interviews.

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