Let me begin by saying that I love, love, love Pixar movies. Like many adults, I began watching them as part of my parental duties. There was a time when I could recite all the dialogue from Monsters Inc. and the first two Toy Story films.
It was thus with great anticipation that I tuned in to a radio interview of Pete Docter, the director of the latest Pixar release, Inside Out. What a fabulous idea: animating the emotions inside the mind of an 11-year-old child named Riley who is undergoing a major life transition. Docter explained that he researched many aspects of psychology to make the film accurate. When it came to human memory, however, Docter departed from science for the sake of the story line.
As shown in a trailer for Inside Out, Riley’s memories are portrayed as mini-animations safely preserved inside little globes, which can be pulled out and replayed exactly the way they happened. The character Joy explains that certain of these globes contain “core memories” that form the basis of Riley’s personality. This representation of memory is essential to the plot but is not true, as Docter candidly admitted.
I couldn’t help but cringe. Given the wide appeal of Pixar movies, a new generation may grow up internalizing the profoundly false notion that memory works like a video recording and that perfect memories of events can be recalled at will. In reality, memory is fallible, malleable, and subject to suggestion and distortion. Docter noted that learning this was a revelation to him, even though he chose not to depict memory that way in Inside Out.
One may ask, “Who cares? It’s just a movie.” In the world of criminal justice, it matters a great deal. One of the most critical moments in a criminal trial is when a victim or witness points at the defendant and declares, “I will never forget that face.” The witness usually professes complete certainty, and the prosecutor highlights this as proof of the defendant’s guilt — even though experts tell us courtroom certainty does not necessarily correlate to accuracy.
In fact, mistaken identification is a leading cause of conviction of the innocent. Myriad factors that are not necessarily obvious to the average person can affect the reliability of an eyewitness identification, such as distractions at the time of the event, lapse of time, post-event discussions with police, and limitations inherent in cross-racial identifications. Expert witnesses can help explain these factors, but most judges exclude expert testimony on the ground that eyewitness identifications are a matter of “common sense” and expert assistance is not necessary. (The Illinois Supreme Court is now reviewing a case that challenges this approach.)
Which brings us back to Inside Out. Absent the input of an expert, jurors are left to draw on personal experiences in evaluating testimony. Today’s children (and their parents) may become tomorrow’s jurors who believe, incorrectly, that memories are stored intact, and that witnesses can simply compare the pictures within their little memory globes to the person sitting at the defendant’s table. Docter explained that this comports with most people’s sense of how memory works—which is why relying on “common sense” in criminal trials falls short.
We can never entirely eliminate human error from the justice system, but overconfidence in witnesses and misunderstanding by factfinders leads to many wrongful convictions. Let’s enjoy Pixar’s new film, but when we return from the movie theater, let’s ensure that those charged with deciding guilt or innocence in the courtroom are armed with scientific information about eyewitness identifications rather than with the snow globe concept of memory.
Karen L. Daniel is the director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law.