During most legal proceedings, including mediation, the issue of a person’s intent is often at issue. The party will claim now at mediation that he or she did or did not intend to do something based on a specific action. Take for example, a case of wrongful termination. The entire case is about whether the employer intended to discriminate in terminating an employee. There has been much research as to the memory of a an eyewitness as to an event, but up until now there has been no research as to a person’s recollection of his or her intention in the past.
Researchers Suzanne Kaasa and Elizabeth Loftus have recently addressed this critical issue of intent memory. In their research, Kassa and Loftus investigated nearly six hundred people reasons for why they had purchased, downloaded or copied – not necessarily legally either – a music album within the last few weeks. Those same people were then asked their reasons six months to a year later. Another subset of close to a 100 people were asked yet again, another six months to a year after the second questioning.
Interestingly, only one in five participants gave a consistent reason or reasons at both time points – weeks later and six months to a year later. The most common change in reasons was that the people would simply invent new reasons at the later time point. Sometimes the subjects also forgot the actual earlier reasons and came up with completely new reasons.
As to the final group interviewed approximately two years later, the subjects – despite having minor changes – were more consistent with the reasons stated in the second interview.
This research is very interesting and suggests that people are perhaps justifying their actions retroactively rather than actually looking at the true intentions at the time of the event. Indeed, mediation often takes place one to two years or more after an incident. The research also reaffirms that getting an accurate description of events and reasons at or near the time of the incident is critical in attempting to understand the true reasons for someone’s actions.
Kaasa, S., Morris, E., and Loftus, E. (2011). Remembering why: Can people consistently recall reasons for their behaviour? Applied Cognitive Psychology, 25 (1), 35-42 DOI: 10.1002/acp.1639