Dr Ford, alcohol, and remembering sexual assault: What do we know?

Heather D. Flowe (University of Brimingham) with a view on the research evidence.

09 October 2018

Perhaps more so than other victims*, the half million adults in the UK and the 1.27 million persons in the US who are raped every year will have to defend their recollection of the assault if they are to find justice.

This reality played out for one victim on an international stage in recent weeks. Dr Christine Blasey Ford testified before the US Senate that Judge Brett Kavanaugh, President Trump’s nominee for U.S. Supreme Court Justice, pinned her to a bed and tried to rape her at a party in 1982 when they were teenagers. Kavanaugh vehemently denied that he tried to rape Ford, and an FBI investigation into the allegations ensued. Trump subsequently told reporters that he was ‘100 percent’ certain that Kavanaugh did not rape Ford. After reading the FBI report, Republican Senator Susan Collins echoed Trump’s sentiments. “I do not believe that Brett Kavanaugh was her assailant,” Collins told CNN. “I do believe that she was assaulted. I don’t know by whom. I’m not certain when.” Shortly thereafter, the Senate confirmed Kavanaugh to the highest court in the land.

Are rape victims, like Dr Ford, likely to mistakenly identify their assailant? One might argue that Ford was prone to mistakenly identify Kavanaugh. Rape is a traumatic event, and perhaps this renders victims unable to remember the attack. Further, Ford had consumed alcohol prior to the assault. Rape victims are frequently under the influence of alcohol during the crime, which almost always leads to questions about their memory accuracy. All things considered, however, extant research suggests that Ford is unlikely to have mistakenly identified Kavanaugh.

It is well known that alcohol reduces the ability to consolidate information into long term memory. The extent to which alcohol impairs memory depends on a host of factors, such as dose and the person’s physiology. When alcohol is consumed at a high dose or rapidly, an alcohol black out is possible. Blackouts may be partial, where there is some memory loss regarding the events that occurred, or an en block blackout, where there is a total loss of memory. Therefore, alcohol’s primary effect is to reduce the strength of memory.

Until recently, the vast majority of research investigating alcohol’s effects on memory tested people’s ability to remember lists of words that they studied while they were alcohol-intoxicated as opposed to sober. This research shows that alcohol has dose dependent effects on memory, with accuracy decreasing in relation to dose. More recent research has tested people in more externally valid situations that are more representative of the types of circumstances faced by crime victims and witnesses. This research finds that alcohol intoxication reduces the amount of information that people recall about the crime. However, people who were alcohol intoxicated compared to sober during the crime are no more likely to recall erroneously details about the event.

We have replicated these findings in our own research on rape. Participants in our studies were randomly assigned to consume alcohol or tonic water, and then engage in an interactive hypothetical rape scenario. We then questioned them about the events that took place during the rape up to four months later. We found that people who were alcohol-intoxicated compared to sober during the rape were more likely to reply to questions with ‘I don’t know.’ However, when they did provide answers, participants who were intoxicated during the rape were just as accurate in the answers that they gave.

Interestingly, Trump believes that the whole of Ford’s testimony is undermined by the fact that she answered ‘I don’t know’ to questions that the senators asked her when she testified. Trump mocked her at a rally for not being able to remember details such as the neighbourhood she was in or whether the room in which the alleged assault took place was upstairs or downstairs. However, it is entirely natural that a person will not remember everything about an event. What is more, as we and other experimental psychologists have found, sober and drunk people alike are significantly more likely to remember crime details that are central rather than more peripheral. Therefore, it is not surprising that a person may not remember where the house was were the party took place, but remember in vivid detail an assailant who held them down and tried to rape them.

There is some evidence that alcohol may increase a person's ability to remember central and salient details. According to the alcohol myopia theoretical framework, alcohol intoxication narrows a person's attention to details that are central. Further, in the case of rape, the cue utilisation hypothesis would predict that a rape victim’s attention would narrow to the source of the threat, which in rape would be the assailant. In turn, the victim may be more likely to rehearse, or remember again and again, details about the assailant more so than other details, thereby further strengthening memories of the assailant.  

Moreover, there is no research showing that people who are alcohol-intoxicated during rape are more likely to confabulate information or lie to the police. Research has found that people who experience events while intoxicated are not more susceptible to be misled about what they saw. Research on this topic, called the misinformation effect, entails presenting participants with a scenario and then later trying to mislead them about what they witnessed. Further, research has found that it is more difficult to mislead people while they are alcohol-intoxicated. People seem to try to compensate for alcohol’s anticipated negative effects on memory, which in turn seems to make them less suggestible than sober people in some cases.

Finally, Ford testified that she was 100% confident that Kavanaugh was the assailant. Research indicates that confidence is predictive of accuracy. In instances where memory has been weakened, by, say, alcohol, trauma, or forgetting due to the passage of time, the number of highly confident identifications that we might expect to occur will decrease. However, research has found that factors that decrease memory strength do not decrease the reliability of a positive identification made with high confidence. In our own work, we tested participants' ability to identify the rape perpetrator from a lineup. We found that identification accuracy did not differ for intoxicated compared to sober participants. Further, we found that the confidence-accuracy relationship did not differ depending on alcohol intoxication during the rape. Participants who expressed high confidence in the likely accuracy of their identification were more likely to have accurately identified the assailant than those who expressed lower confidence. 

Nevertheless, victim alcohol intoxication during rape, which is overwhelmingly likely to be voluntary on the part of a victim, is likely to lead others to scrutinise the credibility of the victim. Research has found that victims are less likely to report rape if they were under the influence of alcohol during the rape. Even in our research, wherein it was clear to participants that we had randomly assigned them to consume alcohol, participants were more likely to blame themselves for the hypothetical rape if they believed that they were under the influence of alcohol during the scenario. Further, those who blamed themselves for the rape were less likely to say that they would report the rape to the police.

Rape victims are uniquely expected to show the robustness of their account, even when feeling their most vulnerable, no matter how painful it is for them to remember the rape. Victim experiences in the legal system are often likened to ‘the second rape’. These experiences cause victim to disengage from the legal process and discourage other victims from reporting. Victims frequently report that they felt like the police did not believe them and that going through the legal process was stressful, even traumatic and damaging to their mental health.

Even when victims do not find justice, we have learned in carrying out research with first responders and others who help to rebuild the lives of victims in the aftermath of rape, that one of the most important things we can do is to listen to and believe victims. Research in our lab is ongoing to understand how we can best support victims and the police when victims provide statements and testimony for investigations.

*For brevity and consistency with the research literature, the term 'victim' has been used, though it is acknowledged that survivor may be more appropriate depending on the situation.

Dr Heather D. Flowe is a Senior Lecturer in Forensic Psychology at the University of Birmingham. Find her on Twitter.You can also watch her talking about these issues at the ESRC Festival of Social Sciences. 

Further reading
Evans, J. R., Schreiber Compo, N., & Russano, M. B. (2009). Intoxicated witnesses and suspects: Procedures and prevalence according to law enforcement. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, 15, 194-221. doi:10.1037/a0016837
Flowe, H. D., Takarangi, M. K. T., Humphries, J. E., & Wright, D. S. (2016). Alcohol and remembering a hypothetical sexual assault: Can people who were under the influence of alcohol during the event provide accurate testimony? Memory, 24, 1042-1061. doi: 10.1080/09658211.2015.1064536
Flowe, H. D., Colloff, M. F., Zelek, K., Humphries, J. E., & Takarangi, M. K. T. (2017). The effects of alcohol intoxication on accuracy and the confidence-accuracy relationship in photographic simultaneous lineups. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 31,379-391. doi: 10.1002/acp.3332
Flowe, H. D., & Maltby (2018). An experimental examination of alcohol consumption, alcohol expectancy, and self-blame on willingness to report a hypothetical rape. Aggressive Behavior. doi: 10.1002/ab.21745
Hagsand, A., Roos af Hjelmsater, E., Granhag, P. A., Fahlke, C. & Söderpalm Gordh, A. (2016). Witnesses stumbling down memory lane: The effects of alcohol intoxication, recall format, recall time, and repeated interviewing. Memory, 25, 531-543. doi: 10.1080/09658211.2016.1191652.
Palmer, F. T., Flowe, H. D., Melanie K. T. Takarangi, & Humphries, J. E. (2013). Intoxicated witnesses and suspects: An archival analysis of their involvement in criminal case processing. Law and Human Behavior, 37, 54-59. doi:10.1037/lhb0000010
Schreiber Compo, N., Evans, J. R., Carol, R. N., Villalba, D., Ham, L. S., Garcia, T., & Rose, S. (2012). Intoxicated eyewitnesses: Better than their reputation?. Law and Human Behavior, 36, 77. doi: 10.1007/s10979-011-9273-5.