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Original Articles and Reviews

Is This Testimony Truthful, Fabricated, or Based on False Memory?

Credibility Assessment 25 Years After Steller and Köhnken (1989)

Published Online:https://doi.org/10.1027/1016-9040/a000200

In 1989, Steller and Köhnken presented a systematic compilation of content characteristics for distinguishing between truthful and fabricated testimonies (criteria-based content analysis – CBCA) designed to be applied within a more comprehensive overall diagnostic procedure known as statement validity assessment (SVA; Steller, 1989). The subsequent 25 years have seen a marked increase in knowledge about the distinction between experience-based and non-experience-based statements. This supports the SVA approach and permits a better explanation of the underlying processes. The rationale of CBCA is that a true statement differs in content quality from a fabricated account because (a) a truth teller can draw on an episodic autobiographical representation containing a multitude of details, whereas a liar has to relate to scripts containing only general details of an event; and (b) a liar is busier with strategic self-presentation than a truth teller. The present article proposes a modified model of content characteristics that pays greater attention than before to these underlying processes. SVA takes into account that content quality is influenced not only by the veracity of a statement but also by other (personal and contextual) variables that need to be considered in the individual credibility assessment. Theoretical analyses and empirical research do not indicate comparable qualitative differences between true statements and those based on false memories. Witnesses giving testimony based on false memories do not fabricate false statements actively, and they make no effort to conceal a deception; they are not deceiving but mistaken. In these cases, a noncritical application of content criteria can lead to false results. To examine the hypothesis that a statement is based on a false memory, it is necessary to focus on the way in which the statement has emerged and evolved.

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