|New Student Convocation Remarks|
|Monday, August 23, 2010|
Prepared Remarks by Peter A. Ornstein,
Chancellor Thorp, Provost Carney, Dean Gil, Distinguished Colleagues, and most importantly, new members of the Classes of 2012, 2013, and 2014:
I am delighted to add my welcome to the new members of the Carolina family and to congratulate you on the many accomplishments that have brought you to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. We – the members of the faculty and administration – certainly know how talented you are, and we have every expectation that you will do well in the unusually stimulating Carolina environment. We believe that you are poised to take advantage of the exceptional educational opportunities that await you at UNC.
This afternoon, I wish to speak about some of these opportunities, focusing on the benefits of studying the liberal arts and sciences at a research university that is celebrated for both its teaching and its research – not to mention its athletics! As you are about to discover this semester, there are many advantages for students who do their undergraduate work at a major research university, one in which the faculty have serious responsibilities for contributing to the growth of knowledge through their research, scholarship, and involvement in the creative arts. At Carolina, these responsibilities have a most positive effect on instruction, as members of the faculty take the new knowledge that they generate and weave it seamlessly into their teaching. And the resulting environment provides unusual opportunities for undergraduates to go beyond course work in the traditional sense by becoming involved with the world of ideas and even by becoming researchers themselves, working hand in hand with members of the faculty.
As students become engaged with ideas, they develop skills in critical reasoning and analysis; they learn how to ask good questions; they learn to “question authority” and to reject simplistic answers; and they learn how to evaluate evidence by ruling out alternative explanations. I hope that you will take the challenge and become fully engaged with ideas during your time at Carolina and that you will learn to evaluate evidence by testing alternative hypotheses. Let me tell you this: If you take advantage of the Carolina environment and hone these skills, you will certainly be more than one step ahead of the police and prosecutors in the very compelling case that is described in “Picking Cotton,” a book that most of you have read over the summer. As it turns out, at no point during the trials did anyone other than the defense attorneys actively evaluate alternative hypotheses. The police and the district attorneys believed that they had their man – Ronald Cotton – and they focused completely on the hypothesis that he was the guilty party. But they never tested their theory by seeking evidence that would be inconsistent with that point of view. And their failure to do so contributed to the wrongful convictions of Mr. Cotton.
Now let’s turn our attention now to “Picking Cotton.” Thisis certainly a book that can be examined at a number of levels. From one perspective, it is an exceptional narrative that leaves no holds barred in its depiction of a rape and its aftermath, but the book is also about our perceptions of the other, about prejudice, about guilt, and about the therapeutic, indeed freeing, effects of forgiveness and unexpected friendship. The book also raises many questions that go far beyond the specifics of the case – questions about the ways in which we view the world, about the reliability of memory, and about the procedures that are used to evaluate evidence in legal proceedings, to name just a few.
Consider first the basic facts of the case. In the summer of 1984, Jennifer Thompson was a 22-year-old senior at nearby Elon College. Tragically, her well-ordered life changed dramatically one night when she was raped at knifepoint in her apartment in Burlington. This was a brutal assault, one whose consequences were far reaching and long lasting, for her and her family, as well as for the individual accused and convicted of this crime, Ronald Cotton, and his family. Ms. Thompson was certain that she remembered the rapist – indeed, she made a deliberate attempt while being attacked to study his features, so that she could identify him later – but, as it turns out, she was wrong, tragically wrong. And her error – when combined with those of the police and the prosecutors – cost Mr. Cotton 11 years of his life until the use of DNA evidence led to his exoneration and release from jail. So how are we to understand the myriad of cognitive and social processes that led to a mistake as tragic as this one that altered the lives of both Ms. Thompson and Mr. Cotton? How could a victim could be so certain of the identity of her attacker, and yet be so wrong? Think about it! And then, take a course in psychology and learn how we explore these sorts of questions!
Indeed, we could easily assemble a series of interdisciplinary courses based on the issues raised in “Picking Cotton.” For starters, we could talk about social perception and prejudice. For example, consider the initial attitudes that Ms. Thompson and Mr. Cotton had about each other, and how their views changed dramatically over time. And think about how Mr. Cotton, as a black man, was obviously pre-judged by the police because of his involvement with white women. We could also consider how the nature of the criminal justice system, the biology of DNA, and the technology of DNA-based identification all affected the outcome. It’s possible to develop courses on each of these themes, but I would like to focus on two others – memory and suggestibility – that are at the heart of this case and at the heart of my own research.
Contrary to the impressions of many – including police officials and prosecutors in the 1980s – human memory does not function like a video recorder that gives us an exact copy of everything that we experience. Rather, research indicates that we remember bits and pieces of our experiences, and that we fill in the gaps quite unconsciously on the basis of our prior knowledge and the assumptions that we make (including, our stereotypes and prejudices). We’re also influenced by the conversations of others and the media, often without our awareness, and thus our memories can change over time as a function of intervening experiences.
If this description of memory makes you think that we are highly suggestive, then you would be right! We’ve known since the time of the Salem Witch Trials that children’s memories are influenced by external suggestions and should often be taken with a grain of salt. But adults are suggestive, too. Research indicates that our memory system is often modified on the basis of what we see and hear after an event has been experienced.
Back to the book: let’s consider Ms. Thompson’s memory for her attacker. Memory for any experience is affected by where we focus our attention. For example, most eyewitnesses to an armed robbery can provide only limited information about the identity of the perpetrator because they focus all of their attention on the gun, and not the face. Ms. Thompson made a deliberate effort – a heroic effort, I would say – to focus on the facial characteristics of the rapist in order to get as accurate a memory representation as possible. And, as it turned out, Ms. Thompson did seem to get it right initially, and her memory enabled a police artist to create a good composite drawing of the rapist.
However, things went badly when the police staged a line-up and Ms. Thompson selected the “next best” individual, Mr. Cotton. Just as our performance on a multiple choice examination can be affected by the nature of the incorrect or lure items that a teacher chooses to include, so too can a witness’s choice in a line-up be affected by the people included – or not included – in that line-up. Research indicates that line-ups yield more accurate conclusions (1) when they involve the successive rather than the simultaneous presentation of target individuals; (2) when the viewer is told that the suspect may or may not be present; and (3) when the person conducting the line-up does not know the identity of the suspect, or indeed if the suspect is present. For example, it’s easy for a police officer to convey information about identity of the suspect by his or her body language. In the line-up that Ms. Thompson viewed initially, the detective in charge knew the identity of the suspect and told her that she had done very well. Given this knowledge, and Ms. Thompson’s strongly felt need to “get it right,” she maintained her view that she had selected her attacker, her certainty increased, and eventually the image of Mr. Cotton replaced that of individual whom she had originally encoded.
The criminal justice system has improved since Mr. Cotton was first tried and convicted, thanks in great part to advocates for reform from within the police and legal communities. Importantly, the work of these advocates has been fueled by basic research in psychology that has led to improvements in the ways in which witnesses are questioned and line-ups are conducted, and advances in genetics that have enabled the development of DNA-based techniques for identification, thereby reducing reliance on eyewitness testimony. Almost all of this research has been conducted at universities such as Carolina, and this means that you will have access to professors who are infusing their courses with the latest developments in their fields and using this material to challenge you to think critically. Let me also say that you are most fortunate in being able to attend a research university in which the members of the faculty are committed strongly to the teaching of undergraduates. And if you truly become excited by ideas, many members of our faculty can provide opportunities for you to become engaged in the research process. Indeed, in every department and curriculum at UNC there are various ways in which undergraduates can work with faculty members on collaborative and independent research projects, and I urge you to take advantage of these opportunities and to seek out the Office of Undergraduate Research that can be a great asset in many aspects of the process. I always have undergraduates working in my laboratory, and these students have played a significant role in our work on children’s memory, suggestibility, and eyewitness testimony.
I’ll close with one other observation. I’ve emphasized the ways in which the members of our faculty can help you develop intellectually. True enough, but as a developmental psychologist, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that developmental change always reflects the operation of bidirectional influences. Just a parent influences a child in critical ways, so too does that child affect the parent, and the cycle of influence continues. The same holds within the domain of teaching, and in recognition of this obvious truth I often return to an inspiring text from “The Talmud,” a collection of commentaries on the Hebrew Bible:
“Much have I learned from my teachers; more have I learned from my colleagues; but most have I learned from my students.”
New students at Carolina, the members of the faculty are waiting to learn from you!
Thank you very much.