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Reducing Errors: Jogging Informants' Memories

Loftus and Marburger (1983) found that landmarks help reduce forward telescoping— where people report that something happened 1 month ago when it really happened 2 months ago (backward telescoping is rare). The title of their article says it all: ‘‘Since the Eruption of Mt. St. Helens, Has Anyone Beaten You Up? Improving the Accuracy of Retrospective Reports with Landmark Events.’’ Means et al. (1989) asked people to recall landmark events in their lives going back 18 months from the time of the interview.

Once the list of personal landmark events was established, people were better able to recall hospitalizations and other health-related events. In the field, as you do life history interviews, try to establish personal milestones for each informant—like their first hunting kill or their clitoridectomy or, for older informants, burying their parents or becoming grandparents—and ask them to report on what has happened since each landmark.

Aided recall increases the number of events recalled, but also appears to increase the telescoping effect (Bradburn 1983:309). In studies where you interview people more than once, you can correct for telescoping by reminding them what they said last time in answer to a question and then asking them about their behavior since their last report.

Event history and life history calendars are effective aids to recall and are particularly useful in societies where there are no written records. Leslie et al. (1999:375-78), for example, developed an event calendar for the Ngisonyoka section of the South Turkana pastoralists in northwestern Kenya. The Turkana name their seasons rather than their years. Based on many interviews between 1983 and 1984, Leslie et al. were able to build up a list of 143 major events associated with seasons between 1905 and 1992. Events include things like ‘‘no hump’’ in 1961 (it was so dry that the camels’ humps shrank), ‘‘bulls’’ in 1942 (when their bulls were taken to pay a poll tax), and ‘‘rescue’’ in 1978 (when rains came). This painstaking work has made it possible for many researchers to gather demographic and other life history data from the Ngisonyoka Turkana. William Axinn and colleagues (1999:252) also used multiple event cues in Nepal and, like Leslie et al., report that this was particularly helpful for older informants (Further Reading: event- and life-history calendars).

If you are working in an industrialized environment with literate informant, you can ask people to review their credit card statements and long-distance phone bills and to remember events, places, and people associated with each credit or phone event. College transcripts help people think about what they were doing and the people they met along the way. Still . . . Horn (1960) asked people to report their bank balance. Of those who did not consult their bankbooks, just 31% reported correctly. Those who consulted their records didn’t do that much better. Only 47% reported correctly (reported in Bradburn 1983:309).

It’s different, of course, in nonindustrialized societies. When Elliot Fratkin (2004:19) asked Ariaal warriors in northern Kenya how many cattle they owned, the answer was always ‘‘many.’’ Veterinary studies showed that the herds of the Samburu (a group closely related to the Ariaal) were two-thirds female and that 50% of those cattle were lactating at any time. A household with 6 nursing calves, Fratkin calculated, would have, on average, 12 cows and 4 female calves, plus 8 male cattle.

Informant accuracy remains a major problem. Gary Wells and colleagues (2003) showed a video of a staged crime to 253 students. Then they showed the students a photo lineup of six people and asked the students to pick out the culprit. Every single student picked one of the six photos, but there was a small problem: The culprit wasn’t in the six photos. We need a lot more research about the rules of inference that people use when they respond to questions about where they’ve been, who they were with, and what they were doing (Further Reading: informant accuracy).

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