“I Don’t Remember”

I forgot my keys somewhere. I know I had them just a few minutes ago, and I’m sure they were right here in my pocket. I locked the door and then—I’m sure they were in my pocket. It wouldn’t be so bad, but the spare key was on the ring because I meant to buy another key ring, but I guess I forgot. Or it might have been…

The mail was in my hand because my wife told me to get it to the mailbox because bills were due. I just looked at my hand, and the mail isn’t there. I’m pretty sure I mailed them because I always listen to my wife, and she told me to mail them. I don’t remember mailing them, but I must have done it because I can’t remember doing anything else with them. I guess I’ll know if I mailed them in a month when the bills come in. I really hope I mailed them. Or it might have been…

This morning in the shower I was thinking about the day and all I had to do. Then I wondered if I had shampooed my hair yet. I always shampoo my hair after I wash and before I shave. The soap is wet, so I must have washed—unless it is just wet from the shower spray. But I haven’t shaved yet. The bottle says shampoo twice, so it really doesn’t matter if I shampoo…again?

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“I don’t remember” happens to us all. And as we grow older, it becomes much scarier because we wonder if this is the beginning of Alzheimer’s or just one of those things that gets misplaced in our memories. I prefer to think of it as saving space for the more important things in life. You know—letting the details spill out of the glass while I keep the important stuff inside.

The Memory Hook

The “important stuff” in the examples provided here only become important once we can’t remember. Why couldn’t we remember? With apologies to the memory professors who study and do research on memory, we think that there is not a memory hook to retain the moment. Years ago, 1981 to be exact, there was a movie called The Four Seasons starring Alan Alda and Carol Burnett as one of three couples followed through the four seasons of the year. Alan Alda provides the memory hook for the couples while they are floating on a lake in the springtime drinking wine and eating bread. He stands in the boat after talking about how he wants everyone to remember this day. Alda says, “I do this for you, so you will remember,” and then leaps into the water. The other husbands join him with shrieks of laughter. The memory hook has been set.

Alda has given new importance to the day with a craz,y spontaneous leap into the water. We can all look back into our lives and recall a moment remembered because of emotions attached to the event. It might have been laughter, happiness, sadness, anger, or another emotion that links us to a memory. I can remember where I was and who I was with July 1, 1989. Why? A memory hook. Mike, George, and I were driving in Orlando, Florida, in the early morning hours when a drunk driver rammed our car and totaled it. Where I was the rest of the month is long lost, but not that day. Clearly, the fear of the crash and the emotions of survival help us remember things like that.

Convenient Amnesia

Now put yourself into the mind of the criminal and the emotions at play when deciding to commit a crime. There must be uncertainty relating to fear wondering if he will succeed or be discovered—the adrenaline rush as the body enters the fight-or-flight mode revving up the body’s defenses for what could happen. This fear of detection has to imprint the memory of the act making it impossible not to remember the event. That being said, there may be a muting of these feelings as repetitive successful acts of dishonesty diminish the fear of detection as the criminal behavior escalates. For example, if an employee uses fraudulent refunds to commit a fraud, they certainly remember that they used the documents to steal money from the organization. However, they may not have an independent recollection of the pattern of behavior occurring over a long period of time.

The suspect can accurately estimate the frequency of behavior, but the actual admission may be beyond the ability of a person to accurately recall. For example, a person certainly knows whether they ate at a particular fast food restaurant during the last twelve months. In fact, they probably can estimate how many times they’ve eaten there by reconstructing their typical eating behaviors. At the very least, they are capable of saying that they had been there.

In situations where a subject reverts to “I don’t remember,” it is generally a means of defending himself without having to admit to participation in a particular act. For example in a Senate hearing, if the person under oath denied committing the act, he will have committed perjury. However, if the “I don’t remember” response is used, it enables the subject to respond without committing perjury. If you have a moment, you might want to take a look at a couple of YouTube videos where individuals are responding to questions during a hearing: youtu.be/gIgbJSrIvWc and youtu.be/pNy2A4lDgHc.

In the first example, Senator Arlen Specter and others are questioning US Attorney General Alberto Gonzales about his participation in the decision to terminate US attorneys. This video shows how many times he resorted to “I don’t remember” or “I don’t recall” responses. His full testimony can be found by searching YouTube.

In the second example, the chief financial officer of Global Entertainment Holdings/Equities, Inc., is in a deposition being questioned about debts incurred by the company. Watching even a few minutes, it’s clear that this man is either lying or totally incapable of remembering anything about his job or life. I don’t think too many large publicly traded companies would select a person with this type of memory. While this video only gives us a limited view of the deposition, it is clear that the attorney in this case, who is doing the questioning, had not anticipated this type of response to each of his questions.

Countering “I Don’t Know”

One legitimate way to prepare for this type of response is to encourage the subject to talk about his job, its processes, and his responsibilities. Using what we would call a participatory interview allows the questioner to have the subject commit to a series of events before the questioning focuses on the target of the inquiry. This sets up a difficult situation for the subject where he has to defend his ability to remember in one area but then later have no recollection of almost anything in another.

In an interview with a dishonest employee, switching to a participatory questioning style moves the subject from areas of general inquiry toward the target area. Because the subject has been detailed in his responses, it is difficult for him to turn to the “I don’t remember” response. Since he has been responsive up to this point, it would be awkward to so abruptly shift gears. In this type of pathway, it is much more likely that the subject will use the failure-to-recall response when asked to develop the admission. He will initially offer some examples substantiating his dishonesty but then be somewhat reluctant to expand on the admission. When faced with this type of a response, the interviewer should return to the use of showing understanding and empathy to support the subject’s self-image.

Another possible use of “I don’t remember” is in response to assumptive questions. For example, “What’s the most amount of money that you ever took at any one time from the register?” “I don’t remember.” The interviewer should recognize that this is actually an admission of guilt. The subject at this point does not want to commit himself to a direct lie, so he couches his statement with a lack of memory. Here the interviewer returns to showing understanding and empathy to support the subject’s self-image. This might include a rationalization revolving around a person who has done so much that they truly can’t remember each time or the person who wishes to forget what they’ve done.

We all forget small details. We forget those things that aren’t tied to the emotions or are particularly important in our day-to-day lives. When questioning a subject, look to determine how the events unfolded and examine the emotions that may have been in play when the situation happened. But above all, evaluate the “I don’t remember” in the context of what is being asked. “Did you steal the missing deposit from the safe?” “I don’t remember.”

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