The groundbreaking 1950 Japanese film “Rashomon” depicted a single event – the death of a Samurai – that resulted in four conflicting accounts of what happened by eyewitnesses. The differences among the witness accounts were never resolved and the audience was left wondering which account was correct or even if there was a correct account that was portrayed.
The “Rashomon Effect” refers to the situation when at least two witnesses provide differing accounts of the same event.
The Rashomon Effect typically occurs not because witnesses are lying, but rather because we each interpret events based on our own perceptions, individual past experiences, memories and worldviews. Additionally, emotion plays a strong role in how we perceive events and emotions are very personal – the same event may spark different emotions for different people which can effect their interpretation.
The Rashomon Effect creates problems for the police as well as lawyers who rely on eyewitness testimony.
Notable Rashomon Effect Examples
An interesting example is the recent confrontation caught on video between students from Covington Catholic High School and a Native American tribal elder on the National Mall. Upon viewing the video(s), people report varying realities. Some see a crowd of white teenagers disrespecting and taunting a minority while others see high-school students being defamed and non-violently reacting to a volatile situation. What we perceive happening in the video(s) may be affected by our views of President Trump given the “Make America Great Again” hats sported by many of the teens, our attitude towards Native Americans, our own experiences relating to the behavior of teen boys, etc. etc. etc.
Another example: In the wake of the July 2017 KKK rally in Charlottesville, VA that resulted in riot and arrests, the police were both complimented on their even-handed handling of the situation and criticized for their heavy-handed brutality. Read more here.
Final example: There were many discrepancies in eyewitness accounts related to the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson in 2014. PBS helpfully wrote story highlighting the differences of the witness accounts. Some claim that Michael Brown held his hands up, but some do not. Some say he was running away when he was shot, while others don’t. The amount of shots fired vary from at least three to more than ten. Here’s a chart from the story highlighting the differences:
First: don’t take an eyewitness account as gospel. Even if the witness is 100% sure of what they saw, realize that it is possible that their interpretation of events is inaccurate. Annie Duke in her book Thinking in Bets relates that “the Rashomon Effect reminds us that we can’t assume one version of a story is accurate or complete. We can’t count on someone else to provide the other side of the story, or any individual’s version to provide a full and objective accounting of all the relevant information.”
Second: If your version of an event you witnessed differs with someone else, realize that (a) the other person may not be lying – they may believe their version of the events as much as you and (b) your own recollection of the event in question may well be flawed.
I saw Mommy kissing Santa Clause under neither the Christmas Tree last Night! Real or not, depends on your perspective.
Right. Or was she being harassed by Santa