The NPR story, “How Psychology Solved a World War II Shipwreck,” told the story of the tremendous interest in Australia about the whereabouts of two ships that had been sailing the seas during the war, one from Germany and one from Australia. The German ship, the HSK Kormoran was a raider, and the Australian ship, the HMAS Sydney, was a warship. A battle ensued, and both ships were damaged in the conflict, resulting in their sinking to the bottom of the ocean. The occasion was a tragic one, resulting in the loss of hundreds of lives. The only possible way to find out the location of the ships rested in the hands of 300 German sailors who had abandoned the ship after the firing began. Although the Germans were captured, and they provided accounts of where they believed the final battle had occurred, their accounts were not viewed as accurate, because there were a range of locations provided by the men, all of which appeared to be extremely different from the other ones.
Since then, there have been a variety of theories followed by optimism than disappointment about where the ships could be located. Countless theories were developed about where the ships could be found, and because the Australians were completely unable to locate them, they assume that the information that had been provided by the Germans was completely bogus. When two cognitive psychologist became involved, however, things took a turn because they were focused on the changes in memory that occur over time, and believed that the information provided by the German sailors had changed over the years simply because of the amount of time that passed and the way that the passage of time impact recall. They did not believe that the Germans were inaccurate or untruthful, but rather that they were elements to their story that were legitimate but that had been altered as the years passed. They were able to take common elements of the accounts of the Germans, and using the information they had obtained they created an expedition that ultimately discovered both the German and the Australian shipwrecks.
My reaction to this story was that I was extremely intrigued by the way that the two cognitive psychologists were able to refocus attention on the original material given by the German sailors, and give credence to it after they controlled for the passage of time and the way that when things are passed on from person to person, they change subtly and gradually. In this way, they were ultimately able to find the ships. There was a great deal of expertise, likely, involved in all of the different people that had tried to solve the mystery of the wreck of the Sydney, but none of them had applied cognitive psychology concepts such as memory and the susceptibility of people to the impact of time on memory. Memory was used in the NPR story to solve a long-term mystery because the two psychologists did not dismiss the German reports of the whereabouts of the ships, but rather applied the concept of memory loss to glean from their accounts certain common details that ultimately led to the discovery of the ships.
There is genuine benefit to be gained in applying the lessons learned from this story to modern day social science issues, because the study of memory is extremely relevant to a whole variety of areas, such as witness testimony in criminal trials, reports from battle fronts that are provided by network reporters and broadcasters, and its use as an assessment tool when treating or diagnosing people with illnesses such as dementia, Alzheimer’s, and other diseases that affect the brain. Interestingly, there had been a series of events in the news lately about media and other prominent people recounting personal experiences relating to war environments which have been found to be untrue and either based on faulty memory or deliberate misrepresentation.