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Will your neighbours tell the truth if a stranger asks about you?

2005 July 29
by Paul Vallely

When all else fails, the hungry media turn for information about suicide bombers, and others at the centre of great news events, to the people who live next door. But, how reliable are their verdicts?


The man leaned on his garden gate and regarded me with interest. “You won’t be able to get through up there,” he said, pointing up the steep little road, lined either side with small red-bricked terraced houses. Halfway up a blue and white police tape stretched across the street. “It’s where one of those bombers lived.”

It was Leeds, in the Beeston area which had been the home ground of three of the men who blew themselves to pieces in the original 7/7 London bombs. But we could have been anywhere – Birmingham, Aylesbury, London, Dewsbury – any scene at which local residents gathered on the streets to share in the inchoate experience of having discovered that evil wears an everyday face and lives among us.

“He was an ordinary bloke,” said my new acquaintance, who told me he was ‘in the music industry’. He might have been a DJ, or perhaps even a club bouncer. He named the bomber. “They are a quiet family. Respectable. Don’t see that much of them. As for him, he kept himself to himself.”

Anodyne stuff. But material which a hungry journalist – with no facts to fill his notebook – will take down and use if nothing better surfaces. So often in recent times nothing better does.

But how reliable are the utterances of neighbours in their comments on a major happening like this? To find out I trawled a news database and came up with 70 examples of comments by neighbours and then subjected them to the scrutiny of a group of psychologists. The results were revealing.

The first thing is that the words pour out. People have the need to say something, even if that something does not make much sense.

“He just seemed so normal. I don’t think there is any suicide-bomber look, but nevertheless he just seemed a friendly guy. I probably only ever saw him around here twice in the years they’ve lived here.”

It is as if words themselves are therapy.

“We were shocked when we were told the bombers might have been living here. I recognised the man from the photograph, but I wasn’t sure until now whether it was him. It’s quite frightening to be told the bombers were living beneath you all that time.”

“People go out onto the streets to talk,” says Dr Jo Iddon, a clinical psychologist at Westminster and Chelsea hospital. “There is safety in shared experience, even in just being part of a crowd. There was almost a street party feel in some parts of London. People become quite close with one another.”

Yet the world of which they are trying to make sense is one which no longer makes the sense it did yesterday. Which is why so much of the reaction is confused and studded with non-sequiturs. These are firecrackers of responses, which go off in all kinds of directions at the same time.

“I live on Ravensdale Road, I did not even know what was happening. Your first thought is how close is the bomb. I’m frightened for my kids. I got my son out of the house at 7.15 in the morning and I’ve had to get my parents out who live with me. Another thing that goes through your mind is whether your house is insured. You start thinking where can I go and where can I live to be safe. It seems you’re best living in the country.”

Most striking in this first stage reaction is the extent to which so many comments drag in apparently unrelated details from the personal circumstance of the person speaking.

“I found out about the arrest this morning as I was taking my wife to work.”

What is being articulated is a desire to be involved, says Dr Chris Moulin, a cognitive psychologist from Leeds University who has made a particular study of now people dealt with the experience of September 11. “People want to locate themselves, to orientate themselves in society, to integrate themselves into this big event.”

For those not personally involved – the vast majority of us – that can take the form of remembering where we were when we heard an important piece of news. But for those peripherally involved – because it happened in their neighbourhood – it means establishing a relationship between their everyday normality and the momentousness of what they have just learned.

“I am gobsmacked. He was a nice lad. He was well spoken and didn’t have a beard. He wore sports tops, track suit bottoms and trainers like everybody else. His dad is a lovely bloke.”

“The two guys would come out to play football every Sunday. It was always around the same time from 4pm to 7pm. They ran about loads, especially the tubby one, who was a mad tackler. He always gave as good as he got on the pitch. They didn’t have sports clothes. They wore jeans and T-shirts but they did have football boots. They just seemed to be normal guys. They were friendly but didn’t talk much beyond that. We just knew them as regular guys. They weren’t that good at football though.”

Repeatedly the contrast is between the banality of those assertions of normalcy and the sheer improbability of what has emerged.

“His favourite record was Elvis Presley’s version of the Eddy Arnold classic, Make the World Go Away. I just can’t believe that young lad, with his whole life ahead of him, would carry a bomb on his back and get on a bus and blow himself up.”

“We automatically assume that other people are like us. They may have their foibles, but they are not evil,” says Dr Iddon. “A suicide bomber is way beyond the comprehension of most people.” Someone who is prepared to kill themselves, as well as us, taps into our deepest fears. “When people tell these stories they fill the gaps left by those fears.”

More than that, the very act of telling the stories confers status and value on the teller in a society that values gossip, says Professor Nigel Nicholson, an evolutionary psychologist at the London Business School. “Gossip is not an aberration, it is the lifeblood of our society. Rumour is improvised news – it rushes into a vacuum. The purveyor of gossip is a person of power, someone to be respected. The more dramatic the piece of information, the greater that kudos.” And people tell, and listen to, stories about a big threat because having knowledge of it – any knowledge – makes them feel safer. It restores the illusion of control.

By contrast those who are genuinely linked to the bomb engage in the opposite psychological process, and attempt to dissociate themselves. The closer they are, the greater the urge to do this, as the father of one bomb suspect showed.

“We are shocked but he was not a close family member. We are a peaceful family, having lived in this country since 1990. We were shocked when we saw Muktar’s picture on the national news. We immediately attended the local police station and made statements to the police.”

The same reaction, in a more dilute form, can be traced in those who had a genuine, if passing, association with the bomber.

“I cannot believe it. He used to come here occasionally – he was nice man, very softly spoken and would talk about sport. He was devout but didn’t give any sign of extremist views. We just can’t believe he was a suicide bomber.”

“It’s not in his nature to do something like this, he’s is the type of guy who would condemn things like that.”

“He’s the kind of person who gets along with anyone. His sense of humour is very good. He’s a sweet lad.”

What is present here, along with the expressions of disbelief, is message: Don’t blame me. I was as fooled by him, like everyone else was. “People are very reluctant to say: ‘He was my friend but I always thought there was something funny about him’,” says Prof Nicholson. “Better to have doubt cast upon your judgement than to be somehow to be blamed.”

“He came out of prison in 1997 and he had definitely changed. He had put on loads of weight, but he had also changed his attitude. He seemed to be much calmer. I noticed he was more into Islam when he came out. He got really into it in prison. At the time I thought the change in him was for the better.”

What is true of individuals is true of an entire city, suggests Dr Chris Moulin, who works out of Leeds, which was home to three of the 7/7 bombers. “We thought that Leeds was a multicultural place which dealt well with all the mix of ethnic, religious and social differences. It is as if people are expressing a collective guilt that these people are local.” We were all as fooled as you were.

But there is something else in all this. It is not just the need of those near the scene to express their sense of involvement. The rest of us display a peculiar willingness to listen to it. Why peculiar? “Because we are all very over-impressed by personal contact,” says Nigel Nicholson. “People have an instinctive fear of what may be life threatening. But they have a distorted sense of what is most dangerous. People exaggerate the dangers of flying, for example, and underestimate the dangers of crossing the road. People have rather muddled ideas about probability. The more spectacular the danger the more nervous people are. They equate prominence with frequency. Knowing someone who died in a plane crash will have a much bigger impact that actual plane crush statistics.”

So the testimony of those close to a big event is rated with particular importance by us. The bigger the event, and the closer to the vortex of power it seems, the more willing we are to listen to those who can claim a personal involvement. And we are not talking about eye-witnesses here, but simply those we accord a geographical or even emotional closeness. “With gossip,” says Prof Nicholson, “even if it’s just a friend of a friend told me, if it’s a big enough event, that places you close enough to it to be listened to.”

That is why we listen to people who appear to have little to say or who resort to clichés. When I was a young reporter, also in Leeds, whenever there was a fire the local paper would always quote some nearby resident as saying “it were like Dante’s Inferno” – though the acquaintance of the local population with early Renaissance Italian literature must have been slight. Similarly a neighbour who had been thrust into sudden prominence from a day to day life which was undistinguished would be said, as several bombers have been described, to be someone who ‘kept himself to himself’. “We live in a world of clichés,” says Nigel Nicholson. “Most people aren’t terribly articulate and such phrases gives their language a vivacity that would otherwise elude them. They may be clichés but they add something. We navigate by exaggeration and we all know how to decode them.” And to repeat them.

Most psychologists agree on this. “We work from internal schemas and framed memories,” says Dr Jo Iddon. The jargon they use for this is ‘gist’. “People use it as a memory retrieving shorthand,” says Dr Chris Moulin. “If you give people a story to remember they edit out facts which don’t suit their template. The older you get the more you use gist.”

“They kept funny hours. I’d see them coming and going late at night or early in the morning.”

That might recall something significant, or it might, says Jo Iddon, just equate to ‘they didn’t keep the same hours as me’. “Even where people don’t know anything much, it doesn’t stop them having a view.”

“One local councillor said: ‘A friend of mine wanted to use the lift at the flats a few weeks ago but he couldn’t because they were carrying up dozens of boxes. He asked them what they were doing and they said it was paint stripper. Several tenants had complained about their strange behaviour. There have been people shuffling about at all times of the day and night and some very strange movements going on.”

There are archetypes at work here too. These people were not just moving about but shuffling. “It conjures up the image of the zombie,” says Nigel Nicholson. “Because we find it hard to inhabit the mind of the person who’s done something like this, there is a demonic reconstruction of these strange people going on here.”

Above all it tells a story. The human instinct is for narrative. Even modern post-Existentialist men and women find it hard to accept that bad stuff just happens. We have an urge to make sense out of facts and situations, to create links where there are none. So we turn human stories and human faces into moral fables. But the overwhelming evidence of modern psychology is that many of our stories, and the remembrances we build them on, are far from accurate.

Contrary to what many of us might suppose our memories are not like videos which we can take down from the shelves of our brain and replay. Modern neuro-psychiatric research suggests, rather, that the process works by retrieving unrelated facts from the long-term memory and reconstructing them like a child with a dot-to-dot book. And we don’t need many dots to join to make a picture.

“They seemed a right quiet couple. He goes to the gym. The reason I say that is because I’ve seen him carrying a bag over his shoulders some mornings. I last saw him last week.”

Memory is more dynamic and incomplete than is often supposed and it always contains inferences and inaccuracies. Experimental research studies show that one third of participants fabricate what they ‘remember’. Dr Stephen Ceci, a psychologist at Cornell University, has shown that when children are repeatedly asked questions about fictitious events they eventually manufactured memories of them. Research into people brain injuries shows that they cannot distinguish between what they really remember and what their families have told them happened. Two-thirds of adults, Dr Ceci found, could not tell the difference between fact and fancy.

You can’t always believe what you remember. Add that to the human propensity to create stories and add meaning and it is even less exact that joining up the dots. “In a sense we even manufacture the dots,” says Prof Nicholson, “with repeated telling they become more vivid. You are replaying not the event but your retelling of the memory.”

That is why barristers cross-examine witnesses so ruthlessly in court. It is often not to expose downright lies so much as to uncover inconsistencies which suggest flaws in the memory process. It is why a witness can change his statement to say that, maybe it wasn’t the victim he saw jumping the ticket barrier but a policeman who was in pursuit.

Extrapolate this onto a cultural level and you get grand narratives which can seem preposterous – as with the conspiracy theory popular among many Muslims abroad that 9/11 was not the work of Muslims but a plot by Israeli agents provocateurs.

Though we have also to remember that our own big narratives – it’s not about oil or a war on Islam – may sound as inherently absurd to others as their stories sound to us.

Interestingly the way people remember something genuinely dramatic seems rather different. “In an emotionally charged situation memory is heightened,” says the neruro-psychologist Jo Iddon. “That’s because we’re performing at our optimum. People then get very specific about the detail and things are more likely to be correctly remembered.”

“When I caught him trying to steal a can of tuna from my shop he complained about me selling alcohol, telling me I was not a good Muslim.’’

Psychologists call this flashbulb memory in which a particularly vivid event burns itself into our memories like a snapshot. This can be an event, or a conversation which contains a dramatic visual image.

“The only deep conversation we had was about this book, a pamphlet called Understanding Islam. He gave it to me just before Christmas. We were having a fag and he asked me if I was Catholic because I have an Irish family. I said I didn’t believe in anything and he said I should. He told me he was going to get 80 virgins when he got to heaven if he praised Allah.”

More intense even than the dramatic image is the traumatic one. That kind of memory works very differently, as work with Vietnam veterans has shown. It is stored in indigestible lumps encoded in a different way than ordinary memory. And it comes back in a different way, suddenly, or in bits and pieces starting with a smell or a sound and often inducing a panic attack. But such would be the response of those trapped in the wreckage of the bombers’ explosions rather than of those trying to come to grips with the quotidian reality of bombers having walked the same streets and used the same shops.

Central to that more mundane experience is the lens of hindsight. When we rewind the past, says Dr Jo Iddon, we imbue it with additional significance.

“He used to have a big bushy beard but he then shaved that off. It seemed odd at the time. Now we know why. He had very creepy eyes and was quite scary.”

“I came out of the lift and saw three guys in the flat they are now searching. They were nervous. They jumped back inside and slammed the door. When the police made the raid I realised one of them looked like the bomber.”

“One day I found them carrying about 30 small boxes up to the flat. I asked them what they were carrying. One man said it was wallpaper stripper. Now it’s scary to think what could have been inside those containers.”

Very few of these people felt sufficiently suspicious to report the men at the time. “It is all post facto,” says Jo Iddon, “and uses a paranoid memory script”. But there is another key factor in asserting the significance and reliability of the things that neighbours say. It is suggestibility. A lot of what these people say will be determined by the journalist who quiz them.

“Research shows that people give very different accounts after watching a video of a car accident – and that this is, to a very large extent, determined by the questions they were asked,” Dr Iddon says. Some of that is obvious enough. A question like ‘Whose fault was it?’ presupposes it was someone’s fault. But ‘How fast was the car going?’ more subtly invites the inference that the accident was the car driver’s fault. And the choice of vocabulary insinuates preconceptions. In the question ‘how fast was the car going when it collided’ if you change ‘collided’ to ‘hit the other car’ it prompts a different answer. If you change ‘hit’ to ‘smashed into’ the witnesses estimates of speed rise yet again. “So much depends on how you frame things. A lot of evidence is highly unreliable; the police have a real job on sorting out the wheat from the chaff.” Indeed the police have developed cognitive interview techniques specifically to avoid subtly loaded questioning.

There is another factor in this testimony of neighbours. “It’s to do with excitement,” says Jo Iddon. “People like to be in the limelight. Some of these neighbours clearly enjoy being asked and talking to the TV cameras. It is their 15 minutes of fame.”

A similar impulse lies behind all those “I was almost on that bus that morning” stories with which Londoners regaled one another in the days after the first bombs.

“If I hadn’t stopped to buy a newspaper. . . ”

“Something, perhaps because it was a nice morning, made me decide, unusually, to walk that day . . . ”

“Fortunately only my mobile battery went flat so I had to nip into that hotel to ring my wife. . . ”

“Counter-factual thoughts like that is part of how we make sense of events,” says the cognitive psychologist Chris Moulin. And such stories are also, again, about how ordinary people link themselves into an extraordinary event which has changed the collective consciousness for a period of time. “They are about social connectedness,” says the neuro-psychologist Jo Iddon. “And there is a competitive edge to it to, with people trying to out-do the stories of others.” They are also a way of claiming social kudos, believes the evolutionary psychologist Nigel Nicholson. “And, though people would deny it if you put it to them – because it is happening so far below the level of consciousness – it is a way of asserting that my escape shows that I’m a slightly magical person, guided by a clairvoyant gift, blessed, or whatever.”

There is, of course, another more banal explanation for the oddity of the testimony of neighbours. Sometimes those who are happily passing comment simply did not know what they are talking about.

I began with the example of the man from “the music industry” who accosted me on the streets of Leeds offering intelligence about the “an ordinary bloke” from a “respectable family” who “kept himself to himself.” After I had thanked him for these journalist jewels I made my way up to the police cordon to check them out. It turned out that the house which was being searched wasn’t that of the bomber my informant had named. He lived somewhere else entirely. The house belonged to a different suspect all together. And my man did not even know that.

Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour, the good book says. But it has never stopped us in the past. Nor will it in the future. Let the buyer beware.


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