Eyewitness Cognition at Little Bighorn: A Study in Stress

Battles of the past can tell us a lot about forensic psychology in the present.

Posted Jul 03, 2020

In previous Forensic View posts, we've focused on the unreliability of eyewitness memory, and on the effects of extreme stress on human cognition. What happens when you put them together?

It's hard to study cognition under stress in the laboratory. There are limits to what you can do ethically in the research setting, and those limits do not extend to criminal assault or the use of machine guns. Some excellent studies have been conducted in police or military training settings, but often with limited application.

But one way to address this issue is to examine well-documented accounts of what happened in the past, when people were under extraordinary stress, and there are reliable reports of what they saw. Or thought they saw.

And a fruitful place to begin this inquiry is the well-documented 1876 Battle of the Little Bighorn in Montana, featuring General G.A. Custer (Sharps, 2017).

There are vast hordes of books about Custer (e.g., Connell, 1984). There are even books about the books about Custer (e.g., Elliott, 2007). And hate him or not, if you're interested in the psychology of stress, you shouldn’t ignore him.

Custer was under stress. Lots of it. After several career-busting military and diplomatic disasters, he’d managed to tick off President Grant himself, especially when he arrested the President’s inebriated son. Many of Custer’s men and officers hated his guts; his 1876 campaign was conducted in soul-searing heat; and the Native peoples he was trying to find kept turning up in unexpected places. Custer absolutely needed to win—and a victory on the Plains looked increasingly unlikely for him.

High stress produces the interesting phenomenon of tunnel vision. This involves a failure to perceive or to deal with peripheral stimuli or issues (see Sharps, 2017); and Custer seems to have had tunnel vision with a side of fries. He was so focused on his goal of victory that when his scouts informed him that his Seventh Cavalry had lost the essential element of surprise (among other putative deficiencies, the 7th had its share of litterbugs, and the Native peoples had noticed the extensive detritus, including a regulation Army breadbox, left behind in the wake of an entire regiment of mounted men). Custer continued to behave as if none of this mattered; but things got really weird at a place called the Crow’s Nest, south of what would become the Little Bighorn battlefield. His scouts could see the colossal Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho camp, probably one of the largest in the history of the Plains, easily observed from the Crow’s Nest heights; but when Custer climbed up there too, he didn’t see a thing. 

A photographer easily saw the village site from the Crow’s Nest in 1908. More recently, I had no difficulty seeing over the same distance at and around the battlefield with the naked eye. Using binoculars of a power that would have been available to Custer, I could see individual people and pine trees over the same distance. Nobody could have missed a village of some thousands of people at that range—and yet Custer was under so much stress that he did. 

How many times, under the stress of violent crime or tactical interaction, have witnesses failed to see a gun, or a car, or another person at the scene? OK, I don’t know either—but it’s a lot.

And Custer managed not to see an entire village. A very large village. That everybody else could see.

Stress can have a lot of very weird psychological effects, at the extremes. Custer was at the extremes. We can learn a lot from the extremes.

Custer divided his command, probably partly because of dramatically reciprocated hatred of some of his fellow officers, so he met his fate at the Little Bighorn with only about 211 men under his command. Nobody knows the number of heavily-armed Native warriors in the battle, but it was certainly well over a thousand, perhaps two thousand. Custer’s situation was absolutely hopeless; nobody in his right mind could see any prospect for survival for his tiny command; and as the overwhelming Native force, virtually every Lakota and Cheyenne warrior in the world, charged into Custer’s face, he was heard to cry exuberantly:

“Hurrah, boys, we’ve got them!”

Custer was under stress. 

The focus on the Army side of this battle has generally been on Custer; but there was literally another Army side to the battle, miles south of Custer’s defeat, where Major Marcus Reno had been placed in command as far from Custer as possible. Reno, with an amazing capacity for alcohol and an odd predilection for spying on young women in deshabile (Connell, 1984), came under amazing stress when the brains of a fellow combatant were splattered on his hat. This didn’t do his judgment any good—he began to give conflicting orders which ended in his being surrounded by Native warriors on a featureless knoll affording no protection whatsoever. Also no shade, in triple-digit heat. With very little water. And Native opponents who could approach under cover (I checked) to within a few yards of him.

Reno’s men were under stress. 

And what stress it was. They “heard” Cavalry bugle calls from relieving forces that didn’t exist at all. They “saw” Cavalry reinforcements in the persons of Lakota warriors who might have donned Army shirts, but whose Native accouterments, on man and horse, went completely ignored. Tunnel vision again (Sharps, 2017).

The well-documented Battle of the Little Bighorn affords us an excellent look at eyewitness accounts under extreme stress. Certain defeat was turned into victory. Cheyenne horsemen became Cavalry regulars. The eternal Plains winds became Cavalry bugle calls. And a gigantic Native American village became—nothing at all. 

Eyewitness memory is frequently unreliable, but it is especially so at the extremes.

We can learn a lot from the extremes.


Connell, E.S. (1984). Son of the Morning Star: Custer and the Little Bighorn. New York: Promontory Press.

Elliott, M.A. (2007). Custerology: The Enduring Legacy of the Indian Wars and George Armstrong Custer. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Sharps, M.J. (2017). Processing Under Pressure: Stress, Memory, and Decision-Making in Law Enforcement (2nd ed.). Flushing, NY: Looseleaf Law.