Eyewitness Memory


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Eyewitness Memory

The study of eyewitness memory and eyewitness testimony was being scrutinized when modern forensic psychology first established itself over 100 years ago.

As I mentioned when discussing the history of forensic psychology the first recorded example of a psychologist acting as an expert witness in a court of law was in 1896 when Albert Von Schrenk-Notzing testified at the trial of a man accused of murdering three women.

Drawing on research into memory and suggestibility he argued that pre-trial publicity meant that witnesses could not distinguish between what they actually saw and what had been reported in the press.

Cognitive Processes

The formal study of eyewitness memory is usually undertaken within the broader category of cognitive processes.

Cognitive processes refer to all the different ways in which we make sense of the world around us. We do this by employing the mental skills at our disposal such as thinking, perception, memory, awareness, reasoning and judgment. Although cognitive processes can only be inferred and cannot be seen directly, they all have very important practical implications within a legal context.

If you accept that the way we think, perceive, reason and judge is not always perfect then it’s easy to understand why cognitive processes and the factors influencing these processes are studied by psychologists in matters of law; not least because of the grave implications that this imperfection can have within the criminal justice system.

The study of witness memory has dominated this realm of investigation and for a very good reason because as Huff and Rattner note:

"The single most important factor contributing to wrongful conviction is eyewitness misidentification."

Although eyewitness memory was being studied over 100 years ago it was really in the 1970’s that applied research really began to take off.

Stages of Eyewitness Memory

Stage 1: Witnessing The Incident

When witnessing an incident, information about the event is entered into memory, however, research has shown that the accuracy of this initial information acquisition can be influenced by a number of factors.

Take the duration of the event being witnessed for instance. In a very simple experiment conducted by Clifford and Richards (1977), an individual is instructed to approach a number of police officers.

They are told to engage in conversation for either 15 or 30 seconds. Thirty seconds after the conversation ends, the experimenter asks the police officer to recall details of the person they’ve just been speaking to using a 10-item checklist.

The checklist contains items relating to the persons appearance such as hair color, facial hair etc. The results of the study showed that in the longer 30 second condition, police were significantly more accurate in their recall.

Stage 2: Waiting Period Before Giving Evidence

This stage is concerned with the period of retention between perception i.e., seeing an incident and the subsequent recollection of that incident.

Unsurprisingly, research has consistently found that the longer the gap between witnessing an incident and recalling the incident, the less accurate the recollection of that incident becomes. There have been numerous experiments, usually related to a staged event, that support this contention.

Malpass and Devine (1981), for instance, compared the accuracy of witness identifications after 3 days (short retention period) and 5 months (long retention period).

The study found no false identifications after 3 days but after 5 months, 35% of identifications were false.

Stage 3: Giving Evidence

The final stage in the eyewitness memory process relates to the ability of the witness to access and retrieve information from memory. In a legal context, the retrieval of information is usually elicited through a process of questioning and it is for this reason that a great deal of research has investigated the impact of types of questioning on eyewitness memory.

The most substantial body of research has concerned leading questions, which has consistently shown that even very subtle changes in the wording of a question can influence subsequent testimony.

One of the most notable researchers in this field is Elizabeth Loftus who has been investigating eyewitness testimony for over thirty years. In one of her classic studies, participants witnessed a film of a car accident and were asked to estimate the speed of the cars involved. One group of witnesses were asked to estimate the speed of the cars when they "contacted" each other.

A second group of witnesses were asked to estimate the speed of the cars when they "smashed" each other. On average the first "contacted" group gave an estimate of 31.8 miles per hour. Whereas, the average speed in the second "smashed" group was 40.8 miles per hour.

Experimental Validity

In any discussion of eyewitness memory, you'll notice that the terms, experiment, participants and staged event keep cropping up. This is because the majority of research into eyewitness memory has been conducted within psychology laboratories; and this raises the very important issue of whether it is possible to generalize the findings obtained under these artificial conditions to real life cases.

The simple, if unsatisfactory answer is that it is very difficult to say. Take for instance the work of Yuille and Cutshall, these researchers conducted a case study with witnesses to a real shooting incident, interviewing them just after the event and again 5 months later. They concluded that the performance and accuracy of the witnesses differed in several respects to what would be expected according to the experimental literature.

However, the strength of laboratory based research is that the experimenter is able to exercise a great deal of control over what happens. In the case study reported by Yuille and Cutshall, it was impossible to know the extent to which the witnesses had conferred and how much media coverage of the incident they had seen, and how much influence this had on their testimony.

Eyewitness Evidence E-Book

Eyewitness Evidence: A Guide for Law Enforcement outlines basic procedures to obtain the most reliable and accurate information from eyewitnesses. Topics addressed include:

  • Initial Report of the Crime
  • Mug Books and Composites
  • Procedures for Interviewing the Witness
  • Field Identification Procedure
  • Composing Lineups
  • Procedures for Eyewitness Identification of Suspects
  • You can download Eyewitness Evidence: A Guide for Law Enforcement by Clicking Here

    Quality Eyewitness Memory Link

    The following link will allow you to listen to an excellent BBC radio program on eyewitness accounts. During the broadcast, the presenter Dr Raj Persaud (well known in the UK) finds out how difficult it is to recall something accurately when he takes part in a memory recall experiment. He also talks to Andrew Rolph former police officer and Manager of the Identification Bureau for the Grampian Police, about the issues surrounding the accuracy of eyewitness memory from perceiving the event to giving evidence in court.

    To use the BBC Radio Player you will need to have a program called RealPlayer installed on your computer. If you don't have RealPlayer you can download it for free by clicking here

    Listen The BBC Radio Show On Eyewitness Accounts

    Essential Reading

    Eyewitness Testimony by Elizabeth F. Loftus is quite simply a must read for anybody pursuing an interest in this topic area.

    Book Description

    Every year hundreds of defendants are convicted on little more than the say-so of a fellow citizen. Although psychologists have suspected for decades that an eyewitness can be highly unreliable, new evidence leaves no doubt that juries vastly overestimate the credibility of eyewitness accounts. It is a problem that the courts have yet to solve or face squarely.

    In Eyewitness Testimony, Elizabeth Loftus makes the psychological case against the eyewitness. Beginning with the basics of eyewitness fallibility, such as poor viewing conditions, brief exposure, and stress, Loftus moves to more subtle factors, such as expectations, biases, and personal stereotypes, all of which can intervene to create erroneous reports. Loftus also shows that eyewitness memory is chronically inaccurate in surprising ways. An ingenious series of experiments reveals that memory can be radically altered by the way an eyewitness is questioned after the fact. New memories can be implanted and old ones unconsciously altered under interrogation.

    These results have important implications for court reform, police interrogation methods, defense strategy, and many other aspects of criminal and civil procedure. Eyewitness Testimony is a powerful book that should be required reading for trial lawyers, social psychologists, and anyone who considers the chilling prospect of confronting an eyewitness accusation in a court of law.

    See following link for full details.

    Eyewitness Testimony: With a new preface by the author

    UK Visitors Click Here

    Additional Reading

    Don't forget to check out the other eyewitness testimony books listed on the forensic psychology books page.

    Forensic Psychology Books

    Read FBI Profiling Classics on Kindle

    This special Kindle collection consists primarily of the landmark articles written by members of the Behavioral Science Units, National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime, at the FBI Academy. These seminal publications in the history of FBI profiling were released by the U.S. Department of Justice as part of the information on serial killers provided by the FBI's Training Division. See following link for full details.

    Information on Serial Killers

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