“Eyewitness testimony is so unreliable that it should never be used in convicting criminals”. Eyewitness testimony is a legal term. It refers to; an account given by person(s) of an event they’ve witnessed. Eyewitness testimony is admissible in a court of law to assist in the conviction of individuals. In 1976, the Devlin report examined over 2000 identity parades in the U. K. Of the 2000 parades, 45% resulted in a suspect being identified and out of these, 82% were eventually convicted of a crime. In over 300 cases, the eyewitness testimony was the sole “evidence” used in conviction. 4% of these 300 cases resulted in criminal convictions. The significance of eyewitness testimony was highlighted in this report and resulted in much more research being undertaken. Cohen describes “erroneous eyewitness testimony” as being the “leading cause of wrongful conviction”. The multi store /Atkinson-Shiffrin memory model was first recognised in 1968 by Atkinson and Shiffrin. The model attempts to identify the process that a stimulus must go through to become a retrievable memory. After being criticised for its supposed simplicity, Baddeley and Hitch (1974) developed the working memory model.
Both of these models propose that memory is a complex phenomenon that must go through numerous stages to become an accurately recalled memory. It is this process that offers explanation into the complexity of memory and the many areas that may result in memory confabulation. The Psychology of Rumour study by Allport & postman’s (examined latter) also alludes to memory being more complex than previously thought and strengthens the theory that memory is a process as opposed to a simplistic film. Sir Frederic Bartlett, (1932) introduced the theory of “Reconstructive memory” & “schemas” to Psychology.
Schemas where defined by Mike Cardwell as; “packages of information” or “unconscious mental structures”. These mental structures are acquired through our experiences, or as a result of our expectations and cultural norms. Bartlett proposed that people use schemas constantly to complete tasks and to assist in making sense of our surroundings. The theory of schemas also suggests that there are gaps in a person’s memory that are filled with confabulated information when reconstructed. Sir Bartlett (1973) devised an experiment to investigate the effects of schemas on people’s memories.
Twenty participants read a story called; “The War of the Ghosts”. The story was culturally different western literature, and was difficult for them to comprehend. After some time, the participants were asked to repeatedly recall the story in as much detail as possible. After recalling the same story six times, once even a year later, participants accidentally shortened the story from 330 words to an average of 180. Participants also altered parts of it to better suit their westernized culture. A conclusion of this experiment is that Memory recall is influenced by our schemas of cultural background and pre-existing knowledge.
The experiment has been criticised for a lack of objectivity, being lax on variable control and casual conditions. However, the experimenter’s findings were also strengthened by Cromberg et al whom in 1996 interviewed people one year after plane crash. Of the 193 questioned, 55% falsely said that they had seen the plane hit the building and 59% inaccurately reported that a fire had started immediately on impact. Allport and Postman (1947) conducted a study titled: “Psychology of Rumour” with participants who were all white. They were shown a picture of an argument between a black man and a white man on a train.
The white man is holding a razor and threatening the black man aggressively. The participants were divided into groups of seven. One participant from each group was shown the picture and asked to describe it to the second participant, who described it to the third, and so forth. Over half the participants who received the final description reported that the black man, not the white was holding the razor. This was false and shows that memory is susceptible to alteration by our own biases and prejudices within society. This experiment has been at the forefront of the interface between law and psychology.
The findings have been repeatedly relayed in courts of law to express the unreliability of eyewitness testimony. However, inaccurate accounts of the procedures and implications of the study have been substantially misunderstood and distorted. Language is very important in eyewitness testimony; the way that memory is retrieved from a witness strongly affects what that person recalls. Loftus proposed that witnesses could accept false information which would dramatically affect the reliability of their testimony. This is called: “misinformation acceptance” and May happen in a post event situation such as being interviewed.
Loftus believed some interviews contained “leading questions”. A leading question is defined as a question that is phrased in a way as to influence or prompt a specific form of answer. To test weather leading questions could distort eyewitness testimony, Loftus and palmer (1974) conducted the: “Reconstruction of Automobile Destruction” experiment. Forty five American students were split into 5 subgroups. After being shown various car collisions on slides that were dependant variables for each group, Participants were instructed to answer questions on what they had witnessed.
The groups where asked to estimate the speed of the cars before they either: “hit/smashed/collided/bumped/contacted”. Each subgroup was asked the same question but with different verbs (the independent variable. ) A week later participants were also asked questions such as; “Did you see any broken glass? ” when none such existed. The findings of this experiment were that the verb used to describe the collision affected the participants speed estimate given. The Biasing questions which they answered systematically affected the participant’s memory of the accident.
The participants in the “smashed” condition reported the highest speeds, followed by “collided”, “bumped”, “hit”, and “contacted” in descending order. The “smashed” group also had more participants reporting to have seen glass when there was none. This experiment shows that memory is easily distorted by questioning techniques and information can be accepted post event causing confabulated memory. Strengths of this experiment are that it was conducted within a controlled environment and has serious implications for interviewing witnesses.
However there is weakness’s to the experiment such all participants were students and not a wide range of people. Also, the collisions where viewed on video not in real life. Videos may lack the emotional impact caused when witnessing a real-life accident Loftus et al (1978) proposed that emotion can affect memory. Loftus stated that emotional arousal during an event can lead to a reduction in accurate memory recall. Loftus et al conducted an experiment of the effect of emotion on memory by showing two films of an armed robbery to participants. One film was violent, the other was nonviolent.
They then tested the participant’s memories for details of what they had witnessed. The findings showed that the high-arousal version of a young boy being shot and falling to the floor, led to impaired memory recall. This was when compared to the low-arousal version. These findings show that emotions can affect memory. This experiment is lab based and findings may be difficult to transfer into real-life environment. However, being conducted in a controlled environment gives it enhanced ecological validity. Peters (1988) supported Yerkes & Dodson that illustrated an optimum level of emotional arousal enhanced memory.
Peters found that when receiving inoculations in a clinic (an anxiety generating event) patients found it difficult in accurately identifying the nurse who issued their jab. One can conclude that this was due to the high levels of arousal surrounding the participant during the time of the jab. There is conflicting evidence weather emotions strengthen or weaken the accuracy of eyewitness testimonies. However, both theories support the idea that emotion has an effect on memory. Eastbrook (1959) proposed that arousal narrows the focus of attention.
This causes improved memory for central details but impaired memory for peripheral details. Another factor that affects the reliability of eyewitness testimony while witnessing an event is the: “weapons focus affect”. Weapon focus refers to the concentration of attention on a weapon by the witnesses of a crime. Loftus et al claimed that this diverted their attention and resulted in a reduction of remembering many other details of the crime or criminal. Loftus (1979) conducted an experiment to study whether the presence of a weapon in an emotionally heightened state could affect eyewitness memory.
Participants believed they were waiting to participate in a memory study and were waiting outside a laboratory. As they waited, participants in “condition 1” overheard a staged yet civil conversation coming from a room regarding equipment failure. A man then exited the room with a greasy hand holding a pen. Condition 2 participants were also privy to a staged conversation from an unseen room. This conversation was “hostile” and was accompanied by the sound of breaking class and broken furniture. A man then exited the room holding a blood covered knife.
Participants were asked to identify the men they saw from fifty photographs. Condition one participants accurately identified the man 49% of the time. However, condition two participants were able to accurately identify the man only 33% of the time. From these results, Loftus concluded that presence of a weapon and a hostile confrontation affected witness’s ability to identify the individual. They were unable to focus attention on the man because more attention was concentrated on the weapon. This study is important in demonstrating the impact a weapon has on the reliability of eyewitness’s testimony.
However, there have been many criticisms of these experiments. No distinction is made as to whether the hostile experience affected participant’s memories or simply the weapon. There are also huge concerns over the ethics of this experiment, participants could have been psychologically damaged by the experience and were unable to withdraw from it as they were unaware it had already begun. This experiment was conducted under controlled conditions within a controlled environment; this strengthens the information obtained by increasing the ecological validity of the experiment.
The findings are less transferable to real life situations. Chrstianson & Hubinette (1993) demonstrated that in real life settings, memory can be accurate with acute stress. Eyewitness testimony is heavily dependent upon face recognition, and so the study of this subject has acute implications in understanding how reliable memories of faces are. Research shows that people have difficulty accurately recognizing individual members of a different race. One explanation for this is that we use specific features to distinguish between members of our own race and those features are not always present between other races.
In a study done by Platz and Hosch, (1986) convenience store clerks were asked to identify three customers: one white, one black, and one Mexican American, all of whom stopped in the store earlier that day. The results of the study showed that each of the clerks identified customers belonging to their own race accurately, but when attempting to identify members of the other races, they stated “they all look alike. ” Cross-Race Identification Bias demonstrates how prone people are to making false identifications when asked to identity people from a different racial or ethnic background other than their own.
This research offers some support to the existence of cross-race identification bias. However the experiment has many weaknesses; the participants may have seen many people that day and it’s unclear whether they were briefed prior to the experiment. This experiment has enhanced ecological validity because it is set in one environment. There are many independent variables within this research that if altered, may dramatically distort the previous findings. Fisher and Geiselman (1992) developed the cognitive interview” This is a specialised interviewing technique designed to increase the accuracy of information given and minimise false testimony. The interviewer attempts to eradicate all verbal & nonverbal responses that may affect the witness’s testimony. This is to avoid the “Clever Hans” effect where a witness’s may pick up cues. There are four basic principles of the cognitive interview; firstly to report everything; all details of an event, including information deemed irrelevant.
Mental reinstatement of original context is another; the interviewee mentally recreates the incident fully. The interviewer may also change the timeline of events by reversing the events in order. Finally, the interviewee is instructed to imagine how other witnesses saw the incident. A meta-analysis found in 53 cases, an average increase of 34% in correct event recognition compared to a non-cognitive interview. However this was conducted within a laboratory not a real-life setting. Mine & Bull (2002) decided to test each of the four cognitive principles separately.
Participants were interviewed with one cognitive principal as compared to the four. Recall of accurate information was broadly similar to other participants in a control group who were informed to “try again”. However, when participants were interviewed using a combination of the cognitive principles their components were significantly higher. Extremely young and old people tend to have an increased susceptibility to suggestion (Ceci & Bruck, 1993; Cohen & Faulkner, 1989) as well as those whom score high on measures of dissociation.
It is clear that eyewitness testimony is not as reliable as a means of conviction as generally thought due to many various factors. There is however many improvements and safe guards that can be utilized to improve the reliability of eyewitness testimony such as; performing cognitive interviews and using multiple testimonies. Key factors such as: age, race, and the emotional stimulus of an event should be taken into account. Eyewitness testimony is a vital tool in convicting criminals but may not be accurate enough as a sole means of conviction.