How Accurate Is Eyewitness Testimony?

Today’s article is much longer than our usual publications; just over 1,900 words and is an academic response to the question ‘How accurate is eyewitness testimony?’. Taking research and studies from academic journals and textbooks across the field of psychology.

The Innocence Project was founded in 1992 in the United States and have since exonerated 349 wrongly convicted prisoners through DNA testing; 71% of those contain eyewitness misidentification and on average served 14 years in prison. An example of one of the successfully exonerated was Joseph Fears Jr. spent 25 year in prison due to eyewitness misidentification and the project continues to aid reforms in the criminal justice system to prevent future injustice (2017).

‘In fact, evidence suggests that eyewitness errors in the American court system may account for more false convictions than all other causes combined’ (Gleitman, 2011).

In recent years, through the enhancements of technology in DNA testing and many other forensic techniques, wrongly accused convicts are being acquitted of their crimes and eventually set free. Therefore you might expect important stakeholders such as judges and jurors to be aware of these potential issues with eyewitness testimony validity but the work of Benton, Ross, Bradshaw, Thomas and Bradshaw (2006) asks judges, jurors, and eyewitness experts 30 questions on the issue finding that judges disagreed with the experts on 60% of the issues and jurors disagreed with experts on 87%.

Therefore within this piece of work the objective is to gain a greater understanding of human memory by answering the questions; what can the breadth of work in psychology and memory help to identify these inaccuracies? How can these be applied to specific tasks carried out to evaluate and record eyewitness testimony? What can be done in the future to increase awareness of the weaknesses in eyewitness testimony and educate those working in the criminal and judicial system.

A ‘Schema is an individual’s mental representation that summarises knowledge about a certain type of event or situation.’ (Gleitman, 2011) Schemas reflect the fact that many aspects of our experience can be redundant and these can we quite mundane piece of knowledge, such as expecting a library to extremely quiet and filled only with books or within central London Tube stations at peak commuting hours to be surrounded by chaos. Gleitman goes onto explain that schematic knowledge is generally a good thing, allowing us to seek understanding by relating to a schematic framework.

The work of Tuckey & Brewer (2003) focused on how eyewitnesses remembered ambiguous information about a simulated crime scene of a bank robbery and examined how schema for this crime influenced the types of information eyewitnesses remembered and forgot across multiple interviews. Eysenck & Keane (2010) identified from this that, ‘ …eyewitnesses mostly interpreted the ambiguous information as being consistent with their bank robbery schema….thus, their recall was systematically distorted by including information from their bank-robbery schema even though it did not correspond to what they had observed.’

It’s probably key to point out here that this experiment was conducted to simulate a crime scene and what isn’t replicable from a real life crime experience is high levels of stress, anxiety and emotion that can only exacerbate these laboratory findings. An example of this points to the work of Ihlebæk, Løve, Eilertsen and Magnussen (2003) who tested memory for two groups of participants within a live condition or watching a pre-recorded video of the live event and immediately after were tested on their memory of the timing of the event and robber characteristics. Eysenck & Keane (2010) recorded that, ‘Participants in both conditions exaggerated the duration of the event and the patterns of memory performance were similar. However, eyewitnesses in the video condition recalled more information. They estimated the age, height, and weight of the robber more closely, and also identified the robbers’ weapons more accurately.’ Telling us that perhaps within the live group participant were more stressed and therefore more focused on individual aspects of the experiment whereas video participant had more perspective on the crime situation, leading them to become the more accurate eyewitnesses. For example Eysenck & Keane (2010) define weapon focus as ‘the finding that eyewitnesses pay so much attention to some crucial aspect of the situation (e.g. the weapon) that they tend to ignore other details’. Police investigators need to be aware of this and perhaps apply techniques like context reinstatement to aid retrieval cues.

Upon determining the accuracy of an eyewitness testimony it’s important to go back and review the influence of the post and pre-event information the witness is subjected to and reviewing some of the initial work of Elizabeth F. Loftus, possibly one of the most influential scholar in this field of psychological study. To summarise the work of Loftus and Palmer (1974), ‘ Two experiments are reported in which subjects viewed films of automobile accidents and then answered questions about events occurring in the films. The question, “About how fast were the cars going when they smashed into each other?” elicited higher estimates of speed than questions which used the verbs collided, bumped, contacted, or hit in place of smashed. On a retest one week later, those subjects who received the verb smashed were more likely to say “yes” to the question, “Did you see any broken glass?”, even though broken glass was not present in the film. These results are consistent with the view that the questions asked subsequent to an event can cause reconstructions in one’s memory of that event.’ This can also be summarised by Gleitman et al (2011) as the misinformation effect, where the result of a procedure (for example the first eyewitness interview conducted by police) in which, after an experience (a crime), people are exposed to questions or suggestions that misrepresent what happened. The term refers to the tendency people have to include misinformation as part of their original experience.

Similarly, intrusion errors are also defined by Gleitman et al (2011) as, ‘Memory mistakes in which elements that were not part of the original information get mixed into (“intrude” into) someone’s recall.’ Which applied to the context of everyday memory such as remembering you had a banana for breakfast instead of cereal isn’t going to have any lasting repercussions but when applied to an eyewitness testimony and identifying the wrong personal characteristics of an armed robber or describing incorrectly what happened the night of a rape, these can be life changing for some individuals if wrongly condemned based upon this evidence.

It’s important to consider that these features of memory are unconscious and a lot of work has been done to build awareness and improve the processes and procedures used to collate evidence more accurately when conducting eyewitness testimony examinations.
Firstly by analysing the structure in which eyewitnesses identify a potential criminal, a study by Steblay et al (2001) told us that line-ups can be simultaneous or sequential and their findings indicate that eyewitnesses are more likely to mistakenly select someone from the line-up that did not contain the culprit was higher in simultaneous than sequential. In addition, when the culprit was in the line-up the simultaneous line-up was more effective than the sequential. Therefore do we need to question the validity of sequential line ups altogether or are they just used when there is pressure for a case to be solved quickly? Furthermore Steblay et al (2011) revisited the experiment on a larger scale concluding the results which only adds validation to the initial work done a decade prior.

It’s important to examine the manner in which eyewitnesses receive feedback from the interviewer when providing a statement, testimony or making a decision. Douglass and Steblay (2006) carried out a study where feedback was given to eyewitnesses after they’d made an identification. The eyewitnesses who received confirming feedback believed mistakenly that they had been very confident in the accuracy of their feedback. They go onto conclude that their findings, ‘ reinforces recommendations for double-blind testing, recording of eyewitness reports immediately after an identification is made, and reconsideration by court systems of variables currently recommended for consideration in eyewitness evaluations’

An example to illustrate this point is of a famous case in America called the Central Park Five, where five men were wrongly convicted of beating and raping a central park jogger in 1989 and individually spent between 6 and 13 years in jail. Each individual was informed by New York police officers that if they confessed then they would be released and allowed to go home to their families that night. Evidently that did not happen and the positive reinforcement by police lead to false convictions. There are many other racial and political issues of the time that influenced this bias towards these men but this is one of many extreme cases where post-information lead to the manipulation of a witness’s’ testimony.

To conclude this is an extremely multi-faceted topic that has only barely been touched on in this piece of work, further work to include would include the exploration of Loftus’ finding since 1974 to date and how her fascinating work has evolved over the decades. Another topic that was sought to include here was the work of Shriver et al (2008) on cross-race effect in facial recognition.

But one can only be hopeful with more work in this field becomes increase awareness of the right stakeholders within the government and judicial systems to invoke training and new skill sets for investigating officers and criminal courts and remove these fallacies resulting in inaccurate eyewitness testimony.

More specifically, a good question that needs to be addressed is do we need to decrease the value we hold against eyewitness testimony in a court of law? Increasing the validity of objective forensic evidence.

From Scott Fraser (2012) on the Ted stage, ‘All our memories are reconstructed memories. They are the product of what we originally experienced and everything that’s happened afterwards. They’re dynamic. They’re malleable. They’re volatile, and as a result, we all need to remember to be cautious, that the accuracy of our memories is not measured in how vivid they are nor how certain you are that they’re correct.’

Read next: ‘Milgram study of obedience, or was it? New study suggests more…

References:

  • Gleitman, H., Gross, J. J., & Reisberg, D. (2011). Psychology (Eighth ed.). New York: W.W. Norton & Company. Pg. 318, 319, 320, 321, 324
  • Eysenck, M., & Keane, M. T. (2010). Cognitive Psychology: A Student’s Handbook (Sixth ed.). Pg. 305, 306
  • Tuckey, M. R., & Brewer, N. (2003). How schemas affect eyewitness memory over repeated retrieval attempts. Applied Cognitive Psychology,17 (7), 785-800.
  • Ihlebæk, C., Løve, T., Eilertsen, D. E., & Magnussen, S. (2003). Memory for a staged criminal event witnessed live and on video. Memory,11 (3), 319-327.
  • Loftus, E. F., & Palmer, J. C. (1974). Reconstruction of automobile destruction: An example of the interaction between language and memory. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior,13 (5), 585-589.
  • Shriver, E. R., Young, S. G., Hugenberg, K., Bernstein, M. J., & Lanter, J. R. (2008). Class, Race, and the Face: Social Context Modulates the Cross-Race Effect in Face Recognition. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin,34 (2), 260-274.
  • Douglass, A. B., & Steblay, N. (2006). Memory distortion in eyewitnesses: a meta-analysisofthepost-identificationfeedbackeffect.A ppliedCognitive Psychology,20 (7), 859-869.
  • Steblay, N., Dysart, J., Fulero, S., & Lindsay, R. C. (2001). Eyewitness accuracy rates in sequential and simultaneous lineup presentations: A meta-analytic comparison. Law and Human Behavior,25 (5), 459-473.
  • Steblay, N. K., Dysart, J. E., & Wells, G. L. (2011). Seventy-two tests of the sequential lineupsuperiorityeffect:Ameta-analysisandpolicydiscussion.P sychology,Public Policy, and Law,17 (1), 99-139.
  • Benton, T. R., Ross, D. F., Bradshaw, E., Thomas, W. N., & Bradshaw, G. S. (2006). Eyewitness memory is still not common sense: comparing jurors, judges and law enforcement to eyewitness experts. Applied Cognitive Psychology,20 (1), 115-129.
  • Fraser, S. (n.d.). Transcript of “Why eyewitnesses get it wrong”. Retrieved March 24, 2017, fromhttps://www.ted.com/talks/scott_fraser_the_problem_with_eyewitness_testimony/transcript?language=en
  • Burns, K., & Burns, S. (Directors). (n.d.). Central Park Five [Video file]. Retrieved fromhttps://www.netflix.com/
  • Help us put an end to wrongful convictions! (n.d.). Retrieved March 23, 2017, fromhttps://www.innocenceproject.org/

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