Eyewitness Testimony

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Eyewitness Testimony

The recalled memory of a witness to a crime or incident. The witness gets up on the stand to recall details of the crime to the court. It is a complicated process because it includes:

  • what happened during the actual crime
  • everything that happened between the criminal event and the courtroom appearance (this may include several interviews by police/lawyers, identification of the perpetrator

If a witness testimony is inaccurate innocent people are sent to prison.

Leading question: A question phrased in such a way that it suggests an answer. This can distort the accuracy of the memory.

Loftus and Palmer (1974)

Lab experiment

  • 45 students were shown films of different traffic accidents
  • After each film the participants were given a questionnaire, which asked them to describe the accident and then answer a series of specific questions
  • There was one critical question this question was 'about how fast were the cars going when they ........ eachother'
  • The five groups were each given a verb: collided, smashed, hit, contacted and bumped

1. Smashed  40.8mph

2. Collided  39.3 mph

3. Bumped  38.1 mph

4. Hit  34mph

5. Contacted  31.8mph

The phrasing affected the responses given.

One week later...

  • The same participants were asked 'did you see any glass?'
  • There wasn't actually any glass in the film of the accident
  • However 32% of those who had previously been asked about the speed using the verb 'smashed' said they had seen broken glass. 
  • In contrast only 14% of participants previously questioned with the verb 'hit' said they had seen broken glass

Conclusion- our memory for events is so fragile that it can be distorted by changing one word in the question

Evaluation (AO2)

  • These experiments have important implications for questions in police interviews and eye witness testimony in courts of law
  • The problem with experiments is that they can often lead to demand characteristics where the results are affected because of the participants expectations about the purpose of the experiment e.g. leading questions might have given participants clues about the nature of the experiment therefore reducing the validity
  • These experiments are artificial, they take place in labs and use film rather than actual events, therefore they lack mundane realism, it is not as emotionally arousing as a real-life event 

Factors affecting eye witness testimony

Age of Witness

Meta-analysis: a form of analysis in which the data from several related studies are combined to obtain an overall estimate

Misleading information: incorrect information that may be given in good faith or deliberately

Children vs adults

Pozzulo and Lindsay (1998)

Carried out a meta-analysis combining the data from numerous studies on children and adults. They reported 3 main findings:

  • young children up to the age of 5 were less likely than older children and adults to make correct identifications when the culprit was presented in the line-up
  • children over the age of 5 performed as well as adults at correct identifications when the culprit was present
  • children up to the age of 13 were much…


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