PSYC367 - Witness Testimony - Coral Dando - Example exam question (I)


Discuss the factors which may affect the accuracy and completeness of eye-witness testimony at the encoding stage.

Within the criminal justice system (CJS) witness testimony is referred to the lifeblood. A witness is anyone who provides information relating to a criminal offence, this can include a victim's intial report of a crime, a police statement and also witness statements of a crime (Wells, 1978), which this essay will focus upon. Witness testimony is so important that without it a criminal offence may not be bought to court, and is also an adversarial process meaning that witness testimoney is often viewed as more important than a suspect's confession (Wolchover, 1990).

However, despite it's evident importance, an important finding within psychological research is that witness testimony is highly fallible, often to suggestion and fragile (Katz, 1976). It is therefore important for members of the criminal justice system to conduct interviews in such a way that allows witnesses to give the most accurate and complete testimony. However some aspects are beyond the control of the CJS and reliability of the statement is affected directly at the encoding stage. Encoding of information is the process by where any information acquired through our senses is changed into a coded representation.

This essay will discuss the factors which may affect the accuracy and completeness of eye-witness testimony at the encoding stage known as estimator variables. This essay will argue that despite the CJS having no control over the estimator variables, it is still important to investigate them to help further psychological knowledge in order to apply it to the CJS.

Section I
Estimator variables are variables which affect eye-witness testimony, but cannot be controlled by the criminal justice system. To explain further, estimator variables are events or characteristics associated with the witnessing of the criminal offence which affects.influence what the individual remembers about what they have witnessed. Said events or characertistics will influence how the individual intially encodes the information or visual representations of what they have witnessed.

One group of estimator variables which may affect how the individual encodes the witnessed event are related directly to the event itself. Examples of factors that relate to the event which may affect how the individual encodes information are the severity of the crime (Leippe, 1978), time the individual is exposed to the crime (Loftus, 1972) and the crimes complexity (Hastie, 1977).

This essay will focus on details to do with the severity of the crime. It is often argued that how serious the crime is perceived to be to the individual, the more or less information will be encoded about both the main and peripheral details of the crime (Leippe, 1978). This is because the more severe the crime is perceived as, the higher the levels of arousal or stress the individual will undergo. If an individual becomes highly aroused or stressed, cognitive efficiency plummets, therefore affecting the memory abilities of the individual (Clifford, 1978). The inverted U-shape is often quoted as a marker for how cognitively


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