Eyewitness Testimony

Edited by Jamie (ScienceAid Editor), Taylor (ScienceAid Editor), Doug Collins, SmartyPants

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Reconstructive Memory

If you tried to, right now, draw a picture of a €1 or £1 coin or a $1 note, then you probably would not be able to, even though you use it every day. You would be able to remember certain features, but it would not be fully accurate and complete.

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This is an example of reconstructive memory. This observation of memory by Bartlett says that reconstructive memory is putting the pieces of information from a memory together, but often in the wrong order, with bits missing or added. Reconstructive memory is a particular problem when it comes to the law. In criminal cases, a witness often provides critical information against the defendant. However, it is possible that the eyewitness testimony is inaccurate because the memory was not reconstructed correctly

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What Affects Eyewitness Testimony Accuracy?

There are many different factors which may affect how good the account of someone who saw a crime is. These factors are very important in courts because they could determine the innocence of someone. The first and probably most obvious factor is age. In general, it is considered that younger children and the quite elderly are not very reliable. However, decline in memory with age is not so obvious and in many people, their memory remains the same; especially if they continue to use their mind (i.e. someone with a lot of education or who had a mentally challenging job).

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Have a look at the two studies below for research evidence to this.

Karpel et al (2001) EWT in elderly Martin et al (1979) EWT in Children
Aim To see how reliable eyewitness testimony (EWT) is in older people. Test age differences between children and young adults.
Method Young adults (17 - 25) and older adults (65 - 85) were shown a video of a robbery. They were then asked to recall what they'd seen. This information was then compared. Primary school, junior school, senior school and college aged students saw a 15-second scene of a distressed man. They were tested on information straight after and 2 weeks later.
Results The information given by the young adults was more accurate and they were less vulnerable to leading questions. Recall of both correct and incorrect information increased with age and importantly, there was no significant difference in accuracy and influence of leading questions.
Conclusions Young adults make more reliable eyewitnesses. Although younger children recall less information, the key information is unaffected.
Evaluation Poor ecological validity because a video was used.

Demand characteristics where the participants guess the aim of the experiment and therefore make a special effort to remember what happened.

General evaluation about using children includes:

Studies usually use emotionally positive events but a real EWT is unlikely to be. Children are not put under pressure whereas in real life they probably would be.

A second factor affecting the accuracy of eyewitness testimony is the use of leading questions. A leading question is where you ask something, but include information that could cause the witness to give a different answer. For example: "Wasn't the driver wearing a red shirt? After being given this question with the information added, a witness may describe the driver as wearing a red shirt, when they wouldn't have previously.

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Aim Loftus and Palmer (1974) wanted to see if the wording of a question affects recall.
Method A sample of students were shown a clip of a traffic accident. They were then asked about the speed of the car when it: bumped, collided, contacted, hit or smashed.
Results The average speed when a particular word was used is shown below (in miles per hour).

Contacted 31.8 Hit 34.0 Bumped 38.1 Collided 39.3 Smashed 40.8

Conclusion The wording of questions can affect the judgments of an eyewitness and may prompt false memories.
Evaluation May not have very good ecological validity because only students were used for the study, and therefore the findings cannot be generalized to the whole population, also it is only relevant to the English language, and even in different cultures where English is spoken it is used may produce different results.

There are demand characteristics, where the participants gave higher speeds because they thought this is what the experimenter wanted rather than as a result of a leading question.

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Article Info

Categories : Cognition

Recent edits by: Doug Collins, Taylor (ScienceAid Editor), Jamie (ScienceAid Editor)

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