Is eyewitness testimony always accurate?

Loftus and Palmer (1974) carried out a study involving the interaction between language and memory which concerned how accurate eyewitness testimony (EWT)  is and the problems leading questions can bring. Loftus and Palmer showed participants short film clips of car accidents and measured the effect of the use of different verbs (such as ‘collided’, ‘contacted’ or ‘smashed’) when participants were asked about the speed of the cars involved in the accidents. For further details about this study follow the link: http://www.simplypsychology.org/loftus-palmer.html

But, what other factors contribute to the unreliability of EWT? Are eyewitness testimonies always accurate?

There are many factors which can affect the reliability of EWT such as face recognition, the role of emotion and reconstructive memory.  Facial recognition is certainly an obvious issue when it comes to a person having to give an eyewitness account of a situation. Research has found that hair style and outline of the face are the two most important factors when trying to recall the features of a face unfamiliar to us, but internal features like eyes, for example were more important for the recognition of a familiar face (Ellis et al, 1979). Further research carried out by Buckhout (1974) supports the suggestion that eyewitnesses are not particularly good at identifying possible criminals, as when a purse-theft was staged, and two line-ups were conducted in order to challenge the recall of 52 witnesses- only seven of  the participants identified the thief on both of the occasions. This suggests therefore that eyewitness testimonies are not always accurate due to evidence of a low recall ability of witnesses.

The role of emotion also plays a significant part in affecting the accuracy of eyewitness testimony due to the fact that crimes are often frightening to a witness, even more so if the criminal has a weapon. This could even reduce or improve recall, either by focusing the attention of the witness or distracting them. Loftus et al (1987) introduced the ‘weapon effect’, this suggests that once a weapon is seen by a witness, their attention is drawn to it as it is a very frightening experience therefore distracting the witness from the criminals appearance, reducing the accuracy of the EWT. Supporting evidence of the weapon effect is demonstrated in a study carried out by Johnson and Scott (1978). During this study some participants, ‘while awaiting on an experiment to begin’,  witnessed a male carrying a knife covered in blood while others saw a male carrying a pen covered in grease. The participants in the first group who witnessed a knife covered in blood were less accurate in their eyewitness testimony, showing that a frightening situation can effect a witnesses’ recall- the weapon effect.

Furthermore, reconstructive memory is also an issue when trying to recall detail. This idea was first produced by Sir Frederick Bartlett in his book entitled ‘Remembering’ (1932). Bartlett suggested that we store certain pieces of information and when it comes to trying to recall something, we reconstruct these pieces of information into a ‘meaningful whole’. This therefore results in an eyewitness testimony to become inaccurate because other experiences shape the way we reconstruct our memory, so if our memory is incomplete we will fill it with other pieces of irrelevant information from a previous experience.

All of these factors affect the accuracy of an eyewitness testimony and poses the question of whether a recall of memory can ever be accurate?

In my opinion I do not believe this is possible due to the fact that there are too many barriers to overcome in order to produce an accurate account of any past experience. In the way of an eyewitness testimony, this can lead to unfortunate consequences for the police when trying to investigate an incident or in an attempt to catch a criminal. Therefore,  it could be argued that eyewitness accounts are not helpful to the police at all due to too many inaccuracies.

Thanks for reading, feel free to comment/discuss!

Nathalie :]

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About Nathalie Lauren Joyce

19. First year @ Bangor University. Psychology Blogger.

9 responses to “Is eyewitness testimony always accurate?

  1. I notice you mention mental state of eyewitness. Can you give me a reference concerning its importance?

  2. Johnk12

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  3. Mae

    Or so angry you could spit. 98. Children’s gifts have gotten extremely expensive.

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  6. Due to the fact that all of the following factors affect the accuracy of an eye witness’s testimony: age; occupation; stress; discrimination; event factors; confidence of the eye witness; estimations; emotional/past events; and the mental state of the eye witness, it can be said that eye witnesses testimonies can be false, inaccurate and misleading. Meaning that an innocent person can be convicted due to mistaken identity and being in the wrong place at the wrong time (thank god for forensics).

    However, Geiselman et al. (1986) suggested that using the cognitive interview (instead of the standard interview), would result in a thirty percent improvement in recall, with no increase in the number of incorrect responses. Overall though no matter how good the eye witnesses memory is one of the factors will always affect and change their memory in some way. The cognitive interviewing technique can make them recall the original memory of events and not the memory of events that they have mixed up with previous events, but it is still not going to be one hundred percent accurate meaning that an eye witnesses testimony must be backed up with other forms of evidence: forensics; CCTV etc.

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  8. litsasourla

    I agree that eye witness testimony should not be fully trusted especially when the suspect can be faced with a hefty charge. It is actually quite frightening how much faith is put in some testimonies especially when there is such a great chance that mistakes were made. For example Elizabeth Loftus stated experiences we’ve had or stress we’ve been put under ‘can cause us to have memories of things that never happened’. This suggests that not only do we make mistakes but we are also capable of making stuff up. An even worse idea is that eye witnesses have strong beliefs for their identification for example, Patrick Waller was charged for robbery, kidnap and rape and put behind bars for 15 years when DNA tests prove differently, even after he was released, his identifier was still convinced he had committed those crimes which shows how strongly we believe our distorted memory. However, i would not agree that eye witness testimony is not helpful at all because the cognitive interview technique is a much better technique for minimizing misinterpretation, uncertainty and it eliminates inaccurate accounts so in other words, there are better ways which have been found to increase accuracy.

    • I agree that there is too much trust put into eyewitnesses however I think it is now rare that a judge will prosecute on eyewitnesses over DNA or physical evidence. It tends to be the case that the witnesses are used as a last resort, when no other information is gathered.
      The purpose of convicting someone may simply be to create safety for the victim and make him or her feel that they can have peace of mind. If this is the case then the judges should have the right to rely on eyewitness testimony alone as at least someone is being convicted, stopping the victim from feeling threatened.
      Now that there are cognitive interviews it means that the questioning isn’t going to cause any effect on the recall of the witness however this doesn’t mean that they will be able to remember more information about the criminal, therefore only improving recall to a curtain extent and is still limited heavily.
      I feel that Loftus never had the most effective way of testing for eye witness reliability as she carried out her studies and experiments in laboratory settings, therefore improving the reliability but limiting the validity of results.

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