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.
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