What Kind of Eyewitness Would You Be?

Experts in the fields of psychology and memory have described that memory is not “recorded” like a video to which we can refer back for details; instead memories are placed together by what we piece together. 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 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. Although our recollections seem like literal snapshots of the past, they’re actually deeply flawed reconstructions, a set of stories constantly undergoing rewrites. For instance, in his most recent research published in January 2009 in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, it was found that participants who witnessed a crime (in the form of watching a TV show) and then were asked to describe what they saw were also more susceptible to integrating both true and false information into their memories immediately afterward. Asking people to describe the memory seems to open a window for new learning to occur. If, for example, an eyewitness were to give a statement and then overhear officers talking about the crime, he or she could easily insert the content of the officers’ conversation into the old memory. So effectively, the act of summoning the past to the surface actually changes the memory itself. Although we’ve long imagined our memories as a stable form of information, a data file writ into the circuits of the brain, that persistence is an illusion. In reality, our recollections are always being altered, the details of the past warped by our present feelings and knowledge. The more you remember an event, the less reliable that memory becomes. It was concluded that memory is not exact and is distorted by existing schema, or what we already know about the world. It seems, therefore, that each of us ‘reconstructs’ our memories to conform to our personal beliefs about the world. This clearly indicates that our memories are anything but reliable, ‘photographic’ records of events. They are individual recollections which have been shaped & constructed according to our stereotypes, beliefs, expectations etc.

Additional factors can also affect the accuracy of the accounts given; these include facial recognition, the presence of a weapon, leading questions, the role of emotion and reconstructive memory (as described above).

Facial recognition is certainly an obvious issue when it comes to a person having to give an eyewitness account of an incident. 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. Further research 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.

Whether or not there was a weapon present at the time of the crime can affect the outcome as well. When a gun or knife is present, an eyewitness frequently concentrates on the weapon and not the details of the assailant’s face.

Leading questions by police officers and attorneys also have an impact on the testimony of an eyewitness. This is why a judge can refuse a question and demand that it be rephrased in court. As more research is completed in the field of eyewitness identifications, no doubt more standards will be put in place to guide police officers during initial questioning. Crucially, witnesses can sometimes feel confident about false memories. Things like the police saying, “That’s the guy,” or “We figured it was him,” can boost confidence in shaky memories without the witness even realizing where the feeling of certainty came from.

The influence of emotion and stress/anxiety also need to be factored into one’s ability to recall events. Clifford and Scott (1978) found that people who saw a film of a violent attack remembered fewer of the 40 items of information about the event than a control group who saw a less stressful version. As witnessing a real crime is probably more stressful than taking part in an experiment, memory accuracy may well be even more affected in real life. Studies show that seeing stressful events like a person being shot can cause people to tune out peripheral details, such as the license plate of a nearby car.

However, a study by Yuille and Cutshall (1986) contradicts the importance of stress in influencing eyewitness memory. They showed that witnesses of a real life incident (a gun shooting outside a gun shop in Canada) had remarkable accurate memories of a stressful event involving weapons. A thief stole guns and money, but was shot six times and died. The police interviewed witnesses, and thirteen of them were re-interviewed five months later. Recall was found to be accurate, even after a long time, and two misleading questions inserted by the research team had no effect on recall accuracy. One weakness of this study was that the witnesses who experienced the highest levels of stress where actually closer to the event, and this may have helped with the accuracy of their memory recall.

Steps to Better Recall

The first rule in making a memory more accurate is to record it — as soon as possible so carrying a notepad and pen or a voice recorder at all times can be very beneficial. This can help ensure that people who happen to be near the scene of an incident are prepared to record details.

Some eyewitnesses might have video camcorders handy (or cell phones) and can record events around them. But even scratching a license plate number in the dirt with a stick can work.

The sooner memories are recorded, the less chance they will be warped by hearing the accounts of others.

It is important to externalize your memory as soon as possible because memories fade and change very quickly.

Try to suppress the instinct to focus on the victim. By focusing on the victim of a crime, a witness turns away from the victim’s assailant and therefore misses out on crucial clues that may be gathered about the perpetrator. So if a weapon is used and appears to be “some distance away” the idea is to do what does not come naturally and that is to look in other directions.

Resist the tendency to look for expected details. It may mean resisting the urge to look for information outlined by the police or media – e.g. a white van leaving the scene of a shooting. It is more helpful to objectively take in as many details as possible. Often critical clues lie in descriptions that were not expected.