A Level Psychology : Do You Remember What You Saw?

A Level Psychology : Do you remember what you saw?



Eyewitness Testimony

One practical application of memory research has been in the field of eyewitness testimony (EWT). Inaccurate EWT can have serious consequences leading to wrongful convictions and even the death penalty in the US. Rattner (1988) reviewed 205 cases of wrongful arrest and found that this was due to mistaken EWT in 52% of cases. There has been much research carried out into why EWT can be unreliable and the various factors that can affect it.

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The problem is that memory is not a static record of an event. Unlike photographic or CCTV evidence, memory is an active process and there is evidence that our previous experiences, the stereotypes we hold and the emotion we felt at the time of an event can change the way in which that memory is laid down. If that were not bad enough, post-event information can change our memories of an event so that it is very difficult to know which is the original memory and which is the altered one. For example, suppose you have a memory of your 5th birthday party and one day you are discussing this with your mother. You talk about a gift you received from Uncle Frank and how much you liked it at the time. However, your mother says ‘no that was from Uncle Steven; Uncle Frank didn’t come to your 5th party’. Now your memory for the event has been challenged with the post-event information given to you by your mother. You will now return the record to LTM in an altered form i.e. with Uncle Steven giving you the gift!

This alteration of memory after the event has far reaching implications for the accuracy of EWT. If witnesses were given wrong or misleading information during questioning, it could have the potential to change their recollection of an event. One of the most prolific researchers into EWT is American psychologist, Elizabeth Loftus. Loftus and Palmer (1974) devised an experiment to find out if leading questions could bias how a witness answers. They showed participants a film of a car accident and then asked them how fast the cars were travelling when they hit each other. All participants were asked the same question except that the word ‘hit’ was replaced with ‘smashed’, collided, ‘bumped’ or ‘contacted’. The findings showed that the word used in questioning affected the estimations of speed given by the participants.

When asked one week later if they had seen any broken glass in the original film, participants who had been given the word ‘smashed’ were more likely to answer ‘yes’ even though there had been no glass in the film!

This shows that even subtle changes to the wording of a question can affect EWT. However, some researchers have argued that the effect of leading questions is not so pronounced in real-life. Yuille and Cutshall (1986) interviewed 13 witnesses to a real-life shooting involving a store owner and an armed robber. The storeowner was wounded but recovered. The robber was shot dead. The interviews showed that witnesses gave impressively accurate accounts even months after the event and that misleading questions had no effect on memory. These results are not consistent with Loftus’s laboratory findings. Perhaps this is because Loftus’s participants knew that the crash was not real and, therefore, were not as emotionally affected as they would be in real life. Also, the participants in the lab were expecting to see a film of an event and so would be more prepared than people in real-life situations.

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Kerrana McAvoy

Academic Director – Start Learning Start Learning

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A Level Psychology : Do you remember what you saw?