An eyewitness is considered to be someone who has seen or hear a crime being committed. When the police are investigating a criminal act, they interview everyone who was in the area at the time to determine whether they saw or heard anything which may be of use in securing a prosecution.
Witnessing a crime can be a distressing event for some people, especially if it is violent or involves a weapon. Plus, psychological studies into memory show that we recall different types of information in different ways and this can cause inaccuracies and biases. People can make mistakes when trying to remember specific pieces of information. It is possible to remember whole events that did not happen.
The person who witnessed the event is likely to be interviewed several times. They can be interviewed by police, prosecution lawyers, def3ence lawyers at various times throughout the investigation. Sometimes these interviews can be conducted several months after the original event. Eyewitness accounts are often seen as very valuable by police officers and juries. However, the quality and quantity of information a person recalls can be greatly affected by several psychological factors.
Numerous studies show how inaccurate eyewitness testimony can be. Any mistakes that they eyewitnesses make will lead to a wrongful conviction. One particular study by Garrett (2011) found that some people were exonerated after their conviction because of DNA evidence. One-third of those convicted had been found guilty based on the evidence of eyewitness testimony alone.
There are several high profile cases where victims of crime have incorrectly identified the culprit. For example, Ronald Cotton was convicted of rape and sentenced to life imprisonment. DNA evidence proved that he was not the perpetrator and was released. Thankfully, the real rapist was then found. However, the testimony from the victim, Jennifer Thompson, caused an innocent man to spend 10 years behind bars.
We have developed a very good understanding of how people construct and recall memory. This has led to improvements in interviewing and gathering information from eyewitnesses. These changes have drastically reduced the number of errors that people make when recalling information.
One of the leading pioneers into the psychology of eyewitness testimony is Elizabeth Loftus. In one of her earliest studies she found that by giving people misinformation, they were able to change the memories people recalled. In their study, students watched a small red car hit a pedestrian. They were then asked misleading questions such as ‘how fast was the car travelling when it went through the give way sign?’ (it was a stop sign). Others were asked about the stop sign. When they were late presented with two pictures, one containing a give way sign and the other a stop sign, students who were misled were more likely to choose the picture with the give way sign. This and many other studies have shown it is possible to change a person’s memory by giving them misleading information.
Other aspects such as social conformity can affect the accuracy of the information that eyewitnesses recall. Some studies have been designed so that a group watch a video and then discuss the information contained in it. The majority of participants in the group were fake and only a few genuine participants. It was found that when the fake members of the group said that something occurred, the genuine participants agreed and also said that it had. Therefore, it is possible to change our memory of events to ‘fit in’ with other people’s accounts.
There is also a phenomenon known as ‘schema’ which is based on what we would normally expect to find or come across in various contexts. For example, we would expect to come across shelves and books at a library and therefore we do not put any effort into remembering the details of these. Our attention would be directed towards other aspects of the scene. We have a limited ability to take in all of the information in our surroundings and so tend to use a set of ‘short cuts’.
We can create memories in our mind that we can 100% believe are genuine but have never happened. We can also completely forget about other things that have happened. Sometimes a victim of a violent crime can completely forget that the crime occurred, this is called a repressed memory. Often, these memories are not recalled until years after the original event.
When the police are interviewing a suspect, they can create false memories. This was proven in a major study by Crombag and colleagues (1996). They conducted a study about details of a crash involving a Boeing 747 into a residential area of Amsterdam. At the time the news incident was being reported, there were no pictures or video of the crash available. However, when participants were interviewed they were misled into thinking they had seen such images. Their recollection included details that they could not have seen.
Some eyewitnesses can be very confident about the information that they are recalling and others can be very unsure. Several studies have found that confidence is not linked to accuracy. Just because a person is very confident in what they are saying does not mean it is more likely to be true. Similarly, just because someone is unsure whether or not they are recalling things accurately doesn’t mean it is unreliable.
It is not all bad news when it comes to eyewitness testimony though. We do know that certain kinds of information can be accurately recalled. Things such as gender, eye shape, face shape, and hair colour are usually highly accurate. The timing of recalling the information is also of great importance. The sooner the information is recalled and collected, the more accurate it is likely to be.
When eyewitnesses are asked to pick the offender out of an identity parade, they may feel pressured to pick a person out even though they may not be 100% sure they have chosen the correct suspect. They may pick someone out because they assume the offender must be in the line-up.
By putting in stringent frameworks it is possible to reduce the number of incorrect identifications. Several procedures have been put into everyday practice by police to reduce the possibility of incorrect identification of a suspect. Measures, such as the officer not knowing who the suspect is so as not to influence the witness, the witness being told the offender may not be in the line-up, having similar looking people used in lineups, and no feedback to be given to the witness, can all help to reduce inaccurate information by eyewitnesses.
Both the quantity and quality of information drawn out from witnesses and suspects is of great importance. Therefore, a comprehensive semi-structured interview technique has been proven to improve the quantity and quality of information from both suspects and eyewitnesses. The Cognitive Interview is grounded within psychology and contains several important factors within an interview: establish rapport; listen actively; encourage spontaneous recall; ask open-ended questions; pause after responses; avoid interrupting; request detailed descriptions; encourage intense concentration; encourage the use of imagery; recreate the original context; adopt the rememberers perspective; ask compatible questions and encourage multiple retrieval attempts.
In an attempt to make this simpler so it could be adopted into everyday policing practices, the PEACE interview was developed. PEACE is an acronym where all of the letters stand for something to be done. This summarizes the main components of the cognitive interview to Planning and preparation; Engage and explain the purpose of interview and process; Account – free recall; Clarify challenge and conclude; Evaluate – and new lines of enquiry. By using these principles during an interview, both the quantity and quality of information is enhanced.
In conclusion, several factors can affect the quality and quantity of information that people remember. It is possible to ask questions in a way that can create false memories. Therefore, stringent and well-regulated frameworks are put into practice to avoid this happening.