Eyewitness Testimony as a Source of Reliable Evidence

Eyewitness Testimony as a source of reliable evidence In relation to cognitive psychology, is eyewitness testimony reliable in today’s judicial system? Word Count: 3944 ABSTRACT Is eyewitness testimony a reliable source of evidence in today’s judicial system? Many jurors tend to pay close attention to eyewitness testimony assuming that what they hear is exactly as it happened. They ignore the psychology behind remembering an event. Our brain is a complex structure and it is difficult to absorb every stimulus in our surrounding.

We pay great attention to some aspects of a situation while completely ignoring others. It is advisable for expert psychologists to be present during a court case that involves eyewitness testimony, as they are more aware of its flaws. We store information in schemas and when we gain new knowledge it is altered in order to fit these schemas. Leading psychologists such as Elizabeth Loftus, Neil Bartlett and Yullie & Cutshall have carried out research in order to demonstrate how our memory can be altered by psychological factors such as leading questions, reconstructive memory and weapon focus.

This research paper contains a vast number of experiments and studies done in order to illustrate the unreliability of our memory and whether courts should rely on eyewitness testimony as a prime source. Age and gender also serve as factors that influence eyewitness testimony. Through research and analysis, it is concluded in this paper that eyewitness testimony should not be given superiority over other actual evidence presented, as our memory is the least reliable source.

It is worthwhile to carry out further investigation about the case if eyewitness testimony is the only evidence available, as false testimonies could lead to an innocent individual being charged guilty. Word Count: 260 CONTENTS Abstract ………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….. Page 2 Introduction ………………………………………………………………………………………………………….. Page 4 Discussion………………………………………………………………………………………………………………. Page 7 Misleading Questions………………………………………………………………………………………………… Page 7 Anxiety and Stress…………………………………………………………………………………………………….. Page 9 Weapon Focus…………………………………………………………………………………………………………… Page 11

Reconstructive Memory……………………………………………………………………………………………. Page 11 Confident Testimony…………………………………………………………………………………………………. Page 14 Age………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………. …… Page 15 Gender………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………. Page 16 Conclusion……………………………………………………………………………………………………………… Page 17 References ……………………………………………………………………………………………………………. Page 19 INTRODUCTION The reliability of eyewitness testimony has often been questioned in cases of crime and violence but yet the judicial system seems to ignore its flaws. Numerous psychologists have carried out experiments and studies regarding this issue.

Eyewitness testimony has a large psychological background that judges, lawyers and the jury seem to ignore. Our ability to remember certain situations and events may be distorted according to the time and place that the event occurred or the time and place that the eyewitness testimony is given. Cognitive psychologists have carried out profound research about this phenomenon and have found that eyewitness testimony can be related to human schemas, reconstructive memory and our ability to remember. The knowledge we have gained from the world is stored in our brain as an organized package of information called a schema.

The ‘schema theory’ states that the knowledge we have already gained through our life has a major influence on what we remember. According to Cohen (1986) as cited in Gross (64), the human mind uses past experiences in order to deal with new experiences. Our behavior is guided by the set of schemas that we have in our brain. The new experiences that we face are not just ‘replicated’ into our memory but instead are reconstructed in order to fit our schemas. The reconstruction of memory is an active process and happens throughout our life (Gross, 64). Therefore, how we perceive an event is strongly influenced by our past experiences.

Human memory is seen as an unreliable source when we apply the idea of reconstructive and interpretative nature of memory to eyewitness testimony. The probability of people

We will write a custom essay sample on
Eyewitness Testimony as a Source of Reliable Evidence
or any similar topic only for you
Order Now
being wrongly accused increases as the importance of eyewitness testimony in the cases of accidents and crimes increases, and therefore the guilty do not come to justice (Gross, 64). Many experiments conclude that law professionals and judges rely and place their decisions on eyewitness testimony, however, researchers investigated on situations whereby the innocent had been accused.

As cited in Miller’s article (2006), Gary Wells (1998) researched on forty such cases and with the help of DNA testing it was found that all forty convicted suspects were actually innocent. The witnesses wrongfully accused the suspects in thirty-six of these cases. The human brain has a limited capacity to deal with the incoming information but yet every moment we encounter a large variety of stimuli like sights, sounds and smells. However, as mentioned above if we encounter stimuli which conflict with our schemas, we reconstruct our memory in order to fit our chemas. The human brain therefore focuses on some aspects of the situation while ignoring the others in order to cope with the sensory barrage. This process of choosing stimuli is called selective attention. Eyewitnesses tend to collect information that relates to their interests and may ignore other vital aspects of the event (Glassman, 5). It is difficult for witnesses to reconsider their initial understanding once they have stated facts in a specific way or have already indentified an individual as the performer, due to the reconstruction of their memory (e. . once an eyewitness recognizes an individual in a line-up it is likely for them to recognize the same individual in later line-ups even though that individual may not be the performer). Jury’s place great reliance on eyewitness testimony and ignore the dangers of false memories (Engelhardt, n. d). In view of these findings, this work will investigate the “extent to which eyewitness testimony is reliable in today’s judicial system” focusing on major factors that influence our memory and ability to remember.

Cognitive psychology plays a major role in this investigation as it involves the idea of memory and schemas. DISCUSSION “An account given by people of an event they have witnessed” (Eyewitness Testimony Psychology) is usually referred to as an eyewitness testimony. One may be asked to recall the event they witnessed and describe what happened. Jury’s tend to find eyewitness testimony to be a reliable source of information and pay close attention to it, but the witness may have had a hard time remembering the event and the testimony could be inaccurate.

Research done by a number of psychologists regarding eyewitness testimony found that it could be affected by many psychological factors such as leading questions, anxiety and stress, weapons and reconstructive memory (Eyewitness Testimony Psychology). Factors such as age and gender could also affect the way in which individuals remember events. Influence of psychological factors on eyewitness testimony Misleading questions American psychologist, Elizabeth Loftus, represented the application of Cognitive psychology to the real world.

Her experiments demonstrated how misleading information could cause eyewitnesses to reconstruct their memories (Gross, 64). A leading question is a question that contains information previously unknown to the witness. In one of her studies with Palmer (Loftus and Palmer, 1974) as cited in the article Memory (Psychology), the participants watched a videotape that showed an automobile accident consisting of two cars. After watching the videotape the participants were presented with a questionnaire whereby the question was altered for groups of participants.

One question asked, “About how fast were the cars going when they hit each other? ” For other participants the verb ‘hit’ was replaced by ‘smashed’, ‘collided’, ‘bumped’, or ‘contacted’. Even though all participants viewed the same videotape, their speed estimates differed considerably depending on how the question was asked. When the verb ‘contacted’ was used, the average speed estimate was 32 mph, when the verb was ‘hit’ it was 34 mph, 38mph when it was ‘bumped’, 39 mph when it was ‘collided’, and 41 mph when it was smash.

Loftus carried out a follow up study a week later whereby she asked the participants whether there was any broken glass in the videotape. Participants that were presented with the verb ‘smashed’ were twice as likely to ‘remember’ any broken glass than the participants that were presented with the verb ‘hit’. The information that came in much later after the original event had occurred incorporated with that event, hence causing the original even to be remembered in a different way. The introduction of false signs misrepresented the participants’ memories (Memory (Psychology)).

The power of misleading questions is demonstrated in the above study by Loftus & Palmer. An answer is determined by how the question is asked. The tendency to distort one’s memory of an event when later exposed to misleading information about it is known as the misinformation effect. The witness’s memory could be affected by questions asked by the police, friends or attorneys. Reconstruction of memory could also take place if information about the case or crime comes in weeks or months later. This may change what the witness has to say on the witness stand (Memory (Psychology)).

The questions and information presented in the courtroom may cause the witness to remember the incident differently and the eyewitness testimony becomes inaccurate. Leading questions lead to the reconstruction of memory in order for the new information to fit into our already existing schemas. Leading questions therefore have the tendency to make eyewitness testimony unreliable in today’s judicial system. It is important for lawyers to know about the consequences of these questions and therefore construct their questions well. Anxiety and stress

Along with leading questions it is said that anxiety and stress is a psychological factor that affects eyewitness testimony. Some researchers have questioned whether attentional focus is a reason that causes poor recall of a violent incident. Clifford and Scott (1978) as cited in the article Eyewitness Testimony Psychology, found that when individuals witness a rather violent incident they seem to remember less than individuals who witness a non-violent incident. They carried out a study whereby they presented a film with violent attacks to a group of participants.

The control group who saw a less violent version of the film remembered more of the forty items about the event than the participants. The control group was not exposed to very stressful conditions as compared to the participants. Although this may have not been a real-life situation, the memory of the participants was affected by anxiety. An increase in anxiety and autonomic arousal is caused by violent incidents that in turn have a disadvantageous effect on memory. On the other hand, a study carried out by Yullie and Cutshall (1986) (as cited in the article Eyewitness Testimony Psychology) contradicts Clifford and Scott’s findings.

The research gathered by Yullie and Cutshall was that of a real-life situation hence making their data more accurate. The researchers showed that individuals had accurate memories when they witnessed a stressful event up close. The event was of a shooting just outside a gun shop in Canada. The scene witnessed was of a criminal who robbed the gun shop off guns and money but eventually was shot six times and died on the spot. Straight after this shooting had taken place, the police asked to interview thirteen individuals who were there at the time of the event and had witnessed it.

Five months later these same thirteen individuals were interviewed again. It was found that the recall was still as accurate as it was five months after witnessing the event. The two misleading questions that were presented by the police did not affect their memories or alter their testimony. However, one limitation to this study was that the witnesses interviewed were at different distances from the scene and the ones that were the closest went through a greater level of stress and this in turn may have assisted with their ability to remember the event vividly (Eyewitness Testimony Psychology).

Through both the studies carried out about anxiety and memory recall we can say that experiments carried out under laboratory conditions may not give the same results as when it is a real-life situation. Memory recall of a real-life situation is accurate even after a few months and the loaded questions do have as much of an effect as they do in laboratory experiments (e. g Loftus & Palmer, 1974) (Eyewitness Testimony Psychology). The above information gives a re-assurance that eyewitness testimony is not completely unreliable depending on the situation and the witness’s role in the event.

There may be some situations where memory distortions take place and other situations where they do not. Whether memory distortion or reconstruction takes place or not depends on the witness’s state of mind at the time of the event. The emotional state of the individual may cloud their reason, judgment and perception; therefore it is necessary to be neutral and unbiased when witnessing a crime scene. Weapon Focus The study by Yullie and Cutshall (1986) also relates to ‘weapon focus’ as a psychological factor that affects eyewitness testimony. When weapons are involved the witness is less likely to remember details about the riminal but is more likely to remember the details of the weapon (Eyewitness Testimony Psychology). An experiment conducted by Johnson and Scott (1976) as cited in Loftus et al (56) illustrated this phenomenon. In the ‘no weapon’ condition participants overheard a mild conversation in the next room about an equipment failure, witnessed a confederate enter the room with a grease pen, watched him utter a single line and leave. In the ‘weapon’ condition the participants overheard a violent conversation along with crashing objects, saw a confederate enter the room with a bloodied letter opener, watched him utter a single line and then leave.

Participants in both condition witnessed the target individual for four seconds. It was found that 33% of the participants in the ‘bloody letter opener’ condition identified the culprit correctly and 49% of the participants in the greasy pen condition identified the culprit correctly. A reduced ability to remember the confederate was associated with the presence of a weapon. Jury’s should take into account whether or not weapons were involved in the crime. This is because the eyewitness will be less likely to recognize the criminal and an innocent individual may be held guilty.

Our attention is usually drawn to the weapon and we ignore what else may be happening in our surroundings. Reconstructive Memory The reliability of eyewitness testimony can yet be argued through reconstructive memory. As mentioned earlier reconstructive memory is another one of the many psychological factors that has an effect on eyewitness testimony. Psychologist Neil Bartlett played a key role in associating reconstructive memory to eyewitness testimony as he stated that ‘recall is subject to personal interpretation dependent on our learnt or cultural norms and values’.

We have already established the fact that the human memory alters according to the way in which we store information in our brain, it is not stored exactly as it seems to be; different people interpret a situation differently and therefore store it in a way that makes sense to them. The brain stores information in schemas, but these schemas are able to distort unconsciously ‘unacceptable’ and unfamiliar knowledge in order to ‘fit in’ with the already stored information or schemas that we have which n turn results in unreliable eyewitness testimony (Eyewitness Testimony Psychology). Bartlett’s research about reconstructive memory found that “memory is an active process and subject to individual interpretation or construction” (Eyewitness Testimony Psychology). War of the Ghosts, (Bartlett (1932) as cited in Eyewitness Testimony Psychology) was his most famous study whereby he tried to show that we attempt to link what we remember with our existing schemas. In other words, our memory is not just an accurate footage of what has happened but it is what we make of it.

Bartlett mentioned that we usually involuntarily modify our memories so they make more sense to us. In the study Bartlett’s participants heard a story and had to re-tell the story to another person. The story was a North American folktale called ‘The War of the Ghosts’. When the participants were asked to recount the details of the story, each individual seemed to tell it in their own individual way. As the participants re-told the story, it became shorter, puzzling ideas were rationalized or omitted altogether and details changed to become more conventional or familiar.

The information about the ghosts was omitted as it was difficult to explain and participants recurrently recalled the idea of “not going because he hadn’t told his parents where he was going”, as that circumstance was more familiar to them. Through the above study Bartlett was able to conclude that our memory is distorted by the existing knowledge and schemas we have in the human brain. Therefore, it seems that each individual reconstructs their memory to conform to their individual values and attitudes towards the world. This is a clear indication that our memories are anything but reliable.

How we view and remember things depends on our ethics, culture, belief and past experiences. Also through reconstructive memory we make hasty generalizations basing information on what we ‘think’ may have happened due to the information we already have stored. We shape and assemble the incident according to our stereotypes and expectations. This can further be elaborated through a study by Allport and Postman (1947) as cited in Jarvis & Russell (131), whereby they presented participants with a picture of a scruffy white man threatening a smart black man with a razor.

Later when the participants were told to recall the picture they recalled that a scruffy black man was threatening a smart white man with a razor. This fitted in with the American stereotypes of that time; the participants reconstructed their memory according to their expectations. We can say that reconstructive memory is yet another reason that makes eyewitness testimony unreliable; however, some psychologists do believe that schema theory exaggerates the inaccuracy of memory. It cannot predict what and how people remember, as we do not know which schemas are being used.

The study by Allport and Postman also ties down into another way our cognitive system introduces error, which is by the means of inference. Inference emphasizes on how humans tend to make assumptions past the literal meaning. Many memory distortions are a part of this inference whereby what the eyewitness says to have witnessed is not what was perceived but a mere extension of it, hence, leading to an inaccurate recall of the event or incident (Glassman, 440) Flaws of the eyewitness as an individual Confident Testimony Confident testimony is yet another flaw that tends to put innocent people in jail.

When the witnesses say with absolute confidence that ‘this is the guy that did it… I will never forget that face’, it is difficult to argue with their beliefs. Confidence is a strong characteristic and although people may make mistakes with their testimony the way in which they give their testimony has a strong outcome on the jury. It becomes difficult to question their evidence and discredit their feelings after knowing that the witness went through a horrible crime especially when they give their testimony with absolute assurance.

Jurors will usually believe them. A major flaw that Elizabeth Loftus points out is that judges do not usually use the help of experts in order to bear out to the jury about the flaws of eyewitness testimony. It would be helpful to have a few cognitive psychologists as part of the jury in order to point out the factors that affect eyewitness testimony; however some judges will allow this while others will not. Jury’s that are unaware of the flaws of eyewitness testimony will have a larger percentile of wrongful verdicts compared to jury’s that are educated about he flaws. Elizabeth Loftus went on to explain that jury’s that are unaware of memory distortions will tend to decide their verdict from their ‘gut feeling’. Jury’s that are ignorant about these flaws rely greatly on the witness and have a propensity to discount the balance that needs to be present between the eyewitness testimony and the physical scientific evidence. Loftus also pointed out that when a witness repeatedly sees the accused they become encrypted in the victim’s memory, even if they are innocent.

The victim may continually see the suspect in photos and line-ups during the duration of the investigation period and court case. This may make it possible that the witness will then not be able to recognize the true criminal anymore, especially if the crime was witnessed for a short time and the victim was not able to perceive every stimulus in the surrounding. Therefore, when the witness will testify with absolute confidence that the ‘suspect’ is the actual criminal, it will be difficult for the jury to argue (Miller, 2006). Age

Psychological factors definitely play a huge role in eyewitness testimony but the characteristics of the witness also matter. Jury’s should also take into account the age and gender of the witness. Certain research has been done in order to identify the accuracy of a child’s eyewitness testimony; it is much less accurate than the adults’ testimony. This is because children are not able to give concrete answers to the questions that require much explanation. Children have less cognitive competence i. e. their information processing skills for problem solving, language and attention are undeveloped.

Psychologists from University of Southampton conducted research to analyze a child’s ability to answer repeated questions during a testimony. When a child gives a testimony they are afraid to be incorrect therefore repeated questions are not beneficial when it comes to child eye-witnessing as the questions confuse them and make them think that their original story was not true. The first information provided by the child is always the best. The younger the child is, the less accurate the testimony will be. Children usually give incorrect information due to their need to be socially approved.

Karpel et al (2001) as cited in Science Aid carried out research associated with age and eyewitness testimony. His aim was to see how reliable eyewitness testimony is in older people. Young adults (17 – 25) and older adults (65 – 85) were shown a video of a theft. They were then asked to recollect what they had seen in the video. The results of both age groups were compared and it was seen that the information provided by the young adults was more precise and their testimony was less likely to change when asked leading questions..

In order to ensure that information provided by elderly people is accurate it is advisable not to expose them to misleading questions as their memories are easily distorted. Also, older adults misremember context and therefore must be questioned carefully. As seen, age is another factor that affects eyewitness testimony and its reliability. It is important to know the age of the witness before moving on with the case as psychologists may have a slight idea about how reliable the provided information might be (Science Aid).

Gender There has been no concrete evidence as yet that males and females have a significant difference when identifying a criminal. Research by Shapiro & Penrod (1986) as cited in Wells & Olson (280) found that females are more likely to make accurate identifications but are also more likely to make false identifications, as they are more likely to try and ‘attempt’ to identify. Due to this males and females capitulate an equal ability to identify criminals and give an eyewitness testimony.

However since the male and female brains differ slightly, both genders will pay closer attention to different features of the incident, but the overall ability in eyewitness identification is impossible to tell apart. CONCLUSION Through research we have found that eyewitness testimony can be quite fallible and that there are a number of factors that seem to interfere with our memories. It is important for jury’s to be aware of these factors before placing a verdict and should not place great reliance on factors such as confidence and vivid descriptions of details. If possible, it is advisable o find other evidence rather than eyewitness testimony. A major limitation of the research investigated is that majority of the studies done in relation to eyewitness testimony are laboratory studies. This inhibits us to generalize the data collected to the real world. An implication for future research would be to carry out more interviews with individuals who have witnessed acts of crime and violence rather than basing conclusions on laboratory studies. Also, it could be helpful to carry out research regarding a number of factors that affect eyewitness testimony (e. g. study that compares the ability to remember events when the variables are age, gender, weapons and misleading questions). The limitation presented does not change the fact that human memory is a very personal and comparative aspect and therefore cannot be a foundation for any important decisions. It is important to know that memory changes with time and every consequent attempt to recall the event will be just another skewed interpretation of the event. Eyewitnesses can refute or support the general facts about the case but the details and their testimony should not be put superior to the actual evidence presented in court.

Studies have also proven that innocent people have been accused due to eyewitness testimony, this elaborates on the unreliability of it. Our ability to recall an event is affected by the information provided after the event, the level of stress and anxiety we are at during the time of the event also affects it, the presence of weapons also distorts our memory, reconstructive memory is yet another psychological factor that makes eyewitness testimony unreliable, our expectations, age and gender also play a role when giving a testimony.

All these factors should be taken into consideration when the evidence provided is eyewitness testimony. The reliability of eyewitness testimony in today’s judicial system is very low and should be analyzed in depth before reaching conclusions. REFERENCES Engelhardt, L. (n. d. ). “The problem with Eyewitness Testimony”. Agora. Retrieved Jan. 02, 2010 from http://agora. stanford. edu/sjls/Issue%20One/fisher&tversky. html. Eyewitness Testimony Psychology research. (2007). Psychology Degree and A-level online resources. Retrieved Feb. 2, 2010 from http://www. simplypsychology. pwp . blueyonder. co. uk/eyewitness-testimony. html Glassman, William E. (2000). Approaches to Psychology. Buckingham, England: Open UP. Gross, Richard D. (1999). Key Studies in Psychology. London: Hodder & Stoughton. Jarvis, M. , & Russell, J. (2002). Key Ideas in Psychology. Cheltenham: Nelson Thornes. Loftus, E. F. , Loftus, G. R. , & Messo, J. (1987). Some facts about weapon focus. Law and Human Behaviour. Memory (psychology) – MSN Encarta. (n. d. ). Retrieved Sept. 14, 2009 from http://encarta. msn. om/encyclopedia_761578303_5/Memory_(psychology). html Miller, Z. (2006, October 14). The Accuracy of Eye Witness Testimony and Its Flaws. Retrieved December 23, 2009, from http://ezinearticles. com/? The-­Accuracy-­of-­Eye-­Witness-­Testimony-­and-­Its-­Flaws&id=328261 Science aid: Eyewitness Testimony. (n. d. ) Science Aid: High School, A Level and GCSE Science. Retrieved 13 Dec. 2009 from http://scienceaid. co. uk/psychology/cognition/eyewitness. html Wells, Gary L. , & Olson, Elizabeth A. (2003). Eyewitness Testimony. Ames, Iowa: Iowa State University.

We will write a custom essay sample on
Eyewitness Testimony as a Source of Reliable Evidence
or any similar topic only for you
Order Now