Essay Eyewitness Testimony And Memory

Critical Issue: Eyewitness Testimony



An important explanation of organisation in human memory relies on the concept of schemas. These are simplified, generalised representations of things based on our experience. If you try to remember what you had for lunch on Christmas Day last year, you will probably find that the memory is as much influenced by the idea of a typical Christmas lunch, as it is by the actual details of the lunch itself. Memory capacity limitations prevent us from remembering precise details about our everyday lives, but schemas allow us to overcome these limitations because we can summarise the regularities in our lives. There is a cost to this, however, in that we may mistakenly ‘recall’ events that never really happened, because they make sense within a particular schema.


Reconstructive memory

Much of what we recall from LTM is not an accurate representation of what was presented to us. We organise incoming material and impose meaning upon it so that what we recall is effectively our version of what happened, which may be more or less accurate. The fact that memory works in an active way like was first demonstrated in experiments by Bartlett (1932) by using the technique known as serial (or repeated) reproduction.


He gave participants complex and unusual stories such as a North American Indian folk story called ‘The War of the Ghosts’ (see activity below) and asked them to reproduce it six or seven times over various retention intervals. Although there was some accurately recalled information, the stories were distorted and altered in various ways.


Many studies have supported Bartlett’s speculations (e.g. Hunter 1964), and have extended his findings to related phenomenon. Spiro et al (1980) demonstrated that even a simple story will be remembered in different ways, according to the particular viewpoints of the participants. (They used a story about an engaged couple where the man was against having children.)


The criticism that is sometimes made about Bartlett method is that the reason the story is poorly reproduced is that it is written in an unusual style. To try to improve the ecological validity of Bartlett’s study, Wynn & Logie (1998) asked students about an event that had happened to them earlier in the year. As most people would probably predict, their results contradicted Bartlett. They found that memories were actually very resistant to change over the year. However, this study is not a direct replication of Bartlett’s, since the information was an episode that had happened to the individual. This type of information is likely be so well-remembered that it will be less subject to the kind of distortions that more unfamiliar material will be prone to.


Activity: Replicating the War of the Ghosts Study


Eye-witness testimony

Bartlett’s ideas have been developed and extended by Elizabeth Loftus in relation eyewitness testimony (EWT). Loftus believed that the reconstruction of memories was one of the reasons why EWT was often inaccurate. For example, witnesses might try to fit information into a schema resulting in distortions. Another aspect of memory that she emphasises is interference by post-event information (such as that which might be introduced during questioning).


Reliability of eye-witness accounts

Eye-witness testimony is often a vital factor taken into account by juries in deciding whether defendants are guilty or not guilty. It is important, therefore, that we have some idea of how reliable these testimonies really are. The answer to this question seems to be that they are not always very accurate. Cromberg et al. (1996) interviewed people one year after an air crash in Amsterdam. Of the 193 questioned, 55% said that they had seen the plane hit the building when they had not and 59% inaccurately reported that a fire had started immediately on impact.


This should not surprise us. Bartlett (1932) suggested that although we think we remember accurately, we are continually trying to make sense of what is around us and our memories tend to be fitted into existing schemas. This process is known as effort after meaning. Loftus’s research shows that memory is not simply a ‘tape-recording’ of past events.


Effects of leading questions

According to Loftus, one way of adding information after the event is by the questions asked by interviewers. A leading question is one that is phrased in such a way that it suggests a particular answer to the witness. Loftus & Palmer (1974) showed how leading questions might affect the way that memory is recalled.


In a further investigations, Loftus and her colleagues showed how quite subtle changes of wording during questioning may distort recall (Loftus & Palmer, 1974 and Loftus & Zani, 1975).

Criticisms of this type of research, however, suggest that it lacks ecological validity as it is laboratory based and does not have the emotional impact of witnessing an incident. Also, research has focused on the recall of ‘peripheral’ details and, as Fruzetti et al. (1992) point out, it is more difficult to distort witnesses’ memory for key details such as the murder weapon involved in the incident.


Role of emotional arousal

Experimental evidence shows us that emotional arousal can lead to poor recall for details. Loftus et al (1978) showed a film of a hold-up and then tested memory for details. The results showed that a high-arousal version of a young boy being shot and falling to the floor clutching his bleeding face, led to poorer recall than a low-arousal version. However, research into so-called ‘flash-bulb memories’ does show that in certain circumstances memory can be intensified by emotionally charged events.

As a result of evidence from eye-witness studies, in 1976 the Devlin Report recommended that judges should instruct juries that it is not safe to convict on a single eye-witness alone, except in exceptional circumstances such as the witness is a friend or relative, or when there is substantial corroborative evidence.


Cultural variations in recall

It seems that the race or culture of the person attempting to recall information, and that of the person about whom the information is to be recalled, can have an impact upon the accuracy of recall.

Goldstein & Chance (1985) suggest that recognising faces is a complex skill that we develop and improve upon. However, to do this we have to have experience of the faces we want to recognise. Western people tend to experience difficulties in recognising faces of Japanese people. Similarly, to many Asian or black people, whites all look very similar. But these effects tend to come from lack of experience in meeting people from the different groups. With experience, we can soon learn to be more sensitive to the differences in people’s faces.


Improving recall

Hogg & Vaughan (1996) have examined a number of factors that lead to improved accuracy of eye-witness testimony. For example, it can help if the witness goes back over the scene or the crime to reinstate additional cues. It also helps if the witness was exposed to the person’s face for a long time and give their testimony a very soon after the crime. Certain personality factors are also important, i.e. does the witness habitually attend to his/her surroundings and does he/she generally form vivid mental images. Finally it helps if the person’s face was not altered by disguise and if he actually looks dishonest!


More controversial is the idea that hypnosis will aid eye-witness memory. Many studies have found no advantage from using this technique (e.g. Smith, 1983). Indeed, Orne et al. (1984) have shown that hypnosis can actually distort recall.


Some of the reasons why evidence gathered under hypnosis should be treated with caution are as follows:

  • People may pick up on suggestions communicated by the hypnotist and incorporate these into their own memory — in effect ‘leading questions’ are more likely to produce distorted memories.
  • Hypnotised people sometimes ‘see’ things that were not there and fail to report things that were there.
  • Confidence with which people give information is high even though it may be incorrect. This may lead to false trails in the investigation.
  • If hypnosis makes mental images more vivid, hypnotised people may confuse these images with actual memories.


[Based on findings by Laurence & Perry (1983), Rathus (1987) and Hassett & White (1989).]


The conclusion of a panel appointed by the American Medical Association was that hypnosis sometimes produces additional details that are unreliable. Police are recommended to limit its use to the investigative stage of an enquiry where it may produce clues whose details could be checked by other sources rather than accepting recall under hypnosis as evidence itself.

Other methods of improving recall have been more widely accepted. One such technique, the cognitive interview, has proved to be a better tool at extracting information than the standard police interview with no more errors (Fisher & Geiselman, 1988). The technique uses four strategies designed to maximise recall:


  • Mentally reinstating the environmental and personal context that existed at the time of the crime.
  • Reporting everything regardless of its perceived importance
  • Recounting events in a variety of different orders
  • Reporting the events from a variety of perspectives


References: EWT


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Example of a Critical essay on Law about:

eyewitness testimony / memory / criminal justice / perception / Laplas

Essay Topic:

The problem of considering eyewitness memory to be a reliable evidence for the Court.

Essay Questions:

Why has eyewitness memory always been a subject of constant arguments?

How does Criminal justice treat eyewitness memory?

What are the strength and the weaknesses of eyewitness testimony?

Thesis Statement:

The eyewitness memory can be of any value only in case of its correspondence to the major court demands and its 100% objectivity which is especially hard due to the subjectivity of the human perception.


Eyewitness Memory to Recall a Crime is Infallible essay


Table of contents:

1. Introduction

2. Eyewitness testimony and its weaknesses

3. The accuracy of eyewitness memory

4. Children as eyewitnesses

5. Ways of facilitating eyewitness testimony

6. Eyewitness stereotype

7. Conclusion

"The case in which you really need to worry about eyewitnesses’

memory is the case in which it’s the only evidence you‘ve got,"

Steven M. Smith

Introduction. Eyewitness memory has always been a subject of constant arguments throughout the whole history of its existence. People’s words have always been valued and having a witness of a crime was he worst thing hat could happen to the criminal. The phrase “Eyewitnesses do not live long” so commonly spread among people, reveals the importance of the fact of eye-witnessing for the majority of people in general and especially for the jury. The eyewitness memory as any other source of evidence has to be carefully checked and evaluated. And what is even more important – the objectivity of the recollections have to be very at a very high rate. Criminal justice requires special attention to the phenomenon of the eyewitness memory as it is known that sometimes memory plays tricks on its carriers. This is primarily due to the peculiarities of the perception of human mind and the character of the reproduction of the information. It is common knowledge that memory is a process of perception, storage and reproduction of any information. So it is very important to be sure that all of these processes are undamaged. This emphasises the importance of the information about the eyewitness health and mental abilities. The eyewitness memory can be of any value only in case of its correspondence to the major court demands and its 100% objectivity which is especially hard due to the subjectivity of the human perception.

2. Eyewitness testimony and its weaknesses

Eyewitness testimony is an oral informing about the circumstances that are important to the criminal case. During the process of checking and evaluation of the eyewitness testimony the main difficulty is to determine if the eyewitness has certain reasons for concealing information or giving false testimony. The main weakness of the eyewitness testimony is the analysis of the process of its formation, taking into account all the subjective and objective factors, which could have influenced the accuracy, veracity and objective reliability. There are four factors that question the trustworthiness of the eyewitness testimony. They are: the characteristics of human perception, the conditions under which the perception takes place, the specific character of the memorization and the memory peculiarities, and the character and he conditions under which the reproduction of the perceived information takes place. All these four conditions can without any doubt be called the weaknesses of the process of the eyewitness testimony.

The characteristics of human perception implies the physiological limitations of he persons, any defects of the perception organs and the orientation of the perception, susceptibility to different irritants, the psychological setting on perception of the person and he understanding of his own attitude towards the perceived facts. The conditions under which the perception takes place emphasize the importance of the psychological state of a person at the moment of perception, the duration and the atmosphere of the process of perception, the operation factors of the perceived object, physical conditions of the perception such as the specificity of illumination, distance, audibility and any others. The specific character of the memorization and the peculiarities of memory of the eyewitness create a separate group which is vital in the evaluation of the reliability of the eyewitness testimony. This is especially actual in terms of the novelty of the events for the eyewitness, their recurrence, the continuance of the storage of information, the particular qualities of the witness’s memory and its defects and a last the possibilities of distortion or substitution of the information. The character and the conditions under which the reproduction of the perceived information takes place intends to reveal the value of the interpretation of the setting, unwillingness to give reliable testimony according to personal motives or because of the dread of revenge from the side of defendant and the conformity of the given testimony and its record.All these conditions under which the eyewitness testimony is “insolvent” make it very hard to trust the eyewitness testimony or rely only on it during the case investigation. For that reason no eyewitness testimony should be taken in into consideration if the witness depositions contradict other irrefutable evidence. Another questionable situation is the contradiction of the testimonies of two eyewitnesses which rather often happens in court. Basically saying eyewitness testimony remains too objective for the court and for that reason it can not be a subject of complete confidence until it is not supported by any objective details. The major problem is the contradiction and sometimes the discrepancy of the subjective and objective evidence. This puts the necessity of eyewitness testimony under a big question!

3. The accuracy of eyewitness memory

The biggest task of the evaluation of the eyewitness testimony is the selection of the correct information and the release from all the subjective “blast”.According to Marc Green:”Memory can change the shape of a room. It can change the colour of a car. And memories can be distorted. They are just an interpretation. They are not a record” [1]. This is what makes the eyewitness memory primarily unreliable for the court. It goes without saying that there are both accurate and inaccurate eyewitnesses. Nevertheless, the probability of getting inaccurate eyewitness testimony may is still rather high and this is extremely dangerous due to the fact that the wrong person can be put in jail only because someone gave “inaccurate” information concerning the case. The jurisdiction system is not the place for might guesses and human beings can very seldom be objective towards what they have observed in the past. Individuals tend to add and to modify what they saw and they do it unconsciously. It happens due to the peculiar probabilities of the memory. The brain subconsciously “fills in the gaps” of memory and through this creates new case-details. These details ordinarily are not correct at all.Actual perception and memory do not have much in common, as many facts a blurred, forgotten or replaced by other facts. Any reconstruction of a given even is often accompanied by slight changes in the testimony which can become indicators of the unreliability of the eyewitness’s event and fact memory. The accuracy of the eyewitness’s statements is not stable and subjectivism reduces the precision of the facts to zero. The brightest practical example is any childhood event that people usually like to reproduce. It is common knowledge that all of them are distorted sometimes completely. But what happens to the perception when a person finds himself in a situation of high stress when for instance becomes an eyewitness of a murder?

According to the studies of the Yale University:”…the ability to recognize persons encountered during highly threatening and a stressful event is poor in the majority of individuals…” [2]. So the only situation when the eyewitness testimony should be considered is when that even took place in a very familiar environment for he individual and did not cause any extreme stress condition.The problem of accuracy of the eyewitness testimony is closely related to the inability to provide correct “peripheral details” and the tendency to provide changed details of the event. The majority of people have stereotyped thinking when certain events are connected to certain objects and other events. For instance, a person that has a settled opinion that all robbers have knives will claim that he saw a knife in the hands or in the pocket of the robber. Individuals confuse memory information sources and sometimes also combine two different events. Or they might have heard a story related o their case and impose this “borrowed memories” over the actual situation. So the accuracy is no any means a characteristic of the eyewitness testimony.

4. Children as eyewitnesses

There have been certain research made in terms of identifying the accuracy of child’s eyewitness testimony. According to the general experience in child testimony, it is much less accurate then the adult testimony. The main reason for this is that children are unable to give concrete answers to the questions that require detailed answers [11]. The research conducted by Amina Memon and Rita Vartoukian, psychologists from University of Southampton, analysed the child’s ability to answer repeated questions during the testimony. Children tend to think that they may give “a correct or incorrect” answer on a testimony, that is the reason repeated questions confuse them and make them think that their original story was not true. So repeated testing does not bring its normal benefits when it goes about child eye-witnessing. Therefore, the first information provided by a child is the best. The younger the child is, the less accurate testimony can be made. Children tend to give incorrect answers due to their liability to social convention. They always need to be socially approved. The best solution in such a situation is to make sure that during the interview they know that they may answer a question with “I do not know” or even telling them that some questions may be tricky and the most important part is telling that even if they are asked to repeat an answer it does not necessarily mean that they gave the “wrong” answer [13]. Research states: “children can be reliable witnesses as long as adults use careful questioning”.

5. Ways of facilitating eyewitness testimony

Very often some questions or situations the witnesses find themselves in can confuse them. This especially concerns the situation when eyewitnesses make false identifications.The good example of false identification was provided by the University of Nebraska which studied the photo-memory of the eye-witnesses. Students observed how criminals(actors) committed several crimes in front of them and a hour later they were provided with shots with the people who were ”criminals” and not. In a week a line-up was organized and the eyewitnesses were asked to point out the criminals. Surprisingly, the people who were chosen did neither participate in the crimes nor appear in the shots. 20% of those who did not participate, but whose pictures were given to the “eye-witnesses” a week before were falsely identified, too [14].The suspect line-up is always a problem for an eyewitness, due to the mentioned above peculiarities of the memory. For this reason certain elaborations should be made. It is vital to mention that the offender may not even be present at the line up. The decisions of the eyewitness need to be not taken in a rush, but after a calm observation. It is a much better option to make several line-ups. All the questions addressing the eyewitness are supposed to be clear and conscious and not by any means perplexing. By this acting the level of uncertainty will be reduced. Another good technique is the usage of the statements made by the witness himself earlier in the conversations. The eyewitness needs to feel comfortable. Ordinarily, the majority of eyewitnesses feel excessive responsibility, which causes them to feel anxiety. This should be reduced by the manner of talking to them, which is not to be hostile but friendly and supportive. Sometimes the method of free recall should be used in order to make the eyewitness feel free of any pressure. Taping the testimony will help the interviewer to “hedge” the eyewitness from additional “sufferings” connected with the situation of repeating unpleasant memories.

It is very important not to impose any words, expressions or opinions to the eyewitness. The task of the interviewer is just to fix the information obtained from “correctly stated” questions.

6.Eyewitness stereotype

It is not unusual when eyewitness testimony contradicts the real forensic evidence of the case. This contradiction creates a serious problem for the jury. Juries are people and are also subjective, and it is obvious that their personal.The research in the field of eyewitness memory is of a great significance to the jurisdiction system. And that is very important not to underestimate the meaning of the temperament, physical properties and other moments when analyzing the eyewitness testimony.Psychological questions concerning the eyewitness testimonies were the main priority of a French scientist Laplas. Laplas analyzes the probability of the eyewitness statements along with the probability of he outcome of court verdict. He constructed a list of elements that may imply that the testimony complies with the reality. This list consists of the next elements:

• The probability of the event that the eyewitness is telling about.

• The likelihood of the next four hypotheses in terms of the eyewitness’s statements.

o The eyewitness is not mistaken and is not lying.

o The eyewitness is lying, but not mistaken.

o The eyewitness is not mistaken, but is lying.

o The eyewitness is both lying and mistaken.

In this hypotheses “mistaken” means that the eyewitness is confusing facts that of the described event. Laplas perfectly understood the difficulty of evaluation of the veracity or falsity of the eyewitness testimonies through this method because of the large amount of circumstances, accompanying the facts that the eyewitness makes statements about. He considered his theory to be just a probability and not a certainty. That is the reason he also considered that the court does the same thing – it bases on the probability and not reliability. Nevertheless Laplas’s scheme is very interesting as a scientific attempt to evaluate the reliability of the eyewitness testimonies.

Conclusion. Human memory there fore is something very personal and comparative. It cannot be a base for any important decisions such as the court verdicts. The eyewitness puts all his believes, settings and attitudes to the testimony he makes.It is vital to keep in mind that memory changes with time and every subsequent attempt to retell what has happened will be jus another subjective interpretation of the event. Eyewitnesses can support or refute general facts about the case, but the details and their testimony should never be put above the actual evidence presented to the court. The only exception are the cases when eyewitness testimony is the only available evidence, but these cases should by analyzed on a very specific model, as they do not coincide with what people call “justice”. If to act like this it is possible to accuse any innocent person and put him behind the bars. How just is this? Should eyewitness testimony be taken into account at all? It goes without saying that the information got from the witnesses can be important, but only general information in the first place and its verity will be considered rather relative in the second.The following words by Norretranders and Sydenham perfectly describe the whole situation around the eyewitness memory reliability:”We do not see what we sense. We see what we think we sense. Our consciousness is presented with an interpretation, not the raw data. Long after presentation, an unconscious information processing has discarded information, so that we see a simulation, a hypothesis, an interpretation; and we are not free to choose”[7].



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