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Cognition, Undergraduate

The Value of Eyewitness Accounts

To my favorite teenage person,

Youth is often accompanied by a sense of infallibility, an overzealous confidence in the quality and quantity of one’s knowledge base, and a gross underestimation of one’s ignorance. Few things are as well positioned to tame such conceit as scientific tests of the accuracy of our everyday memory. But demonstrating memory’s fallibility only opens the door for curiosity’s investigation of its mechanisms, which are slowly being elucidated.

English: graph chart about proactive and retro...
Proactive and Retroactive Interference; Image via Wikipedia

Eyewitness testimony, so revered by judges and jurors, is, given the high stakes of legal judgments, highly unreliable evidence. Memory of events, particularly dramatic or stressful events, can be confounded by many well-studied phenomenon. Confirmation bias – that is, a witness’s pre-conceived expectation (or schema) – has been shown to influence eyewitness recall, as has weapon focus – a tendency to focus on weapons, especially in incongruous settings, at the expense of other details. Proactive and retroactive interference can play major roles in confounding memory formation and retrieval through post-event information, verbal overshadowing, and unconscious transference. Further, cross-race and cross-status effects lead to poor facial recognition, bringing into question a large subset of eyewitness identifications. And anxiety, a condition likely inseparable from real-life crime scenarios, has been shown to significantly reduce eyewitness encoding detail and accuracy.

Perhaps the only area of memory research likely to reassure young readers is work comparing eyewitness memory between older and younger adults. Young adults have been found to be much less vulnerable to being misled into false memories than older adults, who are also much more confident in the accuracy of false memories once they have been established. But, favorite teenage person, don’t let this last bit go to your head.

Sincerely,

Lee

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