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Memory in the Real World: How Reliable Is Eyewitness Testimony?

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I have spent over five years studying different areas of memory, such as how people remember different episodes of their lives. More recently, I have focused my attention upon how this memory research can be applied to real life situations, in particular to that of an eyewitness testimony situation where a person must use their eyewitness memory to recall an event that has taken place.

Eyewitness memory is a type of memory that includes both remembering specific events, using episodic memory, and also remembering the meanings associated with the events, using elements of semantic memory. A person may use eyewitness memory to recall where they were on a specific day, or what was happening at a specific time but they may also use their memory to focus upon what the event meant to them if they had any personal emotions involved.

Within cognitive psychology, eyewitness testimony is heavily researched as juries tend to pay close attention to the details a witness is recalling. It can be suggested that juries should also consider the factors that could influence the recall of events as this is one of the reasons as to why eyewitness testimony may be seen as unreliable.

There are many factors that have been shown to influence eyewitness testimony such as an age bias relating to both the perpetrator and the witness. It can be suggested that as witnesses become older, their memory declines, meaning they may be seen as a less reliable witness in comparison to a younger witness.  Research has also shown that the type of event a person is asked to recall can influence the amount of information remembered. It can be factors such as these which make a witness question their own details of the event to be remembered and in turn, this can lead jurors to conclude that an eyewitness may be unreliable.

I was recently reading a paper which suggested that when people are asked to recall more violent events, their eyewitness memory may be less accurate. This could be due to the amount of information that is required to be recalled in a more violent event (face, act, or weapon) in comparison to a non-violent event where only basic details may need to be remembered.

Most of the past research has focused upon factors that can affect eyewitness memory, with these factors being specifically related to the actual event that has taken place.

More recently, the focus of this research has changed, and researchers are now investigating the factors that are associated with the eyewitness themselves and not the factors that are directly related to the recalled event.

I have recently been working with a group of students who have looked at factors that could influence eyewitness memory. Here, the study investigated factors, such as the anxiety levels of the witness, which could influence a person’s eyewitness memory accuracy. Although I cannot provide further details of this study at the minute, conducting literature reviews on the topic has provided me with a greater understanding that it is not just the situation alone that can influence a person’s eyewitness recall, but also the traits of the witness themselves.

The working memory capacity of an eyewitness is one trait that can influence how much detailed information a person can recall. If a person has a very limited working memory capacity and is unable to store a large body of fine detailed information, it can be questioned as to how accurate their memory really is.

A person with a lower working memory capacity may not have the ability to move information to their long term memory, meaning that the recall of an event as an eyewitness could be an issue, especially if the event has taken place a long time ago.

Theories which look at attentional control can also explain how some people are more accurate eyewitnesses than others. Such theories emphasise the ability for someone to direct their attention to multiple objects or elements of an eyewitness event. If a person has greater attentional control and can direct attention to multiple elements in an event, their eyewitness memory may be more accurate. Of course, this may be a difficult concept to test as there are many definitions of what attentional control really is.

Some people suggest that attentional control in eyewitness testimony is only related to the important elements of an eyewitness account, such as the presence of a weapon or what the perpetrator looks like. It has also been suggested, however, that attentional control could be related to the less important aspects, such as where the event took place and how long the incident lasted. I will let you have a read up on this before making your own decisions.

The anxiety of the eyewitness is a developing area in eyewitness research and this is very important as anxiety can be present in every stage of the eyewitness process, from witnessing the event to the final court case.

Within eyewitness situations, the witness is often well-prepared to provide eyewitness evidence, however this may not help if the eyewitness has high levels of anxiety on a daily basis. Now, the support given to eyewitnesses does aim to reduce anxiety relation to the judicial processes, however the support may often not help those with a high anxiety trait in everyday life. A combination of high anxiety, poor memory, and age factors could contribute to the unreliable nature of eyewitness testimony, but this is something that is questionable today.

Although research may point in the direction of an eyewitness being influenced by a factor, this does not necessarily mean that an eyewitness is unreliable. There are just certain factors that should be considered by a jury before making any form of decision about a person in question.

Laura Jenkins, PhD is a teaching associate in the School of Sport, Exercise and Health Sciences at Loughborough University. 


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