An essay on the contribution that cognitive psychology has made to our understanding of everyday memory with reference to eyewitness



Eyewitness memory refers to episodic memory of a specific event which is regularly associated with that of a criminal nature. Inaccurate memory recall of the eyewitness is often a result of the effects of distorted cognitive processes in the interpretation of post and pre-event information. Such distortion in memory recall can be a result of specific biases and transferences which arise from various innate and environmental factors. The importance of understanding these cognitive processes have allowed researchers and law enforcement officials alike to practice a fairer and equal justice system, through accepting the malleability of memory but also focusing on its vital reliability and importance when accessed and analyzed in the correct manner.


One would assume that most jurors. when they asked judges. The question. “Did you see any broken glass?”. Ross. jurors and eyewitness experts 30 questions concerning eyewitness memory. After viewing the film. On a retest one week later. bumped. 2009). there are few consequences if the participant was to erroneously report what they had experienced. Findings such as this indicate the potential benefits of expert assistance in eyewitness evidence and the need for a more thorough cognitive understanding for law enforcement professionals of eyewitness memory. in particular if the eyewitness appears to be highly confident about his or her recollection (Wells. An eyewitness with no motive to lie is heavily relied on as a strong source of evidence for jurors. Thomas and Bradshaw (2006). 75% of them were found guilty on the basis of mistaken eyewitness identification (Kocsis. This contrasts sharply with the repercussions that memory errors can have in the real world. Other examples include: asking if the eyewitness saw the gun the person was carrying. one thinks how memory can be so fallible and ways to improve it. The essay will finish with discussing the cognitive interview technique and how it epitomises the contribution cognitive psychology has made to eyewitness memory. this assumption is wrong as shown in a study carried out by Benton. Research like this is based on the storehouse metaphor. or hit in place of smashed. Pertinent to the storehouse metaphor. 2006).g. In the USA approximately 200 people have been shown innocent and exonerated from prison thanks to advances in DNA testing. Different recognition techniques and biases in eyewitness memory will then be explained as well as their cognitive underpinnings. This metaphor focuses on items being stored in our memory and what is of interest has to do with the amount of items you are able to access on retrieval. Eakin. contacted. judges and law enforcement professionals would be knowledgeable about the potential problems associated with eyewitness testimony. along with its cognitive basis in relation to recalling accurate eyewitness memories. facial characteristics of a criminal) (Eysenck & Keane. Of these 200 people. the correspondence metaphor is considerably more fitting for everyday memory. When one thinks of memory. Schreiber and Sergent Marshall (2003) also found that that eyewitness memory impairment occurred when the eyewitnesses were immediately warned about the presence of misleading information after viewing slides of a maintenance man stealing money from an office. The most obvious explanation for the inaccurate memory recall of the eyewitness is that they often fail to pay attention to the actual crime and criminal(s) as the crime they observe typically happens quickly and unexpectedly (Eysenck & Keane. what is of central interest is the amount of informative items about a specific crime that can be recalled. In opposition to this is the correspondence metaphor focuses on the crucial items of information (e. When applied to eyewitness testimony the comparison can be clearly highlighted. what is of main importance is the coherence between an individual’s report and the actual event. 2010). In the typical laboratory based memory experiment. The importance of memory in the real world (everyday memory) has traditionally been overshadowed by inferences made under laboratory conditions using artificial learning materials. guilty people remaining free and innocent people being incarcerated. those subjects who received the verb smashed were more likely to say “yes” to the question. However eyewitness memory is not always accurate and errant identifications can lead to investigations in wrong directions. They showed eyewitnesses a film of a multiple car accident. 2010). it is usually considered in everyday context.g. Eyewitness memory refers to the episodic memory of a specific event which is regularly associated with that of a criminal nature (Cohen & Conway. According to this metaphor. eyewitnesses described what had happened and were asked specific questions about events occurring in the film. The essay will then move on to discuss post and pre-event information and its effects. or how we remember certain aspects of our lives so much better than others.This essay will discuss how cognitive psychology has aided and guided our understanding of everyday memory. Biased questions and cues illustrate how post event information can subtly become part of an eyewitnesses’ memory. the explicit and narrow questions eyewitnesses are asked) can easily distort the eyewitnesses’ fragile memory of events. For example. 2 . However. “About how fast were the cars going when they smashed into each other?” elicited higher estimates of speed than questions which used the verbs collided. 2008). Loftus and Palmer (1974) argued that what happens after observing the crime (e. Bradshaw. even though broken glass was not present in the film. Judges disagreed with the experts on 60% of the issues and jurors disagreed with the experts on 87% of the issues. Memon & Penrod. focusing on eyewitness memory. The modern criminal justice system relies significantly on eyewitnesses to determine and define the facts regarding criminal events. The essay will begin with addressing everyday memory as an entity as opposed to traditional models and then give a brief synopsis of eyewitness memory and its importance. In contrast...

the blend explanation and the response bias explanation. corresponds well with the “person identity node” component of the Bruce and Young (1986) model of face recognition. The most prominent ones being: the vacant slot explanation. CCTV and the taxi man who dropped him to the truck rental accounted for him being on his own . 2010). The eyewitnesses who provided the 3 . 1999). in the Oklahoma bombings.. Results showed that the eyewitness was three times more likely to pick the bystander than someone else they had not seen before from a line-up which included the bystander but not the culprit. Chan and Dahl (2004) explored this by showing participants a museum burglary. Retroactive interference is described by Eysenck and Keane (2010) as “disruption of memory by the learning of other material during the retention interval” (p. On the previous day the participants listened to a narrative that was either thematically similar (a palace burglary) or thematically dissimilar (school field trip to a palace) to the video. Response bias occurs when the methods used to conduct a study towards post-event information may bias eyewitnesses towards reporting the misinformation as opposed to that of the original event. The blend explanation is when post event information and the information from the original event are combined together to form one single memory. Another one of the most common ways for eyewitnesses to encounter misinformation is when discussing the event in question with other eyewitnesses (Paterson & Kemp. The witness in question decides the source of any activated memory on the basis of the information it contains. The third employee gave an accurate description of McVeigh but also recalled him being with another person. the coexistence explanation. This requires what is known as holistic or configural processing. 2006). Source misattribution is likely when the memories from one source have similarities to a second source (Eysenck & Keane. the question of information prior to the event having an affect must be addressed. Eyewitnesses may sometimes remember a face but fail to remember the exact circumstances in which they saw it. his recollection spread into their memories and they soon recalled that McVeigh was with an apprentice after initially claiming he was on his own (Memon & Wright. Any memory probe is able to activate memories from various sources. the above experiments show that information acquired before the event (proactive interference) and between the original learning of the event and the subsequent testing of information of that event (retroactive interference)can heavily disrupt memory performance. This is not the case. Subjects made more errors when recalling information when they were subject to the thematic similar narrative the previous day. Allen.310). The coexistence explanation is that separate memory representation exist for both the original and the post-information but the post-information is selected as the witness feels obliged to or as a result of source misattribution.308). which involves integrating information from an entire object. From a cognitive recognition perspective. From a cognitive perspective. Wright and Loftus (2008) established various other factors along with source misattribution to explain how eyewitnesses are misled by retroactive interference and what happens to the original memory. his/her chances of successfully identifying them would increase. as shown by Schooler and Engstler-Schooler (1990). retroactive interference is thought to influence eyewitnesses more than proactive interference.Two of the three other employees of the truck rental initially believed he was on his own. The idea behind this with regard eyewitness memory is that a memory probe (e. 2008).as it suggests there was a gun. Lindsay. If eyewitness memory can be distorted by post-event information. One might believe that if the eyewitness were to initially provide a verbal description of the culprit. This is known as unconscious transference and is defined by Eysenck and Keane (2010) as: “the tendency of eyewitnesses to misidentify a familiar (but innocent) face as belonging to the person responsible for the crime” (p. verbal utterances after the eyewitness responds to a question like “are you sure?” and “thank you” and also many nonverbal responses like smiling or nodding when the eyewitness answers in a way that confirms the questioner’s beliefs (Cohen & Conway. a question) activates memory traces which overlap with the information it contains. when they asked eyewitnesses to give a detailed report of a criminal’s appearance or perform an unrelated task following the viewing of a recorded crime. Out of the two. After a discussion with his co-workers. this error that eyewitnesses are prone to making. Ceci.g. Dunning and Toglia (1994) asked eyewitnesses to observe an event in which an innocent bystander was present along with the culprit. For example. The vacant slot explanation is that misinformation is likely to be accepted when the related information of the original event was not stored in memory. Timothy McVeigh rented the truck used in the tragedy. A study carried out by Ross. The most important information that an eyewitness may or may not remember is the culprit’s face.

retrieve another (Eysenck & Keane. 2001). 2010). This type of interview technique illustrates the role cognitive psychology plays in eyewitness memory as it is based on assumptions such as: memory traces being complex and containing various types of information. An essential factor in successful eyewitness testimony is the interview process between the police and eyewitness as it acts as mean of collecting as much accurate information as possible. After watching the video. Eyewitness testimony can also be distorted through means of confirmation bias (e. Loftus & Palmer. Researchers have found that people have more difficulty recognising people from a different race that from that of their own (Meissner & Brigham. 1974). 2010). cue retrieval effectiveness depending on its informational overlap with information stored in the trace and also the fact that various retrieval cues may permit access to any given memory trace. According to the social cognitive hypothesis. According to the expertise hypothesis. participants were shown colour photographs of eight men. Finger (2002). They found that participants were more accurate in identifying the culprit if they were from the same age group. 2010). Similar findings occur in own-gender biases where people have better memory for their own gender (Wright & Sladden. In order to explain this effect. Another factor which eyewitness identification depends on is the cross-race effect. to native Swedish and immigrant students. This is depicted in the results of an experiment carried out by Wright. as if one is ineffective. four Swedes and the rest immigrants. Transfer-appropriate processing is a type of state dependent memory that specifically shows that memory performance is not only determined by the depth of processing but by the relationship between how information is initially encoded and how it is later retrieved (Eysenck & Keane. In order to explain why our memory is influenced by expectations. cognitive interview produced 40% more correct statements. reports everything he/she can remember about the (event even if it is fragmented). These memory packets lead us to create specific expectations and can disfigure our memory by allowing us reconstruct the details of an event based on what we actually perceived to be true (Beals. s report the details of the incident in various orders and report the event from various perspectives. 2004) and the failure to process the face as a whole but rather focus on specific features (Chin & Schooler. When put into practice against the standard police interview.. The own race group is well established. This is known as verbal overshadowing.g. 2010). the expertise hypothesis and social cognitive hypothesis were derived. but both own-age and own-gender memory recognition biases have also been observed. including environmental and internal information. argues that verbal overshadowing occurs as part of a cognitive mechanism labelled “transfer appropriate processing”. personal event memory is influenced by the observer’s expectations) (Eysenck & Keane. in which the perpetrator wounded the cashier. They found that the odds of a correct identification were about three times more likely for own race identifications than cross-race identifications. which suggests we recognise and identify faces of our own individual race better than those from a different race (Eysenck & Keane. Boyd and Tredoux (2001) who conducted a field experiment in which confederates asked members of the general public directions to the cinema. For example. Results showed that both groups evaluated an ethnically dissimilar perpetrator as more culpable than an ethnically similar perpetrator. Geiselman. we process the faces of who we identify ourselves with (our ingroup) more thoroughly than that we would for individuals with whom we do not identify (outgroups) (Eysenck & Keane. Bartlett (1932) explained that as humans we possess different memory packets of knowledge stored in our long term memory. Other causes of verbal overshadowing can result from excessive cautiousness (Clare & Lewandowsky. Fisher. 2008). 4 . 2010). 1998. Both Swedish and immigrant participants were twice as likely to select an innocent immigrant to an innocent Swede in a line-up task. Lindholm and Christianson (1998) illustrated this by showing a simulated videotape of a robbery. It was based on the following notions: he eyewitness recreates the context existing at the time of the crime. MacKinnon and Holland (1985) devised effective interviewing techniques for what is known as “the cognitive interview”. 2003).detailed description proved worse than those who did not have to describe the culprit in a subsequent identification task. Wright & Stroud (2002) showed both young aged groups (18-33 year olds) and middle aged groups (35-55 years old) videos of simulated crimes with the criminal being either of the two age groups. we have had much more experience at distinguishing among same race features as opposed to cross-race features and so have developed an expertise at same-race face recognition. Two minutes later a research assistant approached them and asked them to make an identification of the confederate.

along with different types of recognition methods and biases as well as the cognitive interview technique. one can see how cognitive psychological approaches greatly aid our understanding of eyewitness memory. one can achieve a better understanding of everyday memory and eyewitness memory by applying knowledge of various cognitive psychological methods and models. through accepting the malleability of memory but also focusing on its vital reliability and importance when accessed and analyzed in the correct manner. 5 .In conclusion. From analysing post and pre-event information on the effect of accurate memory recall. The importance of understanding these cognitive processes have allowed researchers and law enforcement officials alike to practice a fairer and equal justice system.

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