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Despite advances in forensic science, many people are convicted solely on the basis of
eyewitness testimony. This means that it's absolutely crucial that we understand how
eyewitness memory operates and how reliable it is.
This is one of those things where some criminal justice professionals, such as judges, argue
that how eyewitness memory operates is essentially common sense, and so referring to
behavioural science research has little value. Are they right?
Well, let's look at one out of the many studies that have directly addressed this question.
John Brigham and Robert Bothwell from Florida State University gave prospective jurors
descriptions of real research studies in which people saw a simulated crime and were
then asked to pick out the criminal in a line up. The prospective jurors were asked to
predict what percentage of the people in the study would be able to correctly identify the
As you can see, people estimated identification accuracy to be between fifty-one and seventyone percent, depending on the study. However, the actual accuracy of participants in these
studies was always significantly and substantially lower, between thirteen and thirty-two
percent. So, the common sense beliefs of potential jurors were not true. In most cases, they
weren't even close.
The problem with these beliefs is that they influence how much credibility both criminal
justice professionals and jurors assign to eyewitness testimony. Okay, so these were
simulated crimes. Maybe eyewitness accuracy would be different in a high stakes real world
situation? So let's take a really extreme real world example. Let's take an absolutely horrific
crime of mass murder where that crime was seen by millions of people via media coverage,
and let's examine the memory accuracy of one individual who was at the heart of events. On
the eleventh of September 2001, the World
Trade Centre in New York was destroyed in a terrorist attack. The President of the United
States of America at that time was George W. Bush. So, if there would be anyone who we
might expect would have an accurate recollection of how he heard about this crime, it would
be him. Yet, on three occasions, he has made public statements about how he heard the
news and they don't all tell the same story.


Okay, so in this case, we're not talking about testimony that affected the crime investigation
itself, but the reason I want to use this example is because it's one of those rare occasions
where the specific memories were able to be subjected to empirical research.
And it illustrates a lot of the key points about human memory that are crucial to
understanding eyewitness testimony. The first statement we have was made on the fourth of
December 2001. Bush was in Florida making a speech.
When the audience was given the opportunity to ask questions, a young boy named Jordan
asked him how he felt when he heard about the terrorist attack. This is what he said: 'Well,
Jordan, you're not going to believe what state I was in when I heard about the terrorist
attack. I was in Florida. And my Chief of Staff, Andy Card - actually I was in a classroom
talking about a reading program that works. And I was sitting outside the classroom waiting
to go in, and I saw an airplane hit the tower - the TV was obviously on, and I use(d) to fly
myself, and I said "There's one terrible pilot."
And I said "It must have been a horrible accident." But I was whisked off there - I didn't have
much time to think about it, and I was sitting in the classroom, and Andy Card, my chief who
was sitting over here walked in and said "A second plane has hit the tower. America's under
attack.'' So, that's the first account.
And here's a picture of the event that was in all the newspapers at the time. Consistent with
the account we've just heard, it shows Bush sitting at the front of the Florida classroom, with
his Chief of Staff, Andy Card, whispering the news of the second plane. So the end of the
account seems to be fine, but there's one small problem with the beginning of it - namely
that it's impossible.
Bush clearly states that he saw the first plane crashing into the building before he went into
the classroom. However, in reality, footage of the first plane hitting the tower didn't emerge
until the twelfth of September.
Some people saw it as evidence of a conspiracy, as this quote from website demonstrates. 'Complicit factions of the U.S federal government
actually FILMED their own attack on New York's World Trade centre, and Bush has admitted
that he WATCHED IT!!!!' Other media sources took the more moderate view that Bush was
merely a liar, as these next two quotes demonstrate.


Bush was interviewed by reporters from the Washington Post.. first of all. and made sure that he got the facts more-or-less correct the second time. bushwatch. Let's hold that thought for the moment and move on to look at Bush's second account of how he heard about the crime.' And this final media quote is from a mainstream British newspaper.the most benign conclusion. "This is pilot error". The Guardian.m. That is. Based on what he was told. the details of what happened in the classroom are almost exactly the same. On the 5th of January 2002. and my Chief of Staff . Bush heard about the backlash over his previous slip. There was a TV set 3 . 'The guy must have had a heart attack. but the beginning of the story has changed. United Airlines Flight 175 smashed into the South Tower of the Trade Center. well. America is under attack. it's likely that sometime between giving these two accounts. But that doesn't explain his third and final statement. is that Bush was not telling the truth when he told Jordan that he saw the first plane hit the first tower. Bush was again fielding questions from an audience when someone asked: 'What was the first thing that went through your head when you heard that a plane crashed into the first building?' This was his response: 'I was sitting there. then. saying it appeared to be an accident involving a small. It's unbelievable that somebody would do this'.com. when we walked into the classroom.. and the story he told them was different.' Notice that.' At 9:05 a. Of course. his White House Chief of Staff Bush said. Card. In fact it was American Airlines Flight 11. 2001. Bush assumed it was an accident. Bush was seated on a stool in the classroom when Card whispered the news. and now pretty much reflects the accepted facts of the situation. in this account. 'the story that he was watching TV contradicts reports from correspondents at the time that he got the news in a phone call' The critical point here for us is that all of these accusations make the assumption that Bush surely could not have misremembered something so dramatic and so important... 'A second plane hit the second tower. '. Conferring with Andrew H. On the 20th of December. I had seen this plane fly into the first building. the president recalled saying..The first is from anti-Bush website. Twin-engine plane. Here's an excerpt from the article: 'Bush remembers senior advisor Karl Rove bringing him the news. they assume that Bush's actual memory must be 100% accurate for such an event and therefore he must be lying when he reports these demonstrably inaccurate memories..

President Bush couldn't possibly have seen the television footage of the first plane crash. or . Again.on.1. a New Yorker. Visual images can bring about memory errors. the details of Card's entrance remain unchanged. if we treat these accounts as an eyewitness's memory of a crime. EYEWITNESS EVIDENCE So if we treat these accounts as an eyewitness's memory of a crime. as we know. like the rest of us. although. TV footage is particularly likely to lead to interference of this kind. The first. However. Surely. given the personal significance of the news. and easy to remember. So. But a Bush-skeptic could still argue that he. he no doubt had repeated exposure to the footage in the days and weeks following the tragedy. couldn't make the same mistake? 4 . easy to modify.. to some extent. prior to going into the classroom. because of the strength and dominance of visual imagery. people often respond with a description of an event from a completely different time. should not have been susceptible to an error of this kind." Now. and Andy Card came in and said "America is under attack. anyway. Experimental evidence about memory for everyday occurrences suggests that when asked to retrieve memories about particular everyday events. I thought it was pilot error and I was amazed that anybody could make such a terrible mistake. in Greenwald's words. of all people. for example. that's unsurprising anyway because Bush most likely saw the photograph we looked at before in the newspapers. I'm sitting there. but misjudged when he saw it – a textbook example of a 'wrong time-slice' error. listening to the briefing. So. And you know. precisely because they are "easy to generate. how would we explain these inaccuracies? We've already seen data indicating that it's not a foregone conclusion that his memory would be 100% accurate. how would we explain these inaccuracies? A psychologist called Daniel Greenberg from Duke University suggested two explanations. if he is genuinely mis-remembering. So."' The main thing to note here is that Bush reverted to the impossible claim that he saw the first plane crash into the world trade centre before he entered the classroom. And something was wrong with the plane. he called 'wrong time-slice' error. it appears likely that he remembered the footage.. what could be going on? 2.

which is a little closer but still on the opposite side of the continent from New York. let's have a quick look at a study by psychologist Kathy Pezdek. But what about the New Yorkers themselves? Surely only a few would have got it wrong. In fact 76% percent of New Yorkers made the very same mistake that Bush made. like Bush. and New York to answer some 'Yes or No' questions. Over there. 84% of them gave the wrong answer. incorrectly claimed to have seen the footage on September 11th.only 61% gave the wrong answer. In addition to 5 .To answer that question. did you see the videotape on television of the first plane striking the first tower?' Now. which is as far as you can get from New York while still in the USA. remembering that this footage wasn't actually shown until the 12th. Over there. California. things were a little better . Next was California. Hawaii. she got undergraduates in Hawaii. including: 'On September 11. Seven weeks after 9/11. First. let's have a look at the proportions of participants who.

He's making eyewitness memory errors. might have serious consequences if that information was pivotal to solving a crime. this example illustrates a number of the misconceptions that people have about eyewitness memory and how it operates. So.' Greenberg also noted the tentativeness of memories 1 and 3.' Such hesitations and revisions create the impression that the President is reasoning out perhaps reconstructing it . only to interrupt himself and talk about the first.. where most people are reporting seeing something a whole day before they actually saw it. In the few seconds or so it took him to formulate an answer to the question. this story may have seemed reasonable enough. the sort of crime that we would expect to be unforgettable. those who were confidence were more likely to be wrong. retrieving memories of an event is not like passively playing 6 . those who incorrectly answered 'yes'. Greenberg argues after seeing the footage of the crash. as confidence is the main cue that people use to judge the accuracy of an eyewitness. people sometimes reconstruct gaps in the course based on a script i. eyewitness memory is a lot less accurate than people expect it to be. on the assumption that more confident people are more accurate. So. but exactly the same sort of errors that most other people made. And. Bush did see video footage (of the aftermath of the first crash) playing in the school building before he left. Both times. There's no need to look to conspiracy theories or deliberate lying to understand his mistakes. Bush seems to be off the hook. First. completing the story by adding cause to effect.this. he he goes. people do tend to learn these things from TV. there was footage. while the errors did not directly affect the crime investigation in this case. That is. Second. were more confident in their answers than those who answered 'no'. a general idea of what usually happens in a situation. when he does talk about the first crash. he starts by discussing the second attack. after all. and he was watching TV that morning. he may well have incorporated it into the video he saw in the school. making statements like 'the TV was obviously on. The other explanation for Bush's error suggested by Greenwald is about narrative construction. This is despite the particularly shocking nature of this crime. This is a particularly important point as we'll find out later in this course. across the entire sample.e. This is the idea that when constructing a narrative account of an event. it's not hard to imagine how such errors.

back a video of the event. And she had a very vivid recollection of landing under sniper fire on this trip. people lack insight into the accuracy of their own memories. as we'll see.which makes it vulnerable to errors such as selecting the wrong time-slice and narrative reconstruction . In fact. people's confidence in the accuracy of their memories is unreliable. lots of children there. Elizabeth Loftus. Hilary's daughter was there. Next. I mean she had a false memory. one that resulted in a little bit of embarrassment for her because people called her Pinocchio. the less likely they were to be correct. But she made a mistake. Third. Memory retrieval is a creative. In the interest of political balance. That is. There's certainly a lot of famous politicians who have had distorted memories. and one of my favourite ones is Hilary Clinton who was running for the presidency of the United States when she talked about a trip that she had taken to Bosnia. THE ENCODING STAGE One way of looking at memory is to divide it up into three stages: encoding. we'll look at how memory works. in Cathy Pezdek's data.. and it was extremely peaceful. but instead they just had to run to the base. 2. how false memories can be created. It was. here's a similar example about Hilary Clinton as told by one of the most influential eyewitness memory researcher's there is. 7 . that Yale Law School degree doesn't protect you from having false memories.. and so what's going on here? She had a distorted memory. here interviewed by Matt Thompson. and this turns out to be a surprisingly unreliable cue. constructive process . storage. an eyewitness's confidence is the key factor that people use to judge the eyewitness's accuracy. and what we can try and do to deal with the problems of eyewitness memory. all that experience. This is critical to understanding eyewitness memory because. And later photographs were revealed of this landing in Bosnia. the more confidence they were. It was supposed to be a greeting well as other issues that we'll visit later.2. all that education. and retrieval. And her case shows us that all that intelligence.

what we think we perceive about the real world around us. It's not like filming what happened and replaying the film footage at a later date. We've already seen narrative conventions and time-slice errors and how they can affect memory accuracy. that's a failure of encoding. so that's a failure of storage. If someone can't remember something. As we've discussed. I'm going to show you two pictures from the crime scene that will be shown in an alternating sequence. the information never even became a memory. there are many other types of errors that can occur at every stage of the memory process. they can't retrieve it. Or a memory could still be present in their brains but they can't access it. However. Let's have a look at a demonstration. constructive process. Can you spot the differences between the two pictures? 8 . It could be that the information did make it into memory. what we perceive is actually only a subjective reconstruction of that reality created by our brains. Storage is about whether they can keep that memory intact over time. Let's start at the encoding stage. memory is a creative. it's no longer there to be retrieved. but they've since forgotten that memory. Well the first thing to understand is that what we experience. Presuming that there is an objective reality out there. so that's a failure of retrieval. it could be that they never had that information in the first place .that is. And retrieval is about whether they can report that memory at a future date. is largely fake to begin with.Encoding is about whether the eyewitness actually acquired any memory of the incident in the first place.

9 . Most people wouldn't immediately have spotted that very large and obvious change where we'd removed an entire car from the picture. Have a look at this classic image by Fischer in 1968. and essentially guessing what was in the bits you weren't attending to and filling them in for you to give the impression of a complete picture. Your brain was focussing in on particular narrow elements of the picture. interpreting information from our senses.If you're one of the people who didn't spot the difference. In reality. here are the two images again. It doesn't feel like you're only seeing a part of the picture. two people can experience the same event quite differently. for example. but it does sometimes fall down. your impression of viewing those images was that you were looking at the whole of the picture in all its detail. So. but this time with the grey screen that was inserted between the images. In fact. that's exactly what's happening. There's a correspondence between what we experience and the objective reality. but it's far from perfect. removed. What we see around us is no more than an elaborate reconstruction that our brain makes. Our brain constructs an impression of the outside world that is generally convincing. And this is what is happening when we view visual illusions. however. Hence many people fail to notice immediately when we remove. an entire car from the image. What this sort of effect tells us is that our experience of the world shouldn't always be trusted. What we're seeing is not the objective reality of what is out there.

which suggested that there's some empirical support for both of these explanations. Another explanation is that the weapon is an unusual or surprising item and so it draws the witness's attention away from other things in the scene. This is something that has been demonstrated in laboratory studies. The weapon focus effect can be harder to reproduce in real world settings. Your experience of the world around you is coloured by expectation and open to influence.Some of you will see an old woman. where researchers have been trying to find out why this happens. but some of you will see a young woman. 10 . leading to some people to suggest that it's only something that happens under simulated conditions. One explanation for this effect is that witnesses are so scared by the weapon that they fixate on the source of the threat to the exclusion of more peripheral cues. So. Jonathan Fawcett. And others will see the old man. like whether the offender has a weapon. the witness's memory of the criminal's physical appearance is impaired because the witness's attention is drawn to the weapon and away from the criminal's face. So . they did a study combining all previous research in what's called a meta-analysis. even before you have to remember them. The weapon focus effect suggests that when a weapon is involved. can also influence how the witness remembers the crime.not everyone interpreted that image in the same way. of Dalhousie University. if you witness a crime it's entirely possible that you might misperceive some elements of the events in the first place. and his colleagues. Different people saw different things. The circumstances of the crime.

every step of the memory process is vulnerable to distortion. a suspect with a weapon is more likely to be bolder in terms of getting closer to a witness or staying at the scene longer. let’s examine some data on the sort of high impact traumatic event that should be very hard to forget: having a car crash. That’s incredible on the face of it. such as length of time that passes before the memory is retrieved. When Jonathan Fawcett examined this in their meta-analysis. So what does the weapon focus effect mean for eyewitness testimony? Well. where the negative effect of the weapon on the eyewitness's memory of the suspect's face is cancelled out by the fact they had a better opportunity to see the suspect. they did find a weapon focus effect that was unaffected by whether the event was simulated or real. that's one example of a bias that affects the encoding stage of eyewitness memory. Even a minor damage only car crash ought to be hard to forget due to the expense and inconvenience caused. recent research indicates that the problem with the real world work is that it is compromised by other issues. though the size of this effect depends on a number of interacting factors that need to be taken into account.However. STORAGE AND RETRIEVAL In the last presentation we talked about some of the things that affect the encoding stage of memory. For example. 2. How could people possibly forget something like that? 11 . we need to be aware of the potential for a witness's memory accuracy to be worse in situations where a weapon is present.3. But it so happens that Geoff Maycock and Julia Lester of the Transport Research Laboratory in the UK found that drivers appear to forget about 30% of the car crashes they’ve been involved in per year. to avoid this bias. such as police officers. the duration of the original event. However. What about the next step: the storage stage? To what extent can we hold on to our memories of events? Well. Another implication is that it may be possible to train people likely to be exposed to situations involving weapons. So. In the next presentation we'll talk about some factors that can affect the storage and retrieval stages. let alone a crash in which people are hurt or killed. and the level of threat.

The following week. found that military personnel who were subject to a highly stressful prisoner of war camp simulation which involved them 12 . such as might appear in a newspaper article.We’re not even talking about details like the colour of the car you crashed in or whose fault it is. where one of them has a gun. in which four men rob a jewellery store. So. In the real world. Maybe it would be different if the situation was more stressful and personal? Well. listening to an inaccurate report of the crime in the media or chatting with another eyewitness who has misremembered the original event. Then participants discussed the crime with another participant who was actually a plant who had been briefed to give misinformation. this might well happen just by accident. An example of the misinformation they introduced was to identify the wrong person as holding that gun. One thing that memory researchers are very aware of is the extent to which memory is vulnerable to tampering. but in the newspaper account it might be inferred that they had a moustache. in another recent study. stored memories can be interfered with. people are shown a video of a crime. Then they are asked to recall the crime. in the original the criminal might be clean shaven. by Harmut Blank and colleagues from the University of Portsmouth. they often still incorporated the false information into their account of the crime. the first message about memory storage is that it seems that people are surprisingly likely to forget things that we really wouldn’t expect them to forget. In a study from 2013. They then read a written account of the crime. That is. For example recalling that the criminal had a moustache when in fact he didn’t. and the people who have been fed the false information often end up incorporating it into their report. So aside from forgetting. For example. what else can happen to memories during the storage phase? It turns out that it is startling easy to modify memories both deliberately and otherwise by introducing misinformation. For example. We’re talking about people forgetting that the entire event ever took place. So half of the participants might be fed false information via the follow up account. In a typical experiment. Charles Morgan of Yale University and colleagues. participants returned and were asked to recall details of the crime. Even when they were told that the information from the other witness might be incorrect and that they should ignore it. or they talk to someone who has also seen the crime. participants watched a two minute video clip of a crime captured on CCTV.

And here’s her take on false memories. which was conducted by my colleague. We’ve made people. The sort of questions they’ve been looking at include things like: under what circumstances is misinformation most likely to affect memory? What type of person is most susceptible to misinformation? What actually happens to the original memory when the misinformation supplants it? As we’ve seen. So surely that has implications for people testifying in court. now very precise memory matters. but when it comes to the legal world. that was the guy that committed the crime. I mean. we’ve changed people’s memories for the details of events that they did experience. I mean. it does because. in a real crime case. you know. it’s not. Here’s another excerpt from that interview with Elizabeth Loftus. they identified the wrong person as being their interrogator after being shown misinformation – in this case a photograph. Psychologists have been investigating the details of the misinformation effect for decades. most of the time little errors that we make in memory don’t matter very much. Is it possible to implant a false memory. and so memory evidence is precious. for example. Unfortunately. believe that a car went through a stop sign instead of a yield sign. like witnesses saying. whole memories. even when you tell people that the misinformation is incorrect. You can plant entirely false memories. they often still can’t ignore it – it becomes part of their memory. or a guy running from the scene had curly hair instead of straight hair. and people or circumstances get in there and contaminate those memory traces and lead to travesties of justice. We could have an entire course just looking at the misinformation effect – it’s a complex and fascinating topic all on its own.” or.” Does your research have implications for the courtroom? Well. It needs to be protected. Matt Thompson. “Yes. a lot of times. even telling eyewitnesses that a media report of a crime is inaccurate might not help prevent their memory of the crime from being contaminated. “Yes. That’s really easy to do. But you can go further with people. It needs to be preserved. That is. it doesn’t really matter if I tell you that I had a hamburger for lunch instead of chicken. Wow. for example. in my own work. the car went through the stop sign and hit the other car. make somebody believe something happened when it never actually happened? Absolutely.being aggressively interrogated. 13 . into the minds of people for things that didn’t happen.

FORENSIC HYPNOSIS So. partially constructed. and this experiment involved showing people films of car crashes and asked them how fast the vehicles in the film were going. 2. what can we do about this? Are there any techniques that we can use to improve eyewitnesses’ memory? That’s the question we’ll look at next. 14 . they were more likely to remember there being glass at the scene – even though there wasn’t any. the issue now becomes. crucially. Some participants were asked how fast the cars were going when they HIT each other. people also appear to be particularly open to suggestion. the picture of eyewitness memory that the research is painting does not appear promising.So. Others were asked how fast the cars were going when they SMASHED into each other. unreliable. In this state. let’s look at another case of false memory. It’s argued that. As an example of what might bias this aspect. not only gave faster speed estimates. So. allowing then to potentially concentrate better on a specific thought or memory. Hypnosis is a process in which people are guided to place themselves in an altered state of consciousness. Memory appears to be much more fragile and vulnerable to distortion than people expect. Let’s look at some of Elizabeth Loftus’s own research to illustrate this. overall. and can be manipulated. Now let’s now turn our attention to memory retrieval. we’ve given some examples of problems at encoding and problems during storage.4. That is. She conducted an experiment with John Palmer when she was at the University of Washington. One week later. in this altered state. even in a situation where. the group who had the word “smashed” in their question. individuals have heightened focus and concentration. So. and these distortions can occur at numerous points in the memory process for a wide range of reasons. eyewitness reports are incomplete. It turns out that you don’t even need misinformation in order to create false memories. there is no factually incorrect information being introduced. we are still getting a false memory. Can we improve them? Let’s start with something controversial: forensic hypnosis.

Eventually. aged seven and fifteen. However. his recall of the events was sketchy. Under hypnosis. Under hypnosis. telling them that if they disclosed any details of events. turned out to be the licence plate of one of the vans driven by the kidnappers. He drove them all the way to Mexico and raped the older girl in a hotel near the border. they managed to dig their way out and escape. she was able to recall unique rust spots on the car as well as details about things inside the car and parts of the car. let’s look at a couple of crimes where forensic hypnosis was key in catching the suspect. In this state. He released them a few days later. He had seen and tried to memorize two of the van license plate numbers but had been too frightened to concentrate under the constant surveillance of the kidnappers. twenty-six Californian school children and their bus driver were abducted at gunpoint. To illustrate this. she remembered that the gear lever was held in place by tissue paper and the passenger window made a noise when it was rolled up the last few inches. the use of forensic hypnosis was credited with capturing the criminals when all other leads had failed. 15 . Under normal questioning by police. and one of these numbers.The FBI. which he would trigger if stopped by the police. with the exception of a single digit. and driven to a quarry where they were put into a cave and the entrance sealed. In July of 1976. The older girl did identify the motel room and the false name the man had given at reception – but these clues didn’t turn out to be useful. Texan police. when the bus driver was questioned by police. That is. In a second example. were kidnapped by a man from the San Francisco area. For example. Forensic hypnosis has been reported to be useful. New York police. Then the police tried hypnosis on the older girl. two girls. as reported in an article by Marilyn Smith of the University of Toronto. He told them that the doors of his car were wired with explosives. This led to their arrest after one of the biggest manhunts in Californian history. neither girl could remember much of use. The first example is known as the Chowchilla kidnapping case. he called out two license plate numbers. especially when the witness experiences trauma from the crime they observed. their parents would be killed. herded into vans. and the Israeli police amongst others have all used hypnosis to improve eyewitness recall. it was suggested to the driver that he imagine himself sitting in his favourite chair watching the events unfold as if he was watching a documentary on TV.

16 . some detectives are even trained to carry out the hypnosis themselves. She remembered conversations between the man and the mechanic. So. we have false positives which is where the eyewitness incorrectly recalls the detail as being correct when in fact it’s incorrect. on the basis of anecdotal evidence like this. which is that while under hypnosis people’s suggestibility is increased. why do we get all of the compelling anecdotal reports that forensic hypnosis works? Marylin Smith raised one possibility.She was also able to remember a transaction at a San Diego petrol station on a hilltop where the man had the car repaired. But if this is the case. This means people’s threshold for what they consider to a genuine memory changes. some police forces have been enthusiastic in the use of hypnosis. again. The FBI agents managed to locate the garage and the mechanic and they managed to identify the exact credit card transaction. and that he had paid for the repairs using a credit card. Then. Both of these are good outcomes. So. So. This may indeed increase the number of correct memories recalled. However. these studies found no advantage of hypnosis. This gave them the man’s name and address and this led to his arrest at his house in Northern California. for example where participants believed the crime they saw was genuine. but unfortunately this is one example of a situation in which anecdotal evidence and scientific research don’t tell us the same story. We can represent this using a contingency table that shows the four possible outcomes in a situation when an eyewitness attempts to recall some detail about the crime. things can go wrong in two ways. most laboratory studies of hypnosis have not been successful in demonstrating the effectiveness of hypnosis in improving memory recall. but it will also increase the number of false memories recalled. They can also correctly reject that detail about the crime as being incorrect – so that is they are sufficiently unsure about the detail to decide that it probably isn’t correct. In the US. But even studies that have used very realistic situations. First. For example. Some have argued that this is because the laboratory conditions used in most scientific studies were not realistic enough. With a few exceptions. the use of forensic hypnosis proved absolutely crucial in capturing the suspect in a case where all other leads had come to nothing. the eyewitness can correctly remember a detail about the crime – a correct hit. it’s not hard to see why. they’re weren’t realistically stressful. we can have a false rejection and this is where the detail is correct but the eyewitness rejects it as being a real memory. This all sounds great.

This is essentially what we are doing when we refer to the anecdotal evidence of it working. That is. just that we need to be careful in how it’s used.So changing the threshold for what people consider to be a correct memory shifts things upwards from the bottom row. What they found was that people who were asked to guess were more confident of the truth of their false guesses in a later test of their memory – even when they were initially unsure. where the detail is rejected as being untrue. where the incidents are far more likely to become anecdotes if the hypnosis results in a positive outcome than if it results in a false positive – which frankly don’t make such good stories. to the top row where the detail is accepted as being true. this doesn’t mean we want to write off hypnosis. So. you are effectively asking them to lower their threshold of certainty for what they report as being a correct memory. the act of guessing had the effect of cementing that false memory as being true. That is. we need to be suspicious of memories generated under hypnosis. So this is great if the detail happens to be correct. it’s still not quite what we want in terms of improving eyewitness memory. as there’s a good chance that information generated this way won’t be true. another way of looking at this is to see if there’s any element of forensic hypnosis that we can leverage to improve memory without risking lots of false information? That is. but a problem if the detail happens not to be correct. which is exactly what we saw in those two anecdotes. does hypnosis give us clues that we can extract and use to create more effective memory enhancement interventions? 17 . we want to know about anything the eyewitness can tell us – even if they’re uncertain about it – and we acknowledge that there’s a high chance of it being inaccurate information. However. it may be a good idea as a way of generating leads in investigations when no other leads are forthcoming. overall accuracy may not be improved. even though it might appear to be if we ignore the cases when forensic hypnosis has resulted in people reporting false memories. That is. If they’re doubtful about a memory then they should err on the side of assuming it’s true. So the argument is that hypnosis is shifting things up regardless of whether they are true or not. Research by Elizabeth Loftus’s team found that you can get a similar effect to hypnosis by just asking people to guess when they are uncertain about a memory judgment. However – in terms of being evidence in its own right. However. That is. That is.

So. If so. or might there be more to it? Well. one other suggestion for how hypnosis might potentially be aiding memory in some cases is that it is reinstating the context of the crime. the second experimenter tried to get participants to reinstate the context. producing two forms of ID. And that’s what I’ll be talking about in the next presentation. He asked the shop assistants to try and remember what had happened during the transaction. They repeated this procedure for 98 shop assistants. He told him he was a law intern and said “I am trying to identify a man who may have been in your store in the last twenty-four hours. the second experimenter went and found the shop assistant. he probably bought something small and paid for it with a ten dollar travellers’ cheque”. Either two or twenty-four hours later. is it really the case that all there is to the alleged improved memory generated by forensic hypnosis is that all just down to threshold changes for memory acceptance. An experimenter posing as a customer turned up at a convenience store. Of course. In a great experiment by Carol Krafka and Steven Penrod of the University of Wisconsin-Madison examined whether context reinstatement without hypnosis improved eyewitness memory. THE COGNITIVE INTERVIEW 18 . He then had a brief chat with the shop assistant then left. The researcher then produced six photos and said that the man might be one of them. He also produced one of the non-photo forms of ID used. The first researcher gave a description of the shop assistant to a second researcher. he was not one of the six photos.For a start. Half the time. 2. what’s needed now is to find a way of turning this and other findings from psychological research into practical techniques that can be used during police investigations. Half the time. finally we’ve got something – an intervention – that we could potentially leverage to improve eyewitness memory.5. What they found was that the act of reinstating the context of the shop assistant’s interaction with the customer dramatically improved the identification accuracy of the customer without increasing the number of false identifications too much. and ended up with 85 people they were ableto use in the study. He bought a can of drink using a ten dollar travellers’ cheque. Half the time he was.

to create the cognitive interview.Edward Fisher of the University of California. and Ronald Geiselman. That is. the more overlap you can get between a memory of something that you’ve already recalled and something you want to recall. The way that police traditionally interview eyewitnesses involves frequent interruptions by the interviewer. memory research tells us that memory traces are usually complex and contain different sorts of information. Another finding is that any given memory can be accessed by a number of different retrieval cues. The cognitive interview uses these principles of memory retrieval to help witnesses maximise their chances of recalling the events of a crime. 19 . then try another. into practical techniques that could be used in real police investigations. were investigating ways of turning findings from psychological research. what’s the evidence that it actually does result in better eyewitness memory recall than more traditional police interviews? Fisher and Geiselmen tested the original version of the cognitive interview by recruiting 17 highly experienced interviewers. That is. Los Angeles. producing a unique trace which incorporates information from both target and context. First. amongst others. The question is. Edward Fisher and Ronald Geiselman raided the cognitive psychology literature. Second. and the use of the questionanswer format. When something is remembered. it is encoded with respect to the context in which it is studied. one problem with a question-focussed approach is that there is the opportunity for false memories to be created by leading questions. and private detectives. Here are some of the key ideas behind it. all of whom had been trained in forensic hypnosis. of Florida International University. As we’ve already seen. This means that the probability of successfully remembering something depends on the degree of overlap between the information present at retrieval and the information stored in memory. then the better chance of retrieving the desired memory. This included police detectives. such as the context reinstatement effect. CIA investigators. This refers to work on what’s known as the “encoding specificity principle” by Endel Tulving of the University of Toronto. a focus on details relevant to the investigation. They developed a procedure that they called the cognitive interview. including the work on context reinstatement. research indicates that the ease with which a memory is recalled depends on how much "informational overlap" it has with the cues being used to retrieve it. if you can’t access the memory you want via one particular cue.

the students were interviewed by the professional investigators. one big disadvantage of studying real crime investigations is that it is much harder to determine what is actually true or not for the purposes of determining whether the interviews were yielding real or false memories. In the initial stage of the study. There’s since been a large body of research looking at these cognitive interview techniques. Forty-eight hours after watching the crime. they recorded and analysed 5-7 interviews by each detective over 4 months. A meta-analysis of some of this work. This time they recruited 16 police detectives based in Florida. 20 . in this real world study looking at real crimes. by Gunter Kohnken of the University of Kiel and his colleagues confirmed that. Of course. Then they monitored and analysed interviews conducted by both the trained and untrained detectives for 7 months afterwards. So they only looked at corroborated facts. Then the researchers got 89 undergraduates to watch one of four films depicting a violent murder – borrowed from the LAPD training academy. Here’s one example. over 42 studies. All the interviews were transcribed and analysed as before. Doing this. Fisher and Geiselmen went on to refine their methods and also to test them in more realistic situations. The way they did this in this particular study was by comparing what the witnesses said with another reliable source of information. led to a 47 percent increase in the number of facts recalled compared with a standard police interview. As a result of this early work. where they tested the cognitive interview for real police detectives solving genuine crimes. So the cognitive interview. Then they randomly chose half the detectives and trained them in how to give the cognitive interview. a confession by criminal. They eventually amassed between 2 and 7 appropriate interviews per detective. and this is what they found. such as another witness.They were randomly assigned to either use the cognitive interview or to use standard police interviews – as well as other options. An exhaustive list of all the details of the crimes that were mentioned was drawn up and then researchers calculated the proportion of those items mentioned by each of the students. they found that the cognitive interview elicited between 25% and 35% more information than the standard police interview. And this effect was greater the more realistic the context of the study. These interviews were transcribed and scored. or from hidden camera footage. the cognitive interview reliably generates more correct details than the standard interview. So – that’s very promising.

taking all that on board.for example recognising a suspect in a line-up. It’s very much about improving recall memory. The cognitive interview is more difficult to conduct than a standard interview. Australia. Singapore. 21 . it’s not perfect. Also. overall it’s still considered a valuable tool for the investigator – and it’s a great example of how cognitive psychology research can be successfully applied to the real world. Canada. Like everything else in life. New Zealand. the UK.The cognitive interview is now routinely taught to police officers in Britain and also widely used in the US. and Hong Kong. However. as we’re taking a scientific approach in this course. it’s only useful for co-operative eyewitnesses. it doesn’t help with recognition memory . we also need to talk about the limitations of the cognitive interview. it takes longer and it requires more effort on the part of the interviewer. Of course.