Test a Witness’s Memory of a Suspect Only Once

Date
2021
Authors
Wixted, John T.
Wells, Gary L.
Loftus, Elizabeth F.
Garrett, Brandon L.
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Psychology
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Abstract
Eyewitness misidentifications are almost always made with high confidence in the courtroom. The courtroom is where eyewitnesses make their last identification of defendants suspected of (and charged with) committing a crime. But what did those same eyewitnesses do on the first identification test conducted early in a police investigation? Despite testifying with high confidence in court, many eyewitnesses also testified that they had initially identified the suspect with low confidence or failed to identify the suspect at all. Presenting a lineup leaves the eyewitness with a memory trace of the faces in the lineup, including that of the suspect. As a result, the memory signal generated by the face of that suspect will be stronger on a later test involving the same witness, even if the suspect is innocent. In that sense, testing memory contaminates memory. These considerations underscore the importance of a newly proposed recommendation for conducting eyewitness identifications: Avoid repeated identification procedures with the same witness and suspect. This recommendation applies not only to additional tests conducted by police investigators but also to the final test conducted in the courtroom, in front of the judge and jury.
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Eyewitness Identification, Wrongful Convictions, Malleability of Memory
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