Forensic Psychology is a fascinating field of study, especially as it relates to eyewitness testimony. Can we always trust our memory? Let’s test your observation skills. In this short video, count the number of times the ball is tossed from one white-shirt player to another. Sounds easy enough, right? Give it a try.
Well, how did you do?
This phenomenon is called inattentional blindness. Your mind perceives what’s happening, but you do not attend to it. In other words, there’s nothing wrong with your eyes. But for some reason this information is more subconscious than conscious. The best known demonstration of inattentional blindness is a study performed by Simons and Chabris (1999) known as the “gorilla in the midst.” It’s highly copyrighted so I couldn’t embed it here, but if you’d like to check it out, click the title.
Imagine the implications inattentional blindness has on eyewitness testimony? Often times victims of violent crime are so focused on the gun they see little else.
Change blindness is another phenomenon that affects key elements of your surroundings, including the identity of the person right in front of you, even if that person has changed places with someone else.
Briefly, a study by Simons and Levin called The Door Study showed one researcher asking a man for directions. After about 15 seconds, two other researchers carried a door in between the first researcher and the man. The first researcher switched places with one of the other two when the door blocked the man’s view. After the door passed, the new researcher continued the conversation. This study showed that only 7 of the 15 participants noticed they were speaking to someone new. The other 8 were blind to the change.
The implications of change blindness on eyewitness testimony are worrying indeed. A witness could easily confuse the identities of those involved with a crime, especially a violent crime where “weapon focus” comes into play.
In another study, participants watched a film depicting a kidnapping attempt. Would it surprise you to learn that actions were better remembered than details?
When we witness a crime we absorb the information by the actions that happened during the commission of the crime. For example, a man pointed a gun at a woman, pushed her into his van, and sped away. The central information — what we’re focused on — and the peripheral information — what’s happening around us — often becomes skewed with the surge of adrenaline through our system.
Such findings suggest that when we witness a traumatic event, our attention is drawn to the central action at the expense of descriptive details. Yet in other circumstances — such as a non-violent event — our attention may be spread more evenly between the two.
Which brings us back to inattentional blindness. This phenomenon occurs when our attention is drawn toward only one aspect of our surroundings, resulting in us not noticing other things.
The use of weapons complicate matters even more. When a gunman brandishes his firearm we tend to focus on the pistol at the expense of other details, including hair or eye color, even build and dress. Immediately following the event eyewitness testimony is often impaired.
Researchers have tested this theory, as well. Participants were shown videos of robberies — robbery involves a weapon and a victim; burglary does not — where one group saw the robber with the pistol concealed and one group saw the robber with the gun in plain sight. When asked to identify the robber in a line-up only 46% of the participants who watched the video where the gun was concealed answered correctly. From those who watched the video where the robber brandished the weapon, only 26% could identify him.
In order for an eyewitness to be able to answer a question, they must be willing to respond. And it’s this willingness that can impair their memory of the events. Not everything we “see” or “experience” is stored in our minds. Our brains don’t work like computers where each bit is encoded. Rather, we make connections to other things in order to process information. You might remember my post, Subliminal Messages, where I discussed how and why we make connections.
Episodic memories — memories involving an event — are organized in our minds as “event schemas.” This allows us to store knowledge, events, and activities by connecting to what we classify as “normal.” In other words, rather than remembering every time we dined at our favorite seafood joint, we tend to build a general impression of seafood restaurants…the smell, the atmosphere, and so on.
However, the use of schemas can distort memories. The perfect example of this is when someone asks me about my childhood, then asks my brother. From our answers you wouldn’t think we grew up under the same roof. Many factors contribute to how we remember times and events. Such as, influence. When there are gaps in our memory we tend to incorporate new information in an attempt to fill in the blanks. Although useful in everyday life, this poses real problems for investigators. Because this new information is often false and was constructed after the crime took place.
Questioning a Witness
The context in which a question is asked becomes an important factor. A witness, however innocent, may try to answer the investigator’s questions by telling him what he wants to hear. Not to confuse the investigation, but because it’s human nature to want to help. Add a leading or suggestive question on top of that mindset, and most of what the detective receives will be unreliable information. Incidentally, young children are easily influenced because they tend to want to please adults.
Leading or Suggestive Questions
Leading questions suggest the response is expected and/or it supplies information the witness has no prior knowledge of. Let’s say the investigator asks, “How hard did the robber punch the victim?” It’s human nature to want to give the correct answer, even if we never actually saw physical contact. This results in guesswork on the part of the eyewitness. Therefore, it’s important that the detective doesn’t inadvertently suggest an answer to the witness. Suggestibility is defined as: “The act or process of impressing something — an idea, attitude, or desired result — on the mind of another.” Rather, he should keep the testimony as uncontaminated as possible. Part of the problem is, it’s difficult for eyewitnesses to distinguish between information they saw during the event from information they heard from other witnesses after the event. This is referred to as “post-event information.”
In one study, Loftus and Palmer investigated the ability of post-event information to influence the eyewitness testimony. Participants were shown a video of a motor vehicle accident. Afterward, researchers asked several questions with a variety of phrasings. In the spirit of brevity I’ll only mention two.
“How fast were the cars going when they smashed into each other?”
“How fast were the cars going when they bumped into each other?”
The participants who were asked the first question, reported high rates of speed and broken headlights, even though broken glass wasn’t in the video. The second group reported lesser speeds with very little damage to either vehicle. It’s easy to see why.
Open questions seek an open-ended response from eyewitnesses. They also don’t limit, focus, or direct the witness to answer a certain way. “What happened?” Or, “What did you see?” are both examples of open questions.
With open questions the detective is more likely to get a true recounting of events. A study showed responses to open questions were three to four times longer and three times richer in relevant details.
Facilitators are non-suggestive verbal or non-verbal responses that encourage the eyewitness to continue recalling the events. For example, “Okay.” Or, “Uh-ha.” Or, “Hmm.” Because these responses are non-leading and non-specific, they’re effective at maintaining the eyewitness’ narrative without decreasing the accuracy.
Focused questions are exactly as they sound. Usually they’re open-ended so as not to taint the testimony. “Tell me what the man looked like.” As long as the eyewitness mentioned “the man” in her initial statements, the detective won’t ruin the response. A focused question is used to further support the testimony that’s already been given, aiding in more details. However, if they’re overused by the detective, they can actually reduce the accuracy of eyewitness testimony. Especially if the witness feels obligated to provide details.
Generally, for details the eyewitness hasn’t described, an option-posing question involves recognition. Such as, “Was the man running or walking?” As you might have guessed, option-posing questions limit the scope of the answer. Because of this, they may be seen as leading or suggestive. You’ll notice option-posing questions at court when attorneys try to coax certain answers from witnesses on the stand.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this peek into Forensic Psychology. We’ve barely scratched the surface today. Next time we dive into this fascinating field we’ll dig deeper and see what other gems we can uncover.
So, how many of you saw the gorilla?