Eyewitness Testimony – Test Your Observation Skills

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?Eyewitness testimony

Action 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.

Weapon Focus

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.

Schemas

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.

Eyewitness testimonyQuestioning 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

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

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

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.

Option-Posing Questions

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.

Eyewitness testimony

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?

About Sue Coletta

Member of Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and International Thriller Writers, Sue Coletta is a multi-published author in numerous anthologies, and her forensics articles have appeared in InSinC Quarterly. In addition to her popular crime resource blog, Sue’s a radio show host—check out "Partners In Crime" in the menu bar—the communications manager for the Serial Killer Project and Forensic Science and founder of #ACrimeChat on Twitter.

16 Comments

  1. Oh my. I love your crime blog – I’ve always been fascinated by human perception. I did not see the gorilla and I imagine as a witness to a crime I’d probably be a complete disaster. My imagination rarely lets me breathe.

    • LOL I didn’t see it, either, Jan. Originally I watched a mouse one, but it’s the same principle.
      Thank you so much I’m thrilled you love the blog. Later this week I’ve got a big surprise for everyone. 🙂

  2. This is a really interesting post. It’s crazy how your mind and your eyes work together and what your brain is capable of. Illusions are so tricky, they can make us even second guess ourselves! Great post! Thanks for sharing!

  3. Hi Sue,

    Great post as always. I did see the gorilla and the black shirt person leaving, but I only got 11 of the white shirts passing the ball, and didn’t even notice there was a curtain. All of your information is so valuable to me as I’m 3/4 of the way through a BS in criminal justice and I’m like a sponge–always soaking in new criminal facts. Thank you so much!

    • A BS in Criminology? Fascinating, Gippy. Good for you! Were you the one I spoke with about court stenography? I had a quick exchange with someone from my community, but it was at a time when I was getting inundated with emails, and I can’t remember who it was. I’ve been searching through old emails to no avail.

  4. The post was very interesting. I saw 11 passes and missed the gorilla.
    Frances Dunn recently posted…FIVE THINGS MAMA NEVER TOLD YOU ABOUT BEING A WRITERMy Profile

  5. A wonderful post. I love learning stuff like this. I did actually see the gorilla and I’d not heard of the video before, but I completely missed the curtain changing color and the player who left. My pass count was pretty close–17. Not sure where I got that extra one from!

    Fascinating stuff!
    Mae Clair recently posted…Red Eyes and Winged Beasts #TheMothmanMy Profile

    • Good observation skills, Mae! Originally I saw a video with a white mouse, and totally missed it. But I got the count right. In my next forensic psychology class we get to try our hand at a line-up. Fun!!

  6. This is really fascinating, Sue! And it’s so important as we consider what people say in court or to the police. And I can tell you from experience that when something really stressful is happening (e.g. a crime where there’s a serious injury), it’s very hard to remember exactly what happened. We’re being bombarded by so much stimuli that our brains don’t always sift out what is relevant from what isn’t. What’s more, we’re focused so much on, say a bullet wound, that we don’t remember how many shots we heard or didn’t. Those things do make a difference. And it’s really important for crime writers to keep that in mind as they create characters.

    • Thank you for adding your experience, Margot. I’m so sorry you had to witness a violent crime. That could not have been easy.

      I agree with you completely, of course. By knowing these things, we can use them to our advantage…like, say, having a rookie detective ask a witness leading questions, which leads to unreliable information, causing all kinds of trouble for the homicide case, as well as “innocent” suspects spending time behind bars. Unfortunately, as you know, this happens all too often in real life.

  7. Love it, and it’s so true.

  8. Hey Sue – Great post on a fascinating subject. I’ve seen the gorilla video a few times so I knew what was coming – also the black-shirted player leaving the game, but this is the first time I realized the curtain color changed. Make me wonder what I miss ever time I walk down the street 🙂
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    • I’ve watched so many of these videos I thought I couldn’t be surprised. But then, I saw one with a white mouse and totally didn’t see it. I was waiting for the gorilla! Fascinating how the mind works. It’s amazing any armed criminals get picked out of a line-up.

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