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Psychology Eyewitness Testimony Essay

Eyewitness testimony is an account given by the witness of an event or crime. It is a legal term that is widely used at a trial. Eyewitness testimony is a controversial issue whereas many experts think that the quality of the account given by the witness depends on numerous psychological and external factors. However, there are cases when eyewitness testimony is the only clue for the police to find a guilty person or discover the actual situation. When it is impossible to trace forensic evidence, the only way out is to find a witness who has seen the entire event or crime with her own eyes. Although this method is unreliable, very often it helps to find the truth.

Eyewitness testimony is a valuable method in forensic science. Years ago, this method was the weightiest one. People did not try to look for any clues and evidence and the only reliable source of information about a crime was eyewitness testimony. When one said that he saw a criminal, he described that person and her actions. When the descriptions fitted the accused person, she was believed to be guilty. Therefore, forensic science of the past was based on eyewitness testimony.

Nevertheless, it is difficult to claim that eyewitness testimony is the best evidence. Let us pay attention to the factors that can influence the quality of the testimony. Firstly, it is stress or anxiety. 

When one has witnessed a violent crime, it is hard to expect slight details that can help you discover the case. Violent crimes are very stressful. When one has witnessed a gun shooting, he will not be able to recall many details about this crime. Fear reduces the quality of memory considerably. On the other hand, although the witness is able to remember fewer details, the quality of the memory is stronger. Even if one is asked about the mentioned details of the crime in a few years, he will be able to recall them at once. Thus, anxiety helps witnesses remember information better. Unluckily, very often people remember unnecessary details that will never help at the trial.

The second factor is reconstructive memory. Doubtless, many people think that our memory resembles a video tape that records information accurately. In fact, our brains record information according to the schemas that fit in our norms of life. In simple words, this information should correspond to the existing knowledge about people, events, objects, etc. When we know someone’s habits and traits of character, we think that we can predict his further actions. Reconstructive memory is connected with the subjective interpretation of the event or crime. Sometimes we do not remember the specific case but we invent and add something new to the actual situation. Reconstructive memory is associated with numerous extra details generated but our brains. We see what we want to see. Moreover, our memory is changeable and it tries to generate the details that can fit in the description of the particular situation. Therefore, it is vital to ask several witnesses when researching a complicated case. Experts should remember about the tricky nature and imperfection of human memory.

The last problem is weapon focus. This factor is very harmful for the quality of eyewitness testimony. When one has become a witness of a robbery where weapon was involved, the quality of his testimony is questioned. When we see a criminal holding a gun or a knife, we will focus on the description of the weapon but not of the criminal’s appearance. We know that weapon brings pain and death and our eyes pay attention to it. No wonder, many witnesses cannot recognize a criminal even if he did not wear a mask. On the other hand, the value of weapon focus is overestimated.

It is possible to speak about prejudices and stereotypes that influence the quality of the testimony. When one dislikes the suspect’s appearance or behavior, he will add many facts that did not exist. Then, there is time distortion. Fear and stress prevents the witness from the adequate estimation of the crime’s duration. For example, the actual gun shooting could have lasted for ten seconds. However, the witness believes that the event lasted several minutes.

Eyewitness testimonial is a considerable method in forensic science. It helps experts solve difficult puzzles of complicated crimes when forensic evidence cannot be found. On the other hand, it is hard to say that eyewitness testimonial is 100% credible method whereas there are many internal and external factors that spoil the quality of the suggested testimonial.

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Eyewitness Testimony

Saul McLeod published 2009

Eyewitness testimony is a legal term.  It refers to an account given by people of an event they have witnessed. 

For example they may be required to give a description at a trial of a robbery or a road accident someone has seen.  This includes identification of perpetrators, details of the crime scene etc.

Eyewitness testimony is an important area of research in cognitive psychology and human memory.

Juries tend to pay close attention to eyewitness testimony and generally find it a reliable source of information.  However, research into this area has found that eyewitness testimony can be affected by many psychological factors:

  • Anxiety / Stress
  • Reconstructive Memory
  • Weapon Focus
  • Leading Questions (Loftus and Palmer, 1974)
  • Anxiety / Stress

    Anxiety or stress is almost always associated with real life crimes of violence.  Deffenbacher (1983) reviewed 21 studies and found that the stress-performance relationship followed an inverted-U function proposed by the Yerkes Dodson Curve (1908). 

    This means that for tasks of moderate complexity (such as EWT), performances increases with stress up to an optimal point where it starts to decline.

    Clifford and Scott (1978) found that people who saw a film of a violent attack remembered fewer of the 40 items of information about the event than a control group who saw a less stressful version.  As witnessing a real crime is probably more stressful than taking part in an experiment, memory accuracy may well be even more affected in real life.

    However, a study by Yuille and Cutshall (1986) contradicts the importance of stress in influencing eyewitness memory.

    They showed that witnesses of a real life incident (a gun shooting outside a gun shop in Canada) had remarkable accurate memories of a stressful event involving weapons. A thief stole guns and money, but was shot six times and died.

    The police interviewed witnesses, and thirteen of them were re-interviewed five months later.  Recall was found to be accurate, even after a long time, and two misleading questions inserted by the research team had no effect on recall accuracy. One weakness of this study was that the witnesses who experienced the highest levels of stress where actually closer to the event, and this may have helped with the accuracy of their memory recall.

    The Yuille and Cutshall study illustrates two important points:

    1. There are cases of real-life recall where memory for an anxious / stressful event is accurate, even some months later.

    2. Misleading questions need not have the same effect as has been found in laboratory studies (e.g. Loftus & Palmer).

    Reconstructive Memory

    Bartlett ’s theory of reconstructive memory is crucial to an understanding of the reliability of eyewitness testimony as he suggested that recall is subject to personal interpretation dependent on our learnt or cultural norms and values, and the way we make sense of our world.

    Many people believe that memory works something like a videotape.  Storing information is like recording and remembering is like playing back what was recorded.  With information being retrieved in much the same form as it was encoded.  However, memory does not work in this way.  It is a feature of human memory that we do not store information exactly as it is presented to us.  Rather, people extract from information the gist, or underlying meaning.

    In other words, people store information in the way that makes the most sense to them.  We make sense of information by trying to fit it into schemas, which are a way of organizing information.

    Schemas are mental 'units' of knowledge that correspond to frequently encountered people, objects or situations.  They allow us to make sense of what we encounter in order that we can predict what is going to happen and what we should do in any given situation.  These schemas may, in part, be determined by social values and therefore prejudice.

    Schemas are therefore capable of distorting unfamiliar or unconsciously ‘unacceptable’ information in order to ‘fit in’ with our existing knowledge or schemas.  This can, therefore, result in unreliable eyewitness testimony.

    Bartlett tested this theory using a variety of stories to illustrate that memory is an active process and subject to individual interpretation or construction.

    In his famous study 'War of the Ghosts', Bartlett (1932) showed that memory is not just a factual recording of what has occurred, but that we make “effort after meaning”.  By this, Bartlett meant that we try to fit what we remember with what we really know and understand about the world.  As a result, we quite often change our memories so they become more sensible to us.

    His participants heard a story and had to tell the story to another person and so on, like a game of “Chinese Whispers”. 

    The story was a North American folk tale called “The War of the Ghosts”.  When asked to recount the detail of the story, each person seemed to recall it in their own individual way.

    With repeating telling, the passages became shorter, puzzling ideas were rationalized or omitted altogether and details changed to become more familiar or conventional.

    For example, the information about the ghosts was omitted as it was difficult to explain, whilst participants frequently recalled the idea of “not going because he hadn’t told his parents where he was going” because that situation was more familiar to them. For this research Bartlett concluded that memory is not exact and is distorted by existing schema, or what we already know about the world.

    It seems, therefore, that each of us ‘reconstructs’ our memories to conform to our personal beliefs about the world.

    This clearly indicates that our memories are anything but reliable, ‘photographic’ records of events.  They are individual recollections which have been shaped & constructed according to our stereotypes, beliefs, expectations etc.

    The implications of this can be seen even more clearly in a study by Allport & Postman (1947).

    When asked to recall details of the picture opposite, participants tended to report that it was the black man who was holding the razor.

    Clearly this is not correct and shows that memory is an active process and can be changed to 'fit in' with what we expect to happen based on your knowledge and understanding of society (e.g. our schemas).

    Weapon Focus

    This refers to an eyewitness’s concentration on a weapon to the exclusion of other details of a crime.  In a crime where a weapon is involved, it is not unusual for a witness to be able to describe the weapon in much more detail than the person holding it.

    Loftus et al. (1987) showed participants a series of slides of a customer in a restaurant.  In one version the customer was holding a gun, in the other the same customer held a checkbook. Participants who saw the gun version tended to focus on the gun.  As a result they were less likely to identify the customer in an identity parade those who had seen the checkbook version

    However, a study by Yuille and Cutshall (1986) contradicts the importance of weapon focus in influencing eyewitness memory.


    Allport, G. W., & Postman, L. J. (1947). The psychology of rumor. NewYork: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

    Bartlett, F.C. (1932). Remembering: A Study in Experimental and Social Psychology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Clifford, B.R. and Scott, J. (1978). Individual and situational factors in eyewitness memory. Journal of Applied Psychology, 63, 352-359.

    Deffenbacher, K. A. (1983). The influence of arousal on reliability of testimony. In S. M. A. Lloyd-Bostock & B. R. Clifford (Eds.). Evaluating witness evidence. Chichester: Wiley. (pp. 235-251).

    Loftus, E.F., Loftus, G.R., & Messo, J. (1987). Some facts about weapon focus. Law and Human Behavior, 11, 55-62.

    Yerkes R.M., Dodson JD (1908). The relation of strength of stimulus to rapidity of habit-formation. Journal of Comparative Neurology and Psychology, 18: 459–482.

    Yuille, J.C., & Cutshall, J.L. (1986). A case study of eyewitness memory of a crime. Journal of Applied Psychology, 71, 291-301.

    How to reference this article:

    McLeod, S. A. (2009). Eyewitness testimony. Retrieved from www.simplypsychology.org/eyewitness-testimony.html

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    Further Information

    Cognitive Interview

    Eyewitness Testimony

    Elizabeth Loftus and Eye Witness Testimony

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