False Identification: New Research Seeks To Inoculate Eyewitnesses Against Errors

January 03, 1997

More than 75,000 people become crime suspects each year in the United States based on being identified from lineups and photo spreads. Some identifications will be false and lead to mistaken arrests and imprisonments.

A recent study* reveals the extent of this problem. In 24 of a sample 28 cases involving Americans who were released from prison in the last few years based on DNA evidence that proved their innocence, eyewitnesses had made false identifications from photo spreads and lineups. No one knows how many others may be unjustly jailed every year due to false identifications.

New research sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF) is now helping to understand the circumstances that lead to false identifications and to find ways to reduce their occurrences. The results should eventually help police and jurors who must decide the fate of a suspect based on the confidence of an eyewitness account.

Particularly troublesome, says Gary Wells, a psychologist at Iowa State University who has conducted NSF-funded research in this area, is evidence that an objective question such as "How certain are you that the person you identified is the person you saw commit the crime?" elicits a similar response regardless of whether the eyewitness' memory is accurate or not.

This discovery surprised Wells and his team of researchers, who hoped a direct question would counteract certain influences on an eyewitness' memory. They knew that confidence can be manipulated easily if eyewitnesses receive information about a suspect after making an identification. Their earlier research indicated that casual remarks ("Yes, you've identified the same suspect we picked up for questioning") uttered by police station personnel administering suspect lineups or photo spreads can bolster the confidence of an eyewitness and distort the witness' memory.

The latest research funded by NSF reveals that, once an eyewitness' memory has been distorted in this way, a straightforward cross-examination often fails to produce an accurate recollection. In particular, eyewitnesses began to change their answers to questions about how much attention they had paid to the culprit, how good a view they had of the culprit's face, and other factors surrounding the event. As a result, Wells believes stronger steps are needed to "inoculate" eyewitnesses' memories, especially over the weeks and months that may stretch between the crime and a courtroom trial.

"We know the nature of the problem," says Wells. "Now we need to look at ways to prevent manipulation. Part of the solution is to require blind testing, where the person administering line-ups or picture spreads does not know who the suspects are" and therefore cannot bias the eyewitness, he says.

Wells also suspects that more accurate testimonies may result from posing a series of deliberate questions immediately after identification to probe an eyewitness' confidence and memory. Questions such as "How clear a view did you have of the suspect?" "How long did you look at him?" "How easy was it for you to make the identification from the photo spread?" may help reduce later distortions of their answers, he says. This is his next line of study.

To test the accuracy of eyewitness testimonies, Wells and his team staged thefts and possible acts of fraud before unsuspecting potential eyewitnesses in offices, stores and waiting rooms; the eyewitnesses then were asked to make identifications under various conditions which isolated factors that could affect the confidence of their memories.
-end-


National Science Foundation

Related Memory Articles from Brightsurf:

Memory of the Venus flytrap
In a study to be published in Nature Plants, a graduate student Mr.

Memory protein
When UC Santa Barbara materials scientist Omar Saleh and graduate student Ian Morgan sought to understand the mechanical behaviors of disordered proteins in the lab, they expected that after being stretched, one particular model protein would snap back instantaneously, like a rubber band.

Previously claimed memory boosting font 'Sans Forgetica' does not actually boost memory
It was previously claimed that the font Sans Forgetica could enhance people's memory for information, however researchers from the University of Warwick and the University of Waikato, New Zealand, have found after carrying out numerous experiments that the font does not enhance memory.

Memory boost with just one look
HRL Laboratories, LLC, researchers have published results showing that targeted transcranial electrical stimulation during slow-wave sleep can improve metamemories of specific episodes by 20% after only one viewing of the episode, compared to controls.

VR is not suited to visual memory?!
Toyohashi university of technology researcher and a research team at Tokyo Denki University have found that virtual reality (VR) may interfere with visual memory.

The genetic signature of memory
Despite their importance in memory, the human cortex and subcortex display a distinct collection of 'gene signatures.' The work recently published in eNeuro increases our understanding of how the brain creates memories and identifies potential genes for further investigation.

How long does memory last? For shape memory alloys, the longer the better
Scientists captured live action details of the phase transitions of shape memory alloys, giving them a better idea how to improve their properties for applications.

A NEAT discovery about memory
UAB researchers say over expression of NEAT1, an noncoding RNA, appears to diminish the ability of older brains to form memories.

Molecular memory can be used to increase the memory capacity of hard disks
Researchers at the University of Jyväskylä have taken part in an international British-Finnish-Chinese collaboration where the first molecule capable of remembering the direction of a magnetic above liquid nitrogen temperatures has been prepared and characterized.

Memory transferred between snails
Memories can be transferred between organisms by extracting ribonucleic acid (RNA) from a trained animal and injecting it into an untrained animal, as demonstrated in a study of sea snails published in eNeuro.

Read More: Memory News and Memory Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.