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Eyewitness memory poor in highly intense and stressful situations

June 03, 2004

New Haven, Conn. -- The ability to recognize persons encountered during highly threatening and stressful events is poor in the majority of individuals, according to a Yale researcher.

"Contrary to the popular conception that most people would never forget the face of a clearly seen individual who had physically confronted them and threatened them for more than 30 minutes, a large number of subjects in this study were unable to correctly identify their perpetrator," said Charles Morgan III, M.D., associate professor of psychiatry at Yale School of Medicine.

The study included 509 active duty military personnel enrolled in survival school training. The types of stress were modeled after experiences of military personnel who had been prisoners of war (POWs)-- food and sleep deprivation for 48 hours followed by interrogation.

There were two instructors in the room, a "guard" and an "interrogator." The high stress interrogation included physical confrontation. During the low stress interrogation, the interrogator tried to trick the subject into giving away information.

Twenty-four hours after being released from the mock POW camp, the military personnel were asked to identify the interrogator and guard in a live line up, a photo spread, and a sequential photo presentation. Regardless of the presentation, recognition was better during the low stress rather than the high stress condition. In some cases, those interrogated confused even the gender of the guard and/or interrogator.

"The present data have a number of implications for law enforcement personnel, mental health professionals, physicians, attorneys and judges," Morgan said. "All professionals would do well to remember that a large number of healthy individuals may not be able to correctly identify suspects associated with highly stressful, compared to moderately stressful, events."
-end-
Co-authors included Major Gary Hazlett, Fort Bragg, N.C., Lt. Commanders

Eyewitness testimony

Anthony Doran, Brunswick, Maine, Gary Hoyt of Coronado, Calif., and Steven Southwick, M.D., senior author, Stephan Garrett, Paul Thomas, and Madelon Baranoski, all from Yale. Citation: International Journal of Psychiatry and the Law, Vol. 27/3: pp 265-279

Yale University

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