Stereotyping the older eyewitness

June 20, 2001

Accidents and crimes happen all the time and often a witness is there to recount the event. But what happens when the witness is elderly? New research by the University of Alberta's Dr. Sheree Kwong See has found there is a bias against the older eyewitness--a finding that could have great implications on the legal system.

Kwong See, the lead author of the study published in the current edition of the journal Psychology and Aging, found that beliefs associating old age with failing memory cause older people to be seen as less credible.

"We know that generally people think that older people have poor memories, so we wanted to know what that means for the older eyewitness," said Kwong See, who has been researching stereotypes against the elderly for years. "People will tell you that it in a courtroom a bias didn't exist, but I didn't believe that."

So Kwong See and her co-researchers, Tammy Wood at the U of A and Hunter Hoffman at the University of Washington, used an indirect method to get at people's underlying beliefs about older people's memories.

The research team asked 93 university students to watch a slide show of a male shoplifting in a bookstore and told participants they would be completing a memory test. After being given another task to do for 15 minutes to create a time delay, the students then read a 575-word eyewitness account of the crime. Participants were told they were reading a narrative based on the memory of either a 28-year-old female or an 82-year-old female. Black-and-white photos of the older or younger witness accompanied the age information.

Participants were then asked to rate the extent to which their witness possessed characteristics such as competence, accuracy, good memory, honesty and sincerity.

Kwong also used a psychological paradigm that allows researchers to measure bias without the participants knowing. The written accounts of the story included misinformation on four details seen in the slide show. For example, the shoplifter stole a green notebook, but the witnesses reported it was red. Four other target items were not changed.

By comparing memory for the four misleading items in the narrative with the four unchanged items, the researchers could check whether the participants were in fact being misled by the eyewitness accounts--an indirect way of testing if the witness was being believed.

"What we found is that the more competent you rate the witness, the more you will believe the misinformation," said Kwong See. "This is really getting at beliefs in an indirect level. You are measuring bias without people knowing. And what we found is that although both the young witness and the old witness gave the same narrative and the older witness was believed to be more honest, the older witness tended to be believed less because she was believed to be incompetent."

This study has applications in legal proceedings, where jury bias might play a role if a witness is elderly. As the population continues to age, it will increasingly be a problem, said Kwong See. In the case of older witnesses, juries may believe them to be more honest, but that their testimony is less accurate.
The UofA in Edmonton, Alberta is one of Canada's premier teaching and research universities serving more than 30,000 students with 6,000 faculty and staff. It continues to lead the country with the most 3M Teaching Fellows, Canada's only national award recognizing teaching excellence.

University of Alberta

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