With regard to the extent of psychological research which supports the view concerning the unreliability of eyewitness testimony, a number of judgements can be made. Firstly, one can refer to a study carried out by Loftus and Palmer in 1974, where one hundred and fifty participants were asked to watch a video of cars colliding, and then fill in a questionnaire about what they saw. The important question involved the speed of the cars at the point of impact. However, the question was phrased differently for different groups of participants.
Some were asked “How fast were the two cars going when they hit each other”; others were asked the same question but with the word “smashed”, “collided”, “bumped” or “contacted” replacing the word “hit”. It was found that the speed at which the participants thought the cars were going was affected by the verb used in the question. Overall, we can sum up that recall can be distorted by the wording of the question. The study proves that eyewitness testimony can often be inaccurate, and brings in the idea of false memory syndrome.
This is the act of being unsure of details, which leads us to estimate values, often incorrectly. Some words I feel imply speed more than others, and act as leading questions. For example, the questions influenced the answers given by participants, demonstrating how recall can be biased by language or schema. The study also reveals how police questioning can really have a dramatic effect on how a witness remembers an event. A second study which challenges the reliability of eyewitness testimony is the Loftus et al.
study which was carried out in 1987. Participants were shown one of two versions of a restaurant scene on video. In one version, a man pointed a gun at the cashier and she gave him money. In the other version, he gave her a cheque, and she gave him money. Participants in the “weapon” version fixated more on the gun than those seeing the “non-weapon” version. Their recall for other details was also poorer, and they were less able to identify the man from a set of photographs.
From this study, we can come to the conclusion that a salient detail such as a gun can focus attention, and so lead to poorer recall for other details of the event. In other words, participants seem to remember the most important details the most, and will focus all their attention on salient details like the gun (weapon focus), and miss out on other significant details of the situation. A third study one can take into consideration is the Loftus and Burns study, which was carried out in 1982 and portrays evidence that the violence of an event can also affect recall.
Participants were shown one of two versions of a simulated armed robbery on video. One version included a scene of a boy being shot in the face while the robbers were making their getaway. The recall of detail of the event was much higher for participants who had seen the “non-violent” version had less accurate and less complete recall, not only for event immediately before the shooting, but also for events up to two minutes earlier. The shock associated with the “violent” event disrupted the processing of information into memory, and its consolidation.