Elizabeth Loftus is one of the leading researchers in Eyewitness testimony with her being more interested in what happens to memory after a particular event rather than before it. In a typical experiment participants are shown a film or slides depicting a car crash. In the interval before recall was asked she provided them with information that either conflicted or supported the original witnessed event.
For example she showed 150 participants a film of a car crash and after split the participants into two groups who were then asked two questions about what they had seen. The first group was asked questions entirely consistent of what actually had taken place. The second group was asked exactly the same questions with the exception of one – “how fast was the sports car going when it passed the barn on the country road.” This question was misleading because there was no barn in the video shown to them.
The following week participants were asked a further ten questions with the final one being “did you see a barn.” Loftus found that 2.7% of the people in the first group gave the incorrect answer “yes” whereas 17.3% of the second group i.e. those given the misleading question answered “yes.” This led her to conclude that, for these people, the non-existent barn had been added to the original memory representation at the question stage so that it is now recalled as being part of the original event. It seems that people can be misled by false information even when it is discredited.
In another research method Loftus demonstrated that the precise wording of questions also has an affect in prompting false memories. Loftus and Palmer (1974) showed participants a film of a car accident and asked them “how fast were the cars going when they hit each other?” Other participants were asked the same type of question except that the word “hit” was substituted with the words “smashed, collided bumped or contacted.” They found that the word used affected the speed estimation with “smashed” producing the highest estimation and contact producing the lowest estimation. A week later participants were asked if they had seen broken glass with the participants in the smashed category giving the false answer “yes.”
Of course in real life events, which may have to be recalled later in a court of law Happen unexpectedly and in an atmosphere of tension, which is difficult to reproduce in laboratory situations and so must be taken into account when evaluating these research methods. It has been said that fear and anxiety can also affect the way in which we remember things. Christianson and Hubinette questioned 110 witnesses who had between them witnessed a total of 22 genuine bank robberies as opposed to set up ones.
Some of the witnesses had been onlookers who just happened to be in the banks at that precise moment in time whereas others had been direct threatened in the robberies. Results showed that victims were more accurate in their recall and remembered more details than that of the onlookers. This superior recall continued to be evident even after the 15 month interval which led them to conclude that people are good at remembering highly stressful events if they occur in real life rather than artificial surroundings found in laboratory situations.
However it is also true that witnesses are not always susceptible to misleading post event information. People are generally not misled by information that is blatantly incorrect. Loftus (1979) showed participants the theft of a large red purse from a handbag. In an immediate recall test she found that 98% of the participants correctly remembered the colour of the purse. They were then asked to read an account of the theft written by a leading psychologist (this was done to lend weight to the account.)
One of these accounts contained errors relating to unimportant items in the slide sequence e.g. the wrong colour was given to items not central to the action. The other account contained, in addition to these minor errors, the more glaring statement that the purse was brown. In a following recall test all but two of the participants resisted the suggestion that the purse was brown and stuck with their correct choice of red. This suggests that memory for information that is particularly noticeable and salient at the time is less susceptible to distortion. In other words people can ignore new information under certain circumstances and so maintain their original memory representation intact.
Evaluation of Loftus’ Research In light of Loftus’ research it seems clear that memory for events can be fundamentally altered in light of post event information. However her studies have been criticized for being too artificial. It is extremely difficult to reproduce events in the laboratory that are similar to that of ones in real life and it is quite possible that eyewitnesses remember them differently as Christianson and Hubinettes study suggest.
It is also possible that participants in experiments are less accurate than people in real life events purely because they know that inaccuracies will not lead to serious consequences unlike that of real life e.g. a trial. Foster et al (1994) tested this theory on participants observing footage of a burglary. They were asked to pick out the offender in an identity parade with half being told the event was real and half that it was fictitious. Recall was found to be higher with those that were told the event was real which suggests that consequentiality was a factor.
Her research methods have also been criticized in terms of the way they are conducted. A lot of the time Loftus used what is known as “force-choice” testing. For example she would give participants two slides to choose from which can sometimes lead to false results. Korriat and Goldsmith have shown that witness accuracy can be dramatically increased if tests do not rely on force-choice testing and witnesses are allowed to give no answer if they are unsure in any way. It also seems fair to say that witnesses are able to produce far more accurate memories for events if they are given the appropriate cues i.e. recreate the context, report every detail, and recall the event in different order and changing the perspective
Loftus has also been criticized for her explanations of post event information. She believes that in the light of new information old memory traces are deleted and replaced by the new false memory. Other researchers believe that the memory trace is still available even though it has been obscured by new information. Memory for Faces (face recognition) We have so far considered memory in terms of events but people are sometimes called upon to give descriptions of people involved in these events.
Descriptions might include things like build, hairstyle, clothes and also the context that these people were seen in i.e. you are less likely to recognize your doctor in the swimming pool. Young and Bruce (1991) call this the “little red riding hood effect.” However face recognition is viewed as un-reliable partly because of the surprise element involved when witnessing a crime and partly because the individuals are removed from the context in which they originally witnessed the crime. It seems that in most crimes the face of the perpetrator is not the focus of attention.
In order to increase the accuracy in which we recall things we need greater exposure to them from different angles because our memory for familiar faces has a more 3-D quality about it. Eyewitness Summary Although it is possible under certain circumstances that people can recall certain events vividly and in accurate detail eyewitness accounts can be unreliable. It is therefore important for psychologists to investigate the reason why inaccuracies arise and to suggest ways they may improve.