The public’s overestimation of their own mind’s ability

The development of the Cognitive area has been hampered by the lack of an accepted theory and an appropriate method for experiments; ‘like many fields of human research it seems that the more we learn, the more we realise that there is much still to be learned. ‘ (Ainsworth, P. 1998, p. 33). Yet the experimental psychologists involved have still built up a substantial body of work, focusing on contrasting the routinely made errors of the brain with the public’s overestimation of their own mind’s ability.

With the primary aim to dismiss the principle misconception of using the camera analogy as a description of how the human memory operates: “There is an expectation of eyewitnesses to be able to rewind back to the event and pause at intervals to give every single detail of the event” (Wells, G. L. & Seelau, E. P. , 1995). By breaking down the memory process into its three constituent stages, experimenters such as Loftus focussed on identifying everyday memory errors and in addition how witnessing a crime can cause further problems.

The first of these stages, Retention, also known as the encoding phase, refers to an individual’s acquirement of information. From research into schemas and scripts6, emphasis is placed on memory being constructive i. e. our prior knowledge and expectations may allow our memory of an event to be subject to stereotypes and prejudice. From work performed into so-called ‘top-down processing’7, being able to interpret complex events, the mind is forced to be selective and make assumptions about the parts of the incoming stimuli which can often lead to mistakes.

(Ainsworth, 1998. p. 15) “There is, an intelligence to perception: it involves complex problem solving and does not always get the right answer” (Loftus, 1979 p. 23). Loftus (1979) focused a lot of the work on perception into facial identification, which was found to be a major factor in the number of wrongful convictions later overturned. Faces form a class of objects whose recognition poses a far from trivial problem, that of visual pattern classification. “A rather homogenous set of patterns in which there may be very subtle differences between one individual’s face and the next” (Cutler & Penrod, 1995.p. 65)

Taking into consideration, also, that the majority of crimes are over very quickly, allowing the witness limited time to view the perpetrators face. In addition, the trauma of the event will not help to form a very clear picture; in accordance to the Yerkes-Dodson (1908) law9, increased levels of emotional arousal decrease the amount of processing capacity available for attention and memory. Moreover, in serious crime, for instance when a weapon is involved, the individuals focus is drawn solely to the gun and the danger it poses.

So many more factors have been identified as affecting this stage, however it is the next phase of processing that Loftus dedicated much of her work. The second stage in the memory process is entitled the storage phase whereby encoded information is stored in the memory for later use. Many experimental psychologists were concerned with the deterioration of memory and how ,in serious cases, the time that elapses between the criminal acts’ witnessed and the testimony in court can be up to a year10. Instead, Loftus (1979) claims that “Time alone does not cause the slippage of memory.

It is caused in part by what goes on during the passage of time” (p. 52): When the detective and the witness come together for the interview there is a ‘unification of goals,’ they both want to see justice done. Loftus suggested that it can become frustrating for both the detective and the witness and that there is a danger of witnesses becoming sensitive to feedback from the detective: Either communicated through unconscious transference (Loftus, 1979) or possibly the suggestibility of the interviewer (Sadava & McCreary, 1997).

From a series of experiments performed by Loftus (1979), it was suggested that participants ‘accept’ misleading information and regard it as forming part of the original memory. Experiments conducted into the wording of a question found that even something as minor as replacing a word with another derivative will influence the witness e. g. asking the witness to estimate the speed at which a car was travelling when it was involved in an accident. Though, technically the two words have identical meanings (e. g.smash and hit), they elicit very different speed estimates from witnesses: (Ainsworth, 1998. p 45)

Wells supported Loftus’ claim, that “Witnesses will extract and incorporate new information after the witnessed event and then testify about the information as though they actually witnessed it” (2002). Therefore when it comes to the third phase, titled the Retrieval stage, where an individual recalls or recognises information from a memory, the witness ‘cannot separate their original memory of the event and the subsequent information that they have been exposed to’.

Tests conducted by the National Science Foundation (1997)11 revealed that once memory has been distorted in this way, a straightforward cross-examination would fail to distinguish inaccurate recollections. The problem comes when the witness appears in court confident of their recollections, experiments have shown in staged courtrooms that the juries are heavily influenced by the composure of the witness giving the testimony.

“The intricacies of a complex business fraud or the mechanics of DNA profiling, will be beyond the comprehension of the jury and may thus be paid comparatively little attention. However, a confident witness who claims to have seen the defendant holding ‘the smoking gun’ will form a lasting impression”. Solicitors are aware of the impact of a confident witness, and know that any waver in their testimony may result in opposing side deeming it false, therefore will further make the witness rehearse their statement until cement in the head.

The criminal justice system has long been reluctant in accepting any recommendations from psychology due to the laboratory conditions in which they originate. However, the increasing number of DNA exonerated cases, found to have been convicted based on an erroneous eyewitness testimony, has garnered the attention of some key figures. In 1997, U. S. Attorney Janet Reno13 advocated that the criminal justice system should adopt a number of procedural improvements that would be effective in reducing the number of eyewitness errors.

These included the Cognitive Interview, designed by Fisher and Geiselman (1992), which was tested in many laboratories and on average, has elicited between 35% – 75% more information than a typical police interview, without increasing the proportion of responses that are incorrect14. And the Sequential Presentation Line-up procedure, devised by Lindsay and Wells (1989), which was an alternative presentation procedure to the simultaneous line-up that would reduce the tendency of eyewitnesses to rely on ‘relative judgement’.

The data showed that simultaneous and sequential procedures produced nearly identical correct identification rates when the perpetrator was present in the line-up. However, the rate of mistaken identification was 43% with simultaneous procedure and only 17% with sequential. The factors affecting memory recall have recently been re-explored in a series of field reports in an attempt to improve the ecological validity and combat the criticism of the laboratory conditions.

These experiments imply that eyewitness testimony may be more accurate than laboratory-based studies previously suggested. Foster at al (1984)15 argues that eyewitnesses may be more likely to remember traumatic events that occur in real life because they may have serious consequences. Participants shown a video of a bank robbery and subsequently asked to identify one of the robbers in a line-up (having been told the robbery was real and that their responses would affect the trial) showed greater recall than did participants who were not given this information.

In laboratory-based studies, participants may do their best to co-operate and please the experimenter, but they are aware that the suspect’s freedom does not depend on their responses (Cohen et al, 2003). I believe the future of eyewitness research will rest on improving the relationship between psychology and law.

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, …

The current research assessed the influence of DNA evidence on beliefs about the guilt of a parent accused of sexually abusing his or her daughter. Participants read scenarios about a custody hearing where a daughter accused her father (or mother) …

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 …

Coxon and Valentine are aware that the participants’ level of education may have had some bearing on results: “the present study may have exaggerated the advantage shown by young adults” (p14). Coxon and Valentine’s findings were inconsistent, however, with those …

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