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Eyewitness Testimony

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Eyewitness Testimony

Eyewitness testimony is when someone is asked to testify about a crime they witnessed. They may be the victim or the observer of a crime.

It may seem that eyewitness testimony is an effective means of identifying and convicting criminals. Still, as we will see in this article, eyewitness testimony is not the most reliable method of identifying criminals.

In 2011, for example, DNA testing led to the release of 51-year-old Cornelius Depree. He spent 30 years in prison after being convicted of raping and robbing a 26-year-old woman. He was convicted because the victim identified him as the culprit through eyewitness testimony, but DNA evidence cleared his name.

How does this misidentification occur? And what is the relationship between eyewitness testimony and memory biases? Eyewitness testimony is an important area of research in psychology. Let us look at some factors affecting eyewitness testimony and look at some eyewitness testimony examples.

Eyewitness Testimony StudySmarterEyewitness testimony, Flaticon

Factors affecting eyewitness testimony

There are several factors affecting eyewitness testimony. Let’s cover them one at a time.

Confirmation bias

Lindholm and Christianson (1998) examined the concept of in-group/out-group status’ and its effects on eyewitness testimony. The researchers showed Swedish and immigrant students videos where a simulated robbery occurred, and the culprit seriously injured a cashier.

Confirmation bias is when eyewitness memory is influenced and distorted by the person’s expectations.

In the videos, the culprit was either Swedish or an immigrant. Students were then shown a line-up of eight men (four Swedes and four immigrants) and asked to identify the culprit.The Swedish and immigrant students were twice as likely to choose an innocent immigrant than a Swedish immigrant.The researchers concluded that this was due to the overrepresentation of immigrants in Swedish crime statistics, which influenced the students’ expectations and memory that the culprit must be an immigrant.

Misleading information

Loftus and Palmer (1974) suggested that misleading information given after the event can distort eyewitness memories through leading questions (implying an answer). Their two experiments demonstrate the concept of misleading information.

Experiment 1

Aim: To investigate the effects of leading verbs on eyewitness accounts of a car accident. They hypothesised that misleading information in the form of a leading question could change the accuracy of eyewitness testimony.Participants: 45 students participated in the experiment.Procedure: They divided the participants into five groups. Each group watched seven clips of traffic accidents. After watching each clip, participants described what happened as if they were eyewitnesses. They were then asked several questions about what they had seen, including one crucial question. This was, ‘How fast were the cars going when they ___ into each other?’. Each group had to answer this question with a different verb:

  • Smashed.

  • Collided.

  • Hit.

  • Bumped.

  • Contacted.

Findings: The more extreme the verb, the faster participants estimated the car’s speed. The average speed estimates for each of the verbs were:

  • Smashed: 40.5 mph.

  • Collided: 39.3 mph.

  • Hit: 34 mph.

  • Bumped: 38.1 mph.

  • Contacted: 31.8 mph.

The researchers concluded that there could be two explanations for their findings:

  1. Response bias influenced the participants’ answers they were unsure of what estimate to give for speed, so their choice of verb influenced their answers. For example, for the group labelled ‘smashed’, the verb ‘smashed’ caused them to report a higher speed. However, their memories were not distorted.

  2. The misleading question (with the choice of a verb) caused a change in the participants’ memories. For example, the verb ‘smashed’ caused participants in the ‘smashed’ group to remember the accident as being more severe than it was. If this memory bias is the case, the researchers could assume that participants remembered other features not initially shown in the clips. Therefore, they conducted a second experiment to test for memory distortion.

Eyewitness Testimony experiment StudySmarterEyewitness testimony experiment, Flaticon

Experiment 2

Participants: 150 students participated in the experiment.Procedure: Participants watched a movie about a car accident and were given a questionnaire about the movie they had just seen. The crucial question was about the speed of the cars.Fifty participants had to answer: ‘How fast were the cars going when they smashed into each other?Fifty participants had to answer: ‘Approximately how fast were the cars going when they collided?Researchers did not ask the other fifty any questions about the speed of the cars (control group).

After one week, the participants had to complete a questionnaire again. The crucial question was: ‘Did you see any broken glass?’ (there was no broken glass in the video).

Findings: 32% of participants in the ‘smashed’ condition reported seeing broken glass, compared with 14% in the ‘hit’ condition and 12% in the control condition.Loftus and Palmer’s (1974) study shows that suggestive questions can easily distort memory. Information given to someone after an event can mix with the original memory.

Evaluation

Strengths:

  • Because this was a laboratory study, researchers could control confounding variables, which improved internal validity.

  • The results of this study impact real-life interrogation tactics by demonstrating the effects of leading questions.

Weaknesses:

  • The study only interviewed university students, so the results cannot be generalised to other populations.

  • The study has low ecological validity because it was conducted in a laboratory. Participants experienced fewer emotions while watching the videos than in an actual situation. Questions might not distort your memories due to emotions in a real situation.

  • The questions were leading (using arousing or emotional verbs instead of simple, less arousing verbs), which suggests what the study was investigating. Participants may then have figured out what was being investigated in the study and responded accordingly, affecting the validity and reliability of the experiment.

Post-event discussion

Gabbert et al. (2003) studied the effect of post-event conversations on the accuracy of eyewitness testimony.

Eyewitness Testimony Post-event discussion StudySmarterPost-event discussion, Pixabay

Post-event discussion involves witnesses of an event talking about what they saw. This discussion can lead to distortion and inaccuracies in memory, especially if a confederate is involved.

Participants: 60 students from the University of Aberdeen and 60 older adults from the local community.

The simulated crime involved a girl walking into an empty university room to return a book. Two videos were shot of this event, but from different perspectives: video A showed details that were not in video B, and vice versa. Only in video B did the girl commit the crime and took 10 pounds from a wallet.Procedure: Researchers divided participants into two groups, the control group (tested individually) and the co-witness group (tested in pairs). In the individual group, one half watched video A and the other half watched video B. In the co-witness group, each person in the pair saw a different video, although they were told they saw the same video. Afterward, participants in the co-witness group could talk to their partners about what they had seen.Afterward, all participants were tested individually with a questionnaire about their memory of the crime.

Findings: 71% of the co-witness group remembered information they had not seen in the video. Moreover, in the co-witness group, 60% of the participants who had not seen the girl commit a crime said that the girl was guilty. Thus, although they had not seen the crime themselves, they thought the girl was guilty after discussing it with their partner who had seen it. There were no differences in memory distortion between old and young.The results show that post-event discussions can distort memory. The information participants in the co-witness groups had heard from others influenced their memory. This information was then incorporated into their original memory.

Strengths:

  • Two populations participated in this study, university students and older adults, and there were no differences in memory distortion between young and old. Therefore, this study has good generalisability that memory distortions affect young and old equally.

  • The study can be applied to police work to train police officers not to judge the statements of multiple witnesses as more accurate just because they have the same information.

Weaknesses:

  • Because this was a laboratory experiment, ecological validity is low. Participants knew they were taking part in an experiment and thus may have paid more attention to the videos. In real-life situations, people may be exposed to less information.

  • We cannot be sure that the memory distortion was due to post-event information. It could be due to conformity effects (informational influence).

Anxiety

In real life, eyewitness testimony is often used when witnesses recall anxious situations, such as a violent crime scene. How does anxiety affect memory? Psychologists have researched the effects of anxiety on eyewitness memory.Let us take a look at some of these studies.

Johnson and Scott (1976)

Aim: To investigate whether anxiety affects the accuracy of eyewitness testimony and face recognition.

Procedure: Participants were invited into a laboratory and had to wait in the reception area. The receptionist there excused herself to run an important errand and went into an adjacent room. At this point, participants experienced one of two conditions. These were:

  1. ‘No weapon’ condition: Participants heard a conversation about an equipment failure. Then a man left the room and walked past the participants with greasy hands and a pen in his hand.

  2. ‘Weapon’ condition: Participants heard a hostile exchange of words, the sound of breaking glass and overturned chairs. Afterwards, a man with a bloody knife ran out of the room.

Both groups of participants were shown 50 photographs and asked to identify the man.Findings: The ‘no weapon’ condition group correctly identified the man 49% of the time, compared to only 33% for the ‘weapon’ condition group. The participants who saw the knife felt higher levels of fear and focused more on the weapon than on the man’s face. This phenomenon is known as the weapon focus effect.

Strengths:

  • There is scientific evidence for the gun focus effect. In a study by Loftus et al. (1987), participants were asked to observe a person either pointing a gun at them or handing a check to a cashier and subsequently receiving cash. Researchers recorded participants’ eye movements. Participants made more eye fixations and looked longer at the gun than at the check. In addition, participants’ memory was worse in the gun condition than in the check condition.

  • In their meta-analysis, Fawcett et al. (2013) found that focusing on the weapon harmed eyewitness memory.

  • The study has high ecological validity because participants did not know it was a study and should have responded authentically.

Weaknesses:

  • There are ethical problems, as participants were deceived about the nature of the study and exposed to a man with a bloody knife.

Yuille and Cutshall (1986)

Yuille and Cutshall (1986) studied eyewitness memory of a real-life crime.

Aim: To examine the effects of anxiety on the accuracy of eyewitness testimony in an actual situation.

Procedure: Twenty-one witnesses saw a shooting in which one person was killed, and two were seriously injured. The police interviewed them all. Four to five months later, 13 of the witnesses agreed to participate in this research study and were interviewed about what they saw. The eyewitness accounts they provided to the police and the research team were analysed.Findings: Participants were highly accurate in their descriptions, and after five months, researchers noted only a slight change in recall accuracy. In addition, they resisted leading questions, and the level of anxiety they felt at the time of the crime did not appear to affect their recollection. These results suggest that weapon focus and fear do not affect eyewitness memory accuracy in real life.

Strengths:

  • It was a real-life event with much higher ecological validity than laboratory experiments.

Weaknesses:

  • This study was only one study with 13 participants. Therefore, it is difficult to generalise the results or to say that the results of this study indicate that the results of the laboratory experiment are wrong.

  • Ethical issues related to asking participants to recall traumatic events.

  • Because this was a field study, there was no way to control for outside variables, such as that participants may have read information about the crime before the interview, which contributed to their recall accuracy.

  • It is difficult to determine whether proximity to the crime or the stress of witnessing the crime contributed to recall accuracy.

The Yerkes-Dodson Law states that there is a relationship between stress and performance. Stress increases performance, but only up to a point. After that, excessive stress harms performance. Applied to eyewitness memory, this means that anxiety can increase memory performance, but only up to a certain point.Deffenbacher (1983) examined 21 studies of eyewitness testimony and found that low levels of anxiety lead to a poor recall, whereas higher levels of anxiety increase recall, but only up to a point. If a witness feels too much fear in connection with a crime, memory decreases.


Eyewitness Testimony - Key takeaways

  • Eyewitness testimony is when someone is asked to testify about a crime they witnessed.
  • Some factors can affect the accuracy of eyewitness testimony, such as confirmation bias, misleading questions, post-event discussions, and fear.
  • Confirmation bias occurs when eyewitness memory is influenced and distorted by the person’s expectations. Lindholm and Christianson (1998), in a study of Swedish and immigrant students, found that in a line-up, both groups were twice as likely to select an innocent immigrant than an innocent Swede. This may be because immigrants are overrepresented in Swedish crime statistics, which influences students’ expectations and memory.
  • Loftus and Palmer (1974) found that word choice can easily distort memories in suggestive questions. Information given to someone after an event can become mixed with the original memory.
  • Geiselman et al. (1984) developed the cognitive interview to improve the accuracy of eyewitness testimony.

Frequently Asked Questions about Eyewitness Testimony

Things that influence eyewitness testimony are confirmation bias, misleading information, post-event discussion, and anxiety.

Eyewitness testimony is studied in research into memory, a part of cognitive psychology. 

Eyewitness testimony is an integral part of the criminal justice system. Criminal trials must reconstruct what happened in a past event, and eyewitness testimony plays a significant role. 

It offers valuable insight into a crime by an actual witness, increasing the validity of the account and helping to identify potential criminals. However, it is subject to biases and can be affected by external variables, such as post-event discussion and leading questions. Yet this is debatable, as some studies have found that people resist leading questions and biases for up to four to five months after witnessing a traumatic event. 

Final Eyewitness Testimony Quiz

Question

What is eyewitness testimony?

Show answer

Answer

Eyewitness testimony is when someone is asked to testify about a crime they witnessed. They may be the victim or the observer of a crime.

Show question

Question

What are some factors that can affect the accuracy of eyewitness testimony?

Show answer

Answer

Confirmation bias, misleading information, post-event discussion, and anxiety.

Show question

Question

What did Lindholm and Christianson (1998) find when Swedish and immigrant students had to pick a culprit from a line-up?

Show answer

Answer

Both Swedish and immigrant students were twice as likely to select an innocent immigrant than an immigrant Swede.

Show question

Question

In Loftus and Palmer (1974) first experiment, how did the choice of verb affect participants' answers?

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Answer

The more extreme the verb, the faster the participants estimated the car's speed. 

Show question

Question

In Loftus and Palmer (1974) second experiment, which group reported seeing broken glass the most?

Show answer

Answer

The ‘smashed’ condition group.

Show question

Question

What is post-event discussion?

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Answer

Post-event discussion is when witnesses of an event discuss what they saw. This can lead to distortion and inaccuracies in memory.

Show question

Question

What did the Gabbert et al. (2003) study show about the effects of post-event discussion on memory?

Show answer

Answer

Post-event discussions can distort memory. The information participants in the co-witness groups had heard from others influenced their memory. They then incorporated this information into their original memory. 

Show question

Question

In Gabbert et al. (2003) study, what could be another explanation for the memory distortion of the participants?

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Answer

Conformity effects (informational influence).

Show question

Question

What was the aim of the Johnson and Scott (1976) study?

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Answer

To investigate if anxiety affects the accuracy of eyewitness testimony and facial recognition.

Show question

Question

What were the two conditions of Johnson and Scott's (1976) study?

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Answer

The two conditions were ‘weapon’ condition and ‘no weapon’ condition.

Show question

Question

What percentage did the participants in the ‘weapon’ condition correctly identify the man?

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Answer

33%.

Show question

Question

How are the findings of Johnson and Scott (1976) study explained?

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Answer

Participants who saw the knife experienced higher anxiety levels and focused more on the weapon than the man's face. This phenomenon is known as the weapon focus effect.

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Question

What does Yuille and Cutshall (1986) study suggest about the effect of anxiety on eyewitness memory in real life?

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Answer

There is no effect.

Show question

Question

Why are the Yuille and Cutshall (1986) study results not generalisable?

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Answer

This study was just one study conducted with 13 participants, so it is hard to generalise the results to the whole population.

Show question

Question

What is the Yerkes-Dodson law?

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Answer

The Yerkes-Dodson Law states that there is a relationship between stress and performance. Stress increases performance, but only up to a point. After that, excessive stress harms performance.

Show question

Question

How can we apply the Yerkes-Dodson law to eyewitness testimony?

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Answer

Low levels of anxiety produce poor memory recall, higher levels of anxiety increase recall, but only up to a certain point. If a witness experiences too much anxiety surrounding a crime event, the recall will diminish. 

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Question

What does the principle of mental reinstatement in the cognitive interview technique aim to achieve?

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Answer

The principle of mental reinstatement in the cognitive interview technique aims to bring the eyewitness back to the general surroundings and context of the crime. The eyewitness may be asked to recall details such as emotions, thoughts and sensations. The aim is to strengthen the eyewitness’ recollection of the crime and to potentially trigger context-dependent memories. 

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Question

Apart from mental reinstatement, what are the other three principles of the cognitive interview technique?

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Answer

The other three principles are: report everything, recall the incident in different orders and recall from a changed perspective.

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Question

What is the recency effect?

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The recency effect is a theory that the later memories may be easier to recall than the earlier memories. This is reflected in the principle of recall in reverse order in the cognitive interview technique.

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Question

Why was the Gieselman et al. (1985) study claimed to have low ecological validity?

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Answer

The study has low ecological validity because the participants were shown a video of a violent crime and asked to recall the events. The study was not conducted in a real-life setting.

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Question

What is one advantage of the Fisher et al. (1989) study?

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Answer

Any one of the following advantages is correct: shows high support for the efficiency of the cognitive interview technique, high ecological validity due to real-life application, minimal time differences between both cognitive and standard interview techniques, conducted ethically.

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Question

What is one disadvantage of the Fisher et al. (1989) study?

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Answer

Any one of the following disadvantages is correct: demand characteristics, ethnocentrism and lack of generalisability


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Question

What are the practical issues with implementing the cognitive interview technique for the police?

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Answer

Practical issues of implementing the cognitive interview technique include the costs of specialist training. It can be time-consuming not only to train the police but for the policy to carry out this technique on eyewitnesses.

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Question

Which two studies back up the effectiveness of the cognitive interview technique?

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Answer

The studies of Gieselman et al. (1985) and Fisher et al. (1989) show support for the cognitive interview technique.

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Question

In the Gieselman et al. (1985) study, which three methods were used to interview the participants?

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Answer

The following methods were used:

  • the cognitive interview technique
  • the standard interview technique used by Los Angeles police officers
  • the hypnosis interview technique

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Question

The Gieselman et al. (1985) study was a field experiment. True or false?

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Answer

False

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Question

The Fisher et al. (1989) study was a field experiment. True or false?

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Answer

True

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Question

In the Fisher et al. (1989) study, the detectives trained in the cognitive interview technique obtained how much more information than their untrained counterparts?

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Answer

63%

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Question

In the Fisher et al. (1989) study, the detectives trained in the cognitive interview technique obtained how much more information from their interviewees?

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Answer

47%

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Question

How many participants were there in the Gieselman et al. (1985) study?

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Answer

89 participants

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Question

How many participants were there in the Fisher et al. (1989) study? Who were the participants?

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Answer

The participants were 16 police detectives from Florida.

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Question

What is the definition of eyewitness identification?

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Answer

Eyewitness identification is about the ability of a witness to remember the details of accidents or crimes they had observed. 

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What is the definition of anxiety?

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Answer

Anxiety is a state of emotional and physical arousal that stress can cause. 


(Emotions such as worry and tension occur, and so do physical changes, such as increased heart rate and sweatiness).

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Question

Why can anxiety cause worse recall?

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Answer

Anxiety stops you from focusing on the details of an event, so recall is worse.

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What is an example of the negative effects of anxiety on eyewitness testimony?

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Answer

Misleading questions.

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Question

Where was Valentine and Mesout's (2009) study on the effect of anxiety on eyewitness testimony carried out?

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Answer

Amusement Park

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Question

In which two ways was anxiety measured in Valentine and Mesout’s (2009) study?

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Answer

A heart monitor and a self-report 7seven-point scale anxiety questionnaire.

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Question

What were the two main findings of Valentine and Mesout’s (2009) study?

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Answer

The high anxiety group recalled fewer accurate details and made more mistakes. 

They correctly identified the actor less than (17%) in the low anxiety group (75%).

Show question

Question

How can anxiety improve eyewitness identification?

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Answer

Anxiety induces the fight or flight response in your body, making you more alert. You become more aware of cues, which improves memory of the event. 

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Question

What was the conclusion of Valentine and Mesout’s (2009) study?

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Answer

High anxiety reduces the accuracy of eyewitness identification.

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Question

What did the participants of Valentine and Mesout’s (2009) study have to do?

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Answer

They needed to describe the actor they had encountered in the labyrinth.

Then they had to identify him in a lineup of nine people.

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Question

What was a weakness of Valentine and Mesout’s (2009) study, and why?

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Answer

Generalisability. Because it was an opportunity sample of participants who willingly visited London Dungeons, they were likely to be able to handle stress and anxiety better. Therefore, people who have higher anxiety, in reality, may have different results than these participants.

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Question

For what three reasons did Valentine and Mesout’s (2009) study have good validity?

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Answer

  • It was a field study, so it conducted in a natural setting.
  • Also, they validated the questionnaire by making office workers fill it out to ensure it did actually measure anxiety.
  • Lastly, it considered individual differences because using both the questionnaire and the heart monitor meant they could compare trait anxiety and state anxiety.

Show question

Question

For what two reasons did Valentine and Mesout’s (2009) study have good validity?

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Answer

The method used to measure anxiety (heart monitor) was objective. There were good controls, since the same actor, questionnaire, and lineup were used each time.

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Question

Why did Valentine and Mesout’s (2009) study have good ethics?

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Answer

They ensured informed consent before continuing with the study, reminded the participants of their right to withdraw, kept data confidentiality, and debriefed them.

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Question

What is state-dependent memory?

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Answer

State-dependent memory is when the recall of memory is dependent on internal cues of the state you are in, e.g., being drunk, and increases when you are in that state again or decreases when you’re in a different state. 

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Question

What is context-dependent memory?

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Answer

Context-dependent memory is when memory recall is dependent on external cues, e.g., place, weather, environment, smell, etc., and increases when those cues are present or decrease when they’re absent. 

Show question

Question

What did Carter and Cassaday (1998) find and why?

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Answer

They found that participants who learned and recalled in different states (i.e., drowsy-normal or normal-drowsy) had significantly worse performance and recall than those who learned in the same state (e.g., drowsy-drowsy or normal-normal).

When they were in the same state in both conditions, the relevant cues were present, helping retrieval and improving recall.

Show question

Question

What did Godden and Baddeley (1975) do?

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Answer

They tested memory by seeing whether participants’ recall was better if they learned and were tested in the same context/environment. Participants either learned on land or in the sea and then were tested on land or in the sea. 

Show question

Question

What did Godden and Baddeley (1975) find?

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Answer

They found that participants who learned and were tested in the same environment had a better recall because the present cues helped retrieval and improved their memory.

Show question

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