Distance makes a difference in eyewitness identification

April 10, 2013

University of Adelaide researchers are studying the reliability of eyewitness identification testimony in criminal cases in the hopes of improving evidence from witnesses and leading to fairer trials.

Previous studies from the United States show that 70% of people wrongfully convicted of a crime had been convicted on the basis of testimony, which is often unreliable and can be distorted by a range of factors, such as subtle cues from police.

Researchers from the University of Adelaide's School of Psychology are focusing their efforts on the difference between objective and subjective testimony. They're finding that despite many eyewitnesses having poor subjective memories, they often have a good for objective details, such as distance.

" of distance – such as how far an eyewitness was standing from the crime being committed – and the time taken to witness the crime are less prone to distortion than other details," says the leader of the project, Dr Carolyn Semmler, a Senior Lecturer in the School of Psychology.

"Unlike subjective judgments, correct answers exist for objective judgments. Our research aims to explain why objective judgments seem to be relatively immune to the same kinds of clouded that affect other details in eyewitness testimony."

Psychology PhD student Adella Bhaskara has been studying 700 people's responses to distance estimates in a mock crime scenario.

"Our participants are exposed to a 'mock' criminal and are asked to provide details of what they saw, both immediately afterwards and also again after a delay of one week. Distance estimates are the strongest part of their ," Ms Bhaskara says.

"This is effectively a laboratory experiment, but it is a step closer to a real-world evironment, which makes it more legally relevant. It's also one of the few times anyone has used an actual 'target' to study eyewitnesses' distance estimates, so we believe it will provide some insights that can be translated to real-world situations," she says.

Dr Semmler says: "By providing a theoretical understanding of the processes involved in the reliability of evidence from witnesses, we aim to suggest practical reforms that will help to optimise that evidence.

"Our insights should be equally useful for the prosecution as well as defence.

"Ultimately, we hope that what we learn will help to reduce the rate of wrongful convictions, paticularly where the weighting of evidence is on eyewitness testimony."

Explore further: Understanding the science of eyewitness identifications

Related Stories

Understanding the science of eyewitness identifications

July 6, 2011
Mistaken eyewitness identification is a primary cause of wrongful convictions in the United States. This link between false identifications and false convictions has spurred a reform movement to change the way that police ...

National survey reveals widespread mistaken beliefs about memory

August 4, 2011
A new survey reveals that many people in the U.S. – in some cases a substantial majority – think that memory is more powerful, objective and reliable than it actually is. Their ideas are at odds with decades of ...

Recommended for you

New study rebuts the claim that antidepressants do not work

August 18, 2017
A theory that has gained considerable attention in international media, including Newsweek and the CBS broadcast 60 minutes, suggests that antidepressant drugs such as the SSRIs do not exert any actual antidepressant effect. ...

Should I stay or should I leave? Untangling what goes on when a relationship is being questioned

August 17, 2017
Knowing whether to stay in or leave a romantic relationship is often an agonizing experience and that ambivalence can have negative consequences for health and well-being.

Kids learn moral lessons more effectively from stories with humans than human-like animals

August 17, 2017
A study by researchers at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) at the University of Toronto found that four to six-year-olds shared more after listening to books with human characters than books with anthropomorphic ...

History of stress increases miscarriage risk, says new review

August 17, 2017
A history of exposure to psychological stress can increase the risk of miscarriage by upto 42 per cent, according to a new review.

Study finds children pay close attention to potentially threatening information, avoid eye contact when anxious

August 17, 2017
We spend a lot of time looking at the eyes of others for social cues – it helps us understand a person's emotions, and make decisions about how to respond to them. We also know that adults avoid eye contact when anxious. ...

Communicating in a foreign language takes emotion out of decision making

August 16, 2017
If you could save the lives of five people by pushing another bystander in front of a train to his death, would you do it? And should it make any difference if that choice is presented in a language you speak, but isn't your ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.