The Fallible Eyewitness: How Interrogation Can Alter Memories

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Eyewitnesses who received negative feedback during an interview—such as being told their answer was wrong or being treated in an abrupt manner—were more likely to change their answers than witnesses who did not receive negative feedback, according to a  study published in the journal Psychology, Crime and Law.

“The feedback does not have to be as explicit as saying ‘You got a lot wrong,’ but can arise from implying that one’s report is unsatisfactory,” writes Linda A. Henkel of Fairfield University in an article entitled “Inconsistencies Across Repeated Eyewitness Interviews: Supportive Negative Feedback Can Make Witnesses Change Their Memory Reports.”

“Given the critical role that eyewitness evidence often plays in criminal justice, furthering our knowledge about this important topic is essential.”

The study included two separate experiments in which 229 participants (179 women and 50 men who are undergraduates at Fairfield University) watched a video, were interviewed about the video and answered questions about what they had seen.

“Future research is…needed to better understand whether if when people change their responses upon repeated questioning they truly believe that the event happened the way they now claim,” the author writes. “In the present studies, participants had relatively low levels of confidence in their memories, and hence may have been responding with what they assumed or guessed might be the correct response, rather than relying on what they actually remembered.

“Their memory reports may have changed but did their actual memories change?”

Eyewitnesses who received negative feedback during an interview—such as being told their answer was wrong or being treated in an abrupt manner—were more likely to change their answers than witnesses who did not receive negative feedback, according to a  study published in the journal Psychology, Crime and Law.

“The feedback does not have to be as explicit as saying ‘You got a lot wrong,’ but can arise from implying that one’s report is unsatisfactory,” writes Linda A. Henkel of Fairfield University in an article entitled “Inconsistencies Across Repeated Eyewitness Interviews: Supportive Negative Feedback Can Make Witnesses Change Their Memory Reports.”

“Given the critical role that eyewitness evidence often plays in criminal justice, furthering our knowledge about this important topic is essential.”

The study included two separate experiments in which 229 participants (179 women and 50 men who are undergraduates at Fairfield University) watched a video, were interviewed about the video and answered questions about what they had seen.

“Future research is…needed to better understand whether if when people change their responses upon repeated questioning they truly believe that the event happened the way they now claim,” the author writes. “In the present studies, participants had relatively low levels of confidence in their memories, and hence may have been responding with what they assumed or guessed might be the correct response, rather than relying on what they actually remembered.

“Their memory reports may have changed but did their actual memories change?”

The study is available here for a fee. Journalists who would like to read a copy free of charge should email TCR Deputy Editor Alice Popovici at alice@thecrimereport.org.

One thought on “The Fallible Eyewitness: How Interrogation Can Alter Memories

  1. Pingback: WitnessLA.com » Blog Archive » New Study Shows How Subtle Cues Given During Interrogation Can Alter the Memory of Eyewitnesses

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