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Eyewitness Identification under Stress

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Eyewitness Identification under Stress

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

We can apply memory research to this critical, real-world issue to see how reliable eyewitness testimony is. Several factors influence the accuracy of eyewitness testimony.

What are they and what is the effect that stress has on eyewitness testimony and memory? You'll find answers in the following sections.

Factors affecting eyewitness testimony in psychology

Psychological research has found several significant factors affecting eyewitness testimony. These include misleading questions, confirmation bias, post-event discussions, and anxiety.

Let’s break them down.

Confirmation bias is when the person’s expectations influence and distort the eyewitness memory of, for example, who the perpetrator might be.

Misleading questions are asked in such a way or contain information that gives the impression that something happened, which was not the case, e.g., ‘Was there blood on the knife?’, when there was no knife.

Post-event discussion is when discussion with other eyewitnesses who saw the crime affects a person’s memory.

These factors are discussed in more detail in the ‘Eyewitness Testimony’ explanation. In this article, we will focus on anxiety.

Anxiety is a state of emotional and physical arousal caused by stress. Emotions such as worry and tension occur and physical changes such as increased heart rate and sweatiness. Both emotions and physical changes affect the accuracy and detail of eyewitness testimony.

Anxiety is produced in stressful situations such as accidents or crimes. You go through physiological and psychological changes that can affect your memory of the event and, therefore, your testimony’s reliability.

The effect stress has on eyewitness testimony and memory

The strong emotional and physical effects of stress and anxiety can negatively or positively impact eyewitness testimony.

The negative effect of anxiety

One theory is that stress and anxiety prevent you from focusing on the details of an event, making it harder to remember.Weapon focus One way to test this is to study the effects of the presence of a weapon, as it triggers anxiety and causes the person to focus on the weapon rather than the details of the event.

Example - Johnson and Scott (1976):Participants were asked to identify a man they saw walking out of a room in either a high anxiety situation (an argument, then a man walking out with a bloody knife) or a low anxiety situation (a conversation, then a man walking out with greasy hands and a pen in his hand).49% of participants in the low anxiety situation correctly identified the man, but only 33% of participants in the high anxiety situation did so.This finding suggests anxiety worsens eyewitness testimony.

The positive effect of anxiety

Another theory is that witnessing a stressful event that triggers anxiety induces the fight-or-flight response in your body, making you more alert. You would notice more details in the situation and thus remember the event better.

Example - Yuille and Cutshall (1986):

  • This study involved participants who witnessed a real shooting in Vancouver, Canada. The police interviewed them all.
  • Yuille and Cutshall interviewed 13 of the witnesses four to five months later.
  • The participants were highly accurate in their descriptions, and after five months, the researchers found little change in recall accuracy.
  • This suggests anxiety does not affect the accuracy of eyewitness testimony to real events, but can actually improve it.
Example - Christianson and Hübinette (1993)
  • They interviewed 58 witnesses who saw a bank robbery in Sweden.
  • They found the victims remembered the events more accurately than the bystanders.

  • The researchers found that anxiety did not influence eyewitness memory.

The Yerkes-Dodson law can explain the different effects of anxiety on memory, stating 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.

Eyewitness identification under stress in the London Dungeon: Valentine and Mesout (2009)

Let us now examine the Valentine and Mesout (2009) study on the eyewitness identification under stress in the London Dungeon.

Aim

The aim of this study was:

  • To test the relationship between stress/anxiety and recall.

  • To test whether or not high arousal/anxiety reduced the accuracy of eyewitness memory and eyewitness identification.

Design:

  • Independent variable stress/anxiety level.

  • Dependent variable – accuracy of eyewitness identification.

Participants:

  • An opportunity sample (people who are available and willing to participate in the study) of 56 participants (29 females, 27 males).

Materials:

  • Self-report questionnaire for anxiety levels.

  • Heart monitor.

Procedure:

  1. Valentine and Mesout (2009) conducted a study in a real-world context in the Horror Labyrinth, London Dungeons.

  2. There were jump scares, darkness, screams, gory models, etc., and participants encountered an actor dressed in scary clothes and makeup.

  3. Researchers recorded the participants’ anxiety by both heart monitors.

  4. Participants first experienced the dungeon and only then were informed of the purpose of the experiment. If they agreed to continue with the study, they had to complete a self-report questionnaire about anxiety.

  5. They had to describe an actor they had encountered in the labyrinth without guessing things they did not know (to avoid confirmation bias).

  6. Then they had to identify him in a line of nine people and were told he might or might not be present in the line.

Findings:

Women reported higher levels of anxiety. The high anxiety group remembered less accurate details and made more errors. They also identified the actor less correctly (17%) than the low anxiety group (75%).

Conclusion:

Females have higher anxiety levels in stressful situations, which may affect eyewitness recall accuracy. In general, high levels of anxiety decrease eyewitness identification accuracy.

Evaluation

Strengths:

  • This was a reliable study because the method used to measure anxiety (cardiac monitor) was objective.

  • There were good controls because the same actor, questionnaire, and lineup were used each time.

  • It was a field study, meaning it took place in a natural environment.

  • The researchers validated the questionnaire by testing it on office workers to make sure it measured anxiety.

  • Because both the questionnaire and the heart monitor were used, the study could compare anxiety traits (a personality trait that says how susceptible someone is to anxious situations) and state anxiety (temporary anxiety due to a specific situation).

  • The researchers made sure to obtain informed consent before proceeding with the study, reminded participants of their right to withdraw, maintained data confidentiality, and debriefed participants.

Weaknesses:

  • Because this was an opportunity sample of participants who willingly visited the London Dungeons, they were likely better able to cope with stress and anxiety. Therefore, people who experience greater anxiety might have different results than these participants.

Eyewitness Identification under Stress - Key takeaways

  • Stress causes anxiety, which leads to emotional and physical arousal.
  • Anxiety affects the accuracy and detail of eyewitness testimony.
  • Research shows this effect can be harmful, leading to lower accuracy (e.g., weapon focus).
  • Other research shows this effect can be positive and improve accuracy (e.g., real-life robbery).
  • They found that the high-anxiety group recalled fewer accurate details and made more mistakes. They were also less likely to correctly identify the actor (17%) than the low anxiety group (75%).

Frequently Asked Questions about Eyewitness Identification under Stress

The problem with eyewitness identification is that other factors can affect accuracy, e.g., stress and anxiety, misleading questions, post-event discussion, and confirmation bias.

Stress can have either a negative or positive effect on the accuracy and detail of eyewitness testimony. There is a relationship between stress and performance; stress increases performance, but only up to a point. After that, excessive stress harms performance.

Final Eyewitness Identification under Stress Quiz

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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Question

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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Question

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%).

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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.

Show question

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?

Show answer

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.

Show question

Question

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

Show answer

Answer

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

Show question

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