Eyewitness Identification under Stress

The Innocence Project is an American nonprofit organisation whose goal is to forgive people wrongly convicted of a crime. They use DNA evidence and review cases to overturn wrongful convictions of people imprisoned for decades.

Eyewitness Identification under Stress Eyewitness Identification under Stress

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Table of contents

    Eyewitness misidentification is the most significant contributing factor to wrongful convictions proven by DNA testing, playing a role in more than 70% of convictions overturned through DNA testing nationwide.

    If eyewitness misidentification is consistently wrong, why is it still so impactful?

    • First, we are going to go over what eyewitness identification is.
    • Next, we will look at major factors that can impact eyewitness identification.
    • Then, we will learn about the effects of stress on identification and memory.
    • Finally, we will look at Valentine and Mesout’s 2009 study on eyewitness identification in the London Dungeon.

    Eyewitness Identification in Psychology

    While we have all heard about eyewitness identification in a court setting, there is much more to identification than remembering who you saw.

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

    Unfortunately, eyewitness identification is not as reliable as we would like it to be. There is a large weight placed on eyewitness identification in courts, but unfortunately, a wide variety of factors can influence eyewitness memories and identifications.

    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.

    An eyewitness might think that someone younger would commit a crime, leading their memory of the event to distort based on that belief.

    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.

    This can happen in interviews with authorities right after a crime or during a court trial. Detectives, interviewers, or lawyers can ask (intentionally or unintentionally) misleading questions that can lead the eyewitness to second-guess their memory based on the question. In some cases, this can change someone’s memory.

    Eyewitness identification under stress, Photograph of a judge in a courtroom. StudySmarterFig. 1. Questions in a courtroom can change someone’s memory. Wikimedia commons.

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

    Post-event discussion can also change someone’s memory. Every time you remember an event, you pull it from your long-term memory storage. When it is pulled, it is susceptible to change. When talking with another eyewitness, you risk altering your memory.

    Anxiety is a state of emotional and physical arousal caused by stress. Emotions such as worry and tension and physical changes such as increased heart rate and sweatiness occur. 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 of Stress 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.

    One way to test this is to study the effects of the presence of weapons which trigger anxiety and shift the focus on the weapon rather than the event details. This is called weapon focus.

    Johnson and Scott (1976) asked participants 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.

    The 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 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 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 improve memory performance, but only up to a certain point.

    Eyewitness Identification under Stress in the London Dungeon

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

    Photograph from the London Dungeon. StudySmarterFig. 2. The London Dungeon. Wikimedia commons.

    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.


    • Independent variable – stress/anxiety level.

    • Dependent variable – accuracy of eyewitness identification.


    • The study used an opportunity sample (people who are available and willing to participate) of 56 participants (29 females, 27 males).


    • Self-report questionnaire for anxiety levels.

    • Heart monitor.


    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 with 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 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.


    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%).


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

    Valentine and Mesout (2009) Evaluation

    The strengths of the study were:

    • It 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.

    A weakness of the study is:

    • 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.
    • Confirmation bias, leading questions, and post-event discussion can impact eyewitness identification.
    • Anxiety affects the accuracy and detail of eyewitness testimony.
    • Research shows this effect can be harmful, leading to lower identification 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

    What are the problems with eyewitness identification?

    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.

    How does stress affect eyewitness identification?

    Stress can either negatively or positively affect 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.

    What are the three stages of eyewitness identification?

    Three stages of eyewitness identification are witnessing the event, storing the memory, and remembering it. 

    What was concluded from the Valentine and Mesout (2009) study? 

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

    What was the aim of the Valentine and Mesout (2009) study? 

    To test the relationship between stress/anxiety and recall and whether or not high arousal/anxiety reduced the accuracy of eyewitness memory and eyewitness identification.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

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

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

    Intense stress and anxiety always affect eyewitness testimony negatively.


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