Eyewitness Testimony

Have you ever noticed that your memory of an event isn’t always the same as someone else’s? People can walk away from the same events with surprisingly different recollections. This can be frustrating, especially when it comes to eyewitness testimony. 

Eyewitness Testimony Eyewitness Testimony

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Table of contents
    • What is an eyewitness testimony in psychology?
    • What are some examples of eyewitness testimonies?
    • Are there factors that can affect eyewitness testimonies?
    • How does memory bias affect eyewitness testimony?
    • When are eyewitness testimonies reliable?

    Eyewitness Testimony in Psychology

    Eyewitness testimony is an important area of research in psychology.

    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.

    Eyewitness testimonies can be collected at the scene of a crime or later, during investigation.

    Eyewitness Testimony man giving a testimony StudySmarterFig. 1 - Man being interviewed for a testimony.

    Factors Affecting Eyewitness Testimony

    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.

    Eyewitness testimony isn’t always about reporting exactly what happened in an event. Eyewitness testimony can be affected by several factors like bias, misleading information, post-event discussion, and anxiety.

    Eyewitness Testimony and Memory Biases

    One important factor affecting eyewitness testimony is biases like confirmation bias and response bias.

    Confirmation Bias

    You may have heard the term confirmation bias used in your day to day life.

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

    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.

    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 and Response Bias

    Eyewitness testimony can be affected by the quality of information a witness receives and their ability to reply knowledgeably.

    Loftus and Palmer (1974) suggested that misleading information given after the event can distort eyewitness memories through leading questions (implying an answer). Let’s look at one of their experiments demonstrating the concept of misleading information.

    Misleading Information Experiment

    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.

    Cases Where Eyewitness Testimony is Reliable

    So far, we have examined factors that can weaken eyewitness testimony. Let’s look at a few that can help the reliability of testimonies.

    Post-event Discussion

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

    Eyewitness Testimony people having a group discussion StudySmarterFig. 2 - Group of people having a discussion.

    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. Afterwards, participants in the co-witness group could talk to their partners about what they had seen.Afterwards, 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.


    • 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.


    • 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).


    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)

    These researchers aimed to investigate whether the anxiety affects the accuracy of eyewitness testimony and face recognition.

    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 anxious emotions like fear and focused more on the weapon than on the man’s face. This phenomenon is known as the weapon focus effect.


    • 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.


    • 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. Their aim was to examine the effects of anxiety on the accuracy of eyewitness testimony in an actual situation.

    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.

    Examples of Eyewitness Testimony

    Eyewitness testimonies give us details about an event or crime. Sometimes it can even help us identify criminals or those involved in an event.

    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.

    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 anxiety.
    • 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.
    • Gabbert et al. (2003) studied the effect of post-event conversations on the accuracy of eyewitness testimony.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Eyewitness Testimony

    What are three things that influence eyewitness testimony?

    Three things that influence eyewitness testimony are bias, post-event discussion, and anxiety.

    What type of research is eyewitness testimony?

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

    Why is eyewitness testimony so important? 

    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. 

    What are the pros and cons of eyewitness testimony?

    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. 

    What can affect the memory of an eyewitness?

    Bias, anxiety, misleading information, and post-event discussion can affect the memory of an eyewitness.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

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

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

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


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