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Is It Possible To Get An Accurate Eyewitness Report?

By: Kas Baker

When incidents happen around campus, we often receive emails like: “There is no indication that the individuals responsible are Elon students, so we need your help to identify who these people are so we can take steps to address the behavior.”

Eyewitness testimony is important to any crime, as well as, can sway the jury easily; however, it isn’t always accurate.

The accuracy of memory is something that is a huge issue when eyewitnesses submit a statement or testify. Memory is easily changed or swayed by retrieving the memory and any biases that we have.

When retrieving a memory from long-term memory, it goes into a limbo mode where that memory can be changed. This is why a family member may tell a story, but it is different than your memory from that time.

Just like a family member bringing up a memory, eyewitness testimony is the same. That crime that someone witnesses goes through the process of encoding that information into long-term memory. When these witnesses tell their stories to a police officer, judge, or a bias report, this memory can be changed or forgotten over time.

Every time a memory is retrieved a change can happen, and lead the information farther from the truth. This is why eyewitness statements or testimony aren’t always accurate.

Even when a memory is changed, the person repeating that memory has high confidence that the memory is completely accurate. This leads to people being arrested or sentenced to prison falsely.

There are many studies focuses on memory and eyewitness testimony, which are working on finding the best ways to get the most accurate information from witnesses.

One study, by Graham Davies and Sarah Hine, on eyewitness testimony focused on change blindness and eyewitness testimony.

Change blindness is an incident that happens when a scene is changed and the viewer doesn’t see this change.

The participants were shown a video of a burglary taking place. One group was prefaced with knowing their memory was going to be tested (intention) and the other group was prefaced with a small introduction (incidental). In the video, the actor that played the burglar changed half way through the video. They were both wearing dark clothing; however, had very different builds. After the viewing, the participants filled out a questionnaire of open-ended questions. Lastly, they were shown a lineup that contained both burglars and four distractors.

The intentional group (the group that knew their memory was going to be tested), were more likely to notice the change, and overall the majority of people didn’t detect a change.

This study shows that not only that our memories about an account can be false, but that certain things that happen we can be unaware of.

The study, also, showed that people who are intentional watching the video were more likely to pick out the change, which shows that it is important to be intentional aware of our surroundings.

For us as Elon students, faculty, and staff, submitting bias reports it is important to be aware of how memories can be changed and effected when encoding and retrieving them, as well as, how paying attention intentionally can help our memory be more accurate.

Even though our memories aren’t like a video camera that can relay exactly what happened, eyewitness statements and bias reports are still important to the criminal justice system and the Elon community.

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