Eye Witness Testimony – Psychology Essay

A witness is someone who has firsthand knowledge about a crime through their senses and can certify to its happening and someone who has seen an event at firsthand is known as an eyewitness.

Witnesses are often called before a court of law to testify in trials and their testimony is considered crucial in the identification and arrest of a suspect and the likelihood of a jury convicting a defendant.
Eyewitness testimony needs to be reliable as it can have serious implications to the perceived guilt/innocence of a defendant.

Bartlett’s study involved the Indian folk story ‘War of the Ghosts’. He wanted to investigate the effect of schema on participant’s recall of a story. Participants were asked to read the story and then asked to recall it after a period of time. He found that the story became shorter and participants often added their own interpretation and the whole theme of the ghosts was often forgotten. Bartlett decided that memory is not accurate and is actively constructed using schemas.

A study by Loftus and Palmer in 1974 looked at the effects of language on recall in eyewitness testimony. They wanted to show that leading questions could have an effect on the memory. Participants were shown a video of a car accident and then, as if they were eyewitnesses they were asked to describe what had happened.

Specific questions were asked including “about how fast the cars were going when they hit / smashed / collided / bumped / contacted. A week later the participants were asked “did you see the broken glass”. The findings showed that the estimated speed was affected by the verb used in the question. The group with the verb smashed estimated the speed to be 40.5 mph yet the group with the verb contacted only estimated the speed to be 31.8 mph. The stronger the verb the higher the estimated speed, when the participants were asked if they saw the broken glass it was found that out of the group with the verb ‘smashed’ over 32% said they had seen the glass where only 14% in the group with the verb ‘hit’ said they had seen it. There was in fact no broken glass. Our schemas tell us it is reasonable to assume that there would be broken glass at the site of a car accident when the word smashed is used.

The strengths of the study were that it was a controlled experiment and Loftus could control all the extraneous variables, the study could be easily replicated and it had real life implications for eye witness testimony. There was however some weaknesses in that the study lacked ecological validity, it was ethically questionable and the participants were all students and therefore may not be a representative sample.

Loftus and Zanni (1975) did another study to show that it wasn’t only a verb that would have implications for the memory but that changing the word ‘a’ or ‘the’ could also have a dramatic effect. Participants were shown a video of a car accident, and then one group was asked “Did you see a broken headlight?” and the other group was asked “Did you see the broken headlight?” There wasn’t actually a broken headlight but the group asked the ‘the’ question assumed the headlight was broken and 15% said they had seen it whereas only 7% of the ‘a’ group answered yes. The use of the word ‘the’ makes the assumption that the car headlight was actually broken.

In conclusion this essay has shown that eyewitness testimony and those witnesses can be lead into giving what they believed to be true recollections of a crime or incident with the use of different verbs or changing the definite article.