Eye Witness Testimonies and The Cognitive Interview

Eye Witness Testimonies and The Cognitive Interview

Eye witness testimonies

Eye witness testimonies in court can count as key evidence in deciding if someone is innocent or guilty. Astonishingly, however, research suggests that eye witness testimonies are only around 60- percent reliable. Is this reliable enough to help judges and jury members decide if someone deserves to go to jail or not? The two following studies were conducted to help us to understand how much we are able to rely on witness testimony.

Loftus and Palmer 1974: This experiment was designed to test the effect of leading question on how an eye witness might respond in court. Participants were shown footage of car accidents on a screen. Some of the participants were asked ‘How fast was the car going when it smashed the other car?’Others were asked ‘How fast was the car going when it hit the other car?’ The participants who were asked the question with the word ‘smashed’ in it estimated, on average, a higher speed than those who were asked the question with the word ‘hit’ in it.

Conclusions and practical applications: The way a question is expressed in court can influence the way the witness responds. We can therefore conclude that police and legal representatives should use an unbiased style of questioning when speaking to witnesses about an event.

Bruce and Young (1998) set out to discover if familiarity affects how well we identify faces. He did this by giving a set of students and police officers photographs from which to identify a number of people captured on CCTV entering a building. The individuals entering the building were in fact lecturers whose students were involved in the experiment. More students identified the lecturers than police officers.

Conclusions and practical applications The conclusion was that familiarity increases the chances of someone being correctly identified. This experiment highlighted the potential inaccuracy of facial recognition and suggests that identity parades should not be the only evidence relied upon.

Limitations of both studies Both experiments were carried out in safe, controlled conditions and did not recreate the unpredictability or dangerousness of a real life situation. A witness’s emotional state may affect his ability to remember accurately. In Loftus and Palmer’s experiment the lecturers were being identified without the police officers having seen them in person, as would be the case in their working life. In real life witnesses may not be interviewed as soon after the event as they were in the experiment.

Practical Application

In a court of law a lot of emphasis is placed on eye witness testimony. We now know that even a ‘reliable’ eye witness may be inaccurate in his recollection. In life we must also be aware that several people can be honestly describing the same event, even if the various details contradict each other.


The cognitive interview

As we have already discussed, recalling information in the same context in which it was learnt helps to improve recollection. The police take advantage of this fact by using cognitive interviews, in which the original context is recreated as much as possible as part of the interview process.