witnessing a staged crime

The BBC apparently has conducted a remarkable study looking at how eyewitnesses remember a staged crime. This sort of stunt has been pulled on television many times, including a staged purse snatching on the local NBC news on December 19, 1974 (Buckhout, 1975 — see Loftus, 1996 for a discussion). In that case, viewers were invited to call in to select the perpetrator from a lineup, and 2000 people did. Performance was at chance, even though the subjects in this study were self-selected based on their belief that they had recognized the perpetrator—they voluntarily called in to report who they had seen, something they presumably wouldn’t have done if they were uncertain.

Dateline NBC pulled a similar stunt by having an intruder enter a Brooklyn Law School classroom and steal the professor’s purse. Students in the class were witnesses to the crime, and their eyewitness testimony was distorted by details planted after the robbery by the professor (e.g., that the intruder had an unusual nose).

The BBC study, done in conjunction with Graham Pike of the Open University, took the approach several steps further. First, they had a group of volunteers spend much of the day in a studio taking memory tests before they went to a nearby pub for a lunch break. Little did they know that all the people in the pub were paid actors or stunt people. The unwitting subjects then witnessed an argument that escalated to the stabbing and murder of one of the patrons. Police and ambulance workers were in on the study, and the police then interviewed the witnesses as if the crime were real. The BBC and the reesarchers could then check the effectiveness of the interview techniques against the staged reality of what happened and could look systematically at the distortions and contradictions in the witness testimony.

The study apparently will be part of a 3-hour special series on eyewitnesses airing in the UK that initially aired on April 18. If you’re in the UK, you might be able to view it here. Although it’s not available in the USA yet, you can view the trailer for it and read a detailed description and discussion of the study here.

All of these televised studies and stunts build on extensive research documenting the fallibility of eyewitness memory (see the citations below for review). Although people often are confident they have recalled a crime accurately, different people can remember the same event in different ways, and each person’s memory for an event can become distorted as well.

Sources cited:

Loftus, E. F. (1996). Eyewitness testimony. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Loftus EF (2005). Planting misinformation in the human mind: a 30-year investigation of the malleability of memory. Learning & memory (Cold Spring Harbor, N.Y.), 12 (4), 361-6 PMID: 16027179

Wells, G., Memon, A., & Penrod, S. (2006). Eyewitness Evidence: Improving Its Probative Value Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 7 (2), 45-75 DOI: 10.1111/j.1529-1006.2006.00027.x

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