Should an Eyewitness be Trusted?

by Katie Nickel

It is commonly assumed that emotions improve memory, but would you be willing to risk someone’s freedom on it? Imagine yourself shopping in a convenience store when you witness a man at the counter assault the young attendant and steal cash from the register. You are still experiencing unpleasant emotions from this event as the police take your statement, but you are able to give a detailed description of the perpetrator. A few days later the police ask you to identify the offender from a photographic lineup. You point to the man you think committed the crime and continue on with your day, but were you able to identify the right man? Or did the negative emotions you experienced during the crime cause you to accuse an innocent person? Houston and her colleagues conducted two experiments to explore these questions.

Houston’s experiments used student participants divided into two groups to test how negative emotions affect an individual’s memory of an event, as well as their ability to identify the offender from the event. Each group watched a different, pretested film designed to produce specific emotions. One group acquired negative emotions after viewing a man mugging an elderly woman, while the other group remained neutral after watching a film with all of the same variables as the first, but no mugging. When asked to recall details of the event, the emotionally stimulated group remembered more details about the perpetrator than the neutral group, but their descriptions were no more accurate than the other group. In the second experiment, the participants were shown the same films and then asked to identify the offender in a photographic lineup. The group with heightened emotions picked the wrong man more often than the other group, showing that negative emotions impaired their recognition abilities.

Although these experiments used only student participants and relied on films to produce emotions instead of more natural situations, this data is useful in identifying the ill effects negative emotions have on memory and recognition skills. During an event, like the robbery of a convenience store, the stressful situation makes it challenging for the witness to recognize the face of the perpetrator. While further studies are needed to verify the validity of these experiments, the findings challenge the common belief that emotional experiences aid memory retrieval.

References

Houston, K. A., Clifford, B. R., Phillips, L. H., & Memon, A. (2013). The emotional eyewitness: The effects of emotion on specific aspects of eyewitness recall and recognition performance. Emotion, 13(1), 118-128.

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