Psychology researchers investigate perception and reliability
How reliable is an eyewitness report? Even if one discounts the possibility of deliberate deception or perjury, the reliability of a sincere, genuine witness will always be called into question in any legal situation. A range of studies carried out by researchers in the University of Leicester Department of Psychology during 2008 have looked at different aspects of witness reliability.
The manner in which a witness is questioned can affect their account and this is particularly the case with individuals who have lived through a lot of problems. A study by Kim Drake and colleagues, which was published in the journal Legal and Criminal Psychology, involved subjects learning a story and then being interrogated about it.
The ‘interrogators’ used leading questions to try and make the ‘witnesses’ change their tale and the degree to which this was successful was then compared against lifestyle and background, looking for trends. A correlation was found between a history of ‘negative life events’ – poor health, financial problems, experience of crime etc. – and suggestibility.
Child witnesses are, of course, particularly suggestible and this is an area that was investigated by postgraduate psychologist Kristjan Kask in his home country of Estonia. By analysing transcripts of police interviews with children and young people, Kask found that open-questions (“What was he wearing?") elicited more useful information than closed ones (“Did he have a brown jacket?").
However, an accepted belief that young witnesses are better at describing a person in relative, rather than absolute, terms proved unfounded. Questions such as “Was he taller or shorter than me?", when collated and analysed, provided no more accurate information than straightforward “How tall was he?"-style questions.
Possibly the most fundamental debate in this field is whether we can actually trust our own eyes anyway. This was the subject of research undertaken by Helen Saunderson, whose PhD in Psychology drew inspiration from the two subjects which she studied jointly at undergraduate level: Psychology and Fine Art.
From classical trompe l’oeil art to modern movie special effects, we are surrounded by things that are designed to look exactly like something else, tricking our eyes and brains into believing that what is fake, is real. Helen, who presented her work at the University’s Festival of Postgraduate Research in June 2008, used an eye-tracking device to study where people look when presented with an object or image. Her goal was to determine whether the way that we examine something is affected by whether the item is real or a facsimile.
After all, the best interrogation techniques applied to the most reliable and trustworthy witnesses are still only as good as that one pair of eyes.