Dateline: July, 2022, Issue 4

Can misinformation distort eyewitness memory for a person's face?

In a legal case, misinformation consists of any faulty information that an eyewitness receives after a crime takes place (Berkowitz & Loftus, 2018).

Research

Morgan and colleagues (2013) studied how misinformation provided during a highly stressful experience influences eyewitnesses' memories for a person's identity.

The participants in this study were highly trained members of the U.S. military who were attending Survival School training, where they attempted to evade an enemy over 4 days and were then captured and held for 3 days in a mock prisoner of war camp. During the first day of their confinement, the participants were interrogated individually and with high stress for 30 minutes. During this 30 minute interrogation, the participants were instructed to keep eye contact with their interrogator, and the interrogator was permitted to "physically confront" the participants if they did not do so. Upon release from the mock prisoner of war camp, all participants were asked to identify their interrogator from a nine-person photo lineup in which the actual interrogator was not present; all were warned that the interrogator might not be in the lineup.

After the interrogation and before release from the camp (and so before making an identification from the lineup), some of the participants additionally were given misinformation in the form of a photograph that suggested their interrogator was Mr. X, when in actuality the interrogator was Mr. Y. Other participants did not receive this misinformation.

Findings

Although all participants were warned that the interrogator might not be in the lineup, 53% of particpiants not receiving misinformation and and 91% of participants receiving misinformation falsely identified an innocent interrogator from the photo lineup.

Further, participants who viewed the photo of Mr. X were far more likely than participants not receiving this misinformation to falsely identify Mr. X as their interrogator. 84% of the participants seeing the photograph of Mr. X falsely identify Mr. X as their interrogator while only 15% of participants not receiving this misinformation falsely identified Mr.X.

Conclusion

Misinformation in the form of a photograph can strongly influence an eyewitness's memory of a perpetrator's face.

SourceBerkowitz, S.R. & Loftus, E.F. (2018). Misinformation in the courtroom. In H. Otgaar & M. L. Howe (Eds.), Finding the Truth in the Courtroom: Dealing with Deception, Lies, and Memories (pp. 11-20). Oxford University Press.

SourceMorgan, C.A. III, Southwick, S., Steffian, G., Hazlett, G.A. & Loftus, E.F. (2013). Misinformation can influence memory for repeatedly experienced, highly stressful events. International Journal of Law & Psychiatry, 36, pp. 11-17.