July 21, 2008 Researchers at Goldsmiths, University of London have conducted a study that highlights the fragility of eyewitness identification used within the criminal justice system. The study shows that stress and fear reduce the likelihood of successful identification, bringing into question a victim’s ability to identify the perpetrator of a crime.
Visitors to the London Dungeon were asked to describe and identify an actor encountered in the ‘Labyrinth of the Lost’ who stepped out to block their path. Whilst they were in the labyrinth, some participants wore a heart rate monitor to measure the level of their anxiety. The researchers found that participants who had experienced a higher state of anxiety were less likely to report correct descriptions of the actor and were less likely to correctly identify him/her in a line-up than participants who had experienced less anxiety.
Most research on the effectiveness of eyewitness identification is likely to overestimate accuracy because the participant witnesses do not feel the fear or stress evoked by crime that would be present in real situations. For ethical reasons, participants in experiments cannot be subjected to the same stress that a victim of crime may experience. This study sought to recreate a similar level of fear and stress, however, by using the scare in the London Dungeon so as to understand what effect such stress may have on memory.
Professor of Psychology, Tim Valentine, who headed the research, emphasised the significance of the results: "We know already that mistaken eyewitness identification is the leading cause of wrongful convictions in the USA. This research takes us a step closer to understanding the problem.”
“The experience in the Labyrinth of the Lost is much less extreme than the stress a victim of crime may experience, but we still observed a catastrophic failure of identification by visitors who found the experience stressful.”
“The research doesn't suggest there is anything wrong with the identification procedures that the police use, but does demonstrate just how difficult it can be for a victim to identify the offender."
Evidence shows that mistaken eyewitness identification is a common cause of miscarriages of justice. 218 people wrongly convicted in the USA have been exonerated by new DNA analysis from crime scene samples. 75% of these cases were the result of mistaken eyewitness identification.
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- Valentine et al. Eyewitness identification under stress in the London Dungeon. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 2008; DOI: 10.1002/acp.1463
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