ESRC: Witnesses of crime need help to remember

The memory of people who have witnessed or been victims of crime is prone to errors which law officials must take into account when proceeding with criminal cases, according to research to be presented at an event as part of this year's annual Festival of Social Science.

"I was once caught up in a bank robbery, and as soon as the perpetrators left, a lot of people in the bank started talking about what had happened," recounts Dr Anne Ridley from London South Bank University, an expert in the field of eyewitness memory.

"I knew that this was bad, as discussing an event after it has happened with other people who were there can corrupt your memory, making you believe that you have seen something when actually you have just been told about it."

Dr Anne Ridley is all too aware of how susceptible memory is to incorporating incorrect details about an event.

"People might think that they remember events accurately, but actually they don't," says Dr Ridley.

"Memory is not like a video-recorder, it is malleable and can be changed after the event. We also interpret everything we see in line with our existing knowledge and beliefs, so we might have a particular idea of what a 'bad guy' might look like and that might bias our actual memory of what someone did look like," she adds.

Research shows that stress can affect memory in a number of ways that aren't fully understood yet. For example when people are the victims of a violent crime, they can tend to focus on narrow things, such as a weapon.

"During the bank robbery I had a sawn-off shotgun in my face, so I have a very good memory of the shotgun, but I don't have a memory of the face of the perpetrator, in fact I couldn't even tell the police what race the perpetrator was," says Dr Ridley.

This effect is called weapon focus, and reflects the fact that in these situations your attention is narrowed and you focus on small things at the expense of the wider picture. This can mean that collecting testimony from witnesses can prove difficult for the police.

Some people are also more prone to errors in their memory, such as young children and the elderly. However interview methods based on psychological research can improve the accuracy of eyewitness accounts from vulnerable witnesses.

Dr Elizabeth Ahern, a researcher from the University of Cambridge, is an experienced child interviewer and researches child interviewing techniques. Her research focusses on exploring ways in which to maximise the accuracy and completeness of children’s reports so that they can be more useful in criminal trials.

Techniques include teaching children that they can say "I don't know", or "I don't understand" in response to questions, or getting them to promise to tell the truth. Dr Ahern's research has shown that interviewers can get more accurate reports from children with the use of open-ended questions, interview instructions (including a promise to tell the truth), and practising building a narrative with the child beforehand. This helps to reduce the likelihood that a false allegation will either be created or perpetuated by poor interviewing.

Dr Ridley and Dr Ahern are discussing this research at an event entitled 'Vulnerable witnesses' as part of the ESRC's annual Festival of Social Sciences. The event will allow audience members to discover their own eyewitness skills, whilst learning more about the psychology behind memory.

ESRC Press Office:

Susie Watts
Telephone: 01793 413119

Sarah Nichols
Telephone: 01793 413122
Notes for editors

Event: Vulnerable witness
Organiser: Dr Catherine Molesworth
Date: 6 November 2013 17.15-20.30
Venue: The Events Theatre, Keyworth Centre, Keyworth Street, London SE1 0AA
Audience: Professionals
More Information: please contact:
Dr Catherine Molesworth
Telephone: 020 7815 5431
The Festival of Social Science is run by the Economic and Social Research Council and takes place from 2-9 November 2013. With events from some of the country's leading social scientists, the Festival celebrates the very best of British social science research and how it influences our social, economic and political lives – both now and in the future. This year's Festival of Social Science has over 170 creative and exciting events across the UK to encourage businesses, charities, government agencies, schools and college students to discuss, discover and debate topical social science issues. Press releases detailing some of the varied events and a full list of the programme are available at the Festival website. You can now follow updates from the Festival on Twitter using #esrcfestival.
The Economic and Social Research Council is the UK's largest organisation for funding research on economic and social issues. It supports independent, high quality research which has an impact on business, the public sector and the third sector. The ESRC's total budget for 2012/13 is £205 million. At any one time the ESRC supports over 4,000 researchers and postgraduate students in academic institutions and independent research institutes.