Eyewitness Testimony: A Review of The Literature

by Carrie Dickens


"The gravest of errors that can occur in our system of justice" (Rattner, 1988)

Historical Examples


To explore the research that exists regarding eyewitness testimony and to assess it on the basis of internal and external validity.

The Setup

Research Paradigm


The research on reliability focuses on the interrogative suggestibility and subsequent memory integration of witnesses.  The suggestibility of a witness is a measurement of how susceptible a witness is to biased questioning.  Memory integration occurs when a highly suggestible witness is introduced to leading post event information.

Research on Reliability


Whether or not a witness is credible is dependant upon the witness' decision to be deceptive.  Deception can take two forms.  A witness may intentionally lie about events he/she observed or the witness could offer false information in an attempt to please the interrogator.  Credibility differes from reliability in that it assesses the amount of deliberate deception whereas reliability assesses the consistency of a witness' report.

Research on Credibility


Accuracy refers to the amount of correct information presented by the witness.  Most research in this area has focused on the variables that affect or predict accuracy.  In 1987, Cutler, Penrod and Martens examined the roles of system and estimator variables in eyewitness identifications.  They cite the originator of the terms estimator and system variables as Wells (1978).  Cutler et al. (1987) report that Wells (1978) defined estimator variables as those factors that are beyond the control of the the criminal justice system and system variables as as those factors that are within the control of the criminal justice sytem.

Estimator Variables

System Variables

The Confidence- Accuracy Correlation

In 1980, Deffenbacher reported that the American legal and judicial systems place a great amount of importance on the confidence an eyewitness expresses as a predictor of accuracy.  However, he notes that early studies have differed on whether or not their results reflect a correlation between confidence and accuracy.

    little or no correlation                                                                                                                                            positive correlation

Juror Influence

The impact of eyewitness testimony is never more apparent than in a courtroom.  Research on juror influence focuses on this impact.  Specifically, this research examines characteristics of the witness that affect juror decisions as well as the presence or absence of a witness.

Research on Juror Influence


When evaluating the external validity of the research presented in this review, it is apparent that a shift in focus is called for.  This is true for four reasons.  Specifically these reasons are:

Reason #1:

Current eyewitness research trends do not accurately reflect real-life criminal events.

Reason #2:

Current eyewitness research, with the exceptions of Gudjonsson (1989) and Fisher et al. (1987) do not provide solutions to existing problems.

Reason #3:

The conclusions of eyewitness research are derived from a limited population sample.

Reason #4:

In most respects, eyewitness research fails to yield consistent findings.

Suggestions for Future Research


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Brigham, J.C., & Malpass, R.S. (1985). The Role of Experience and Contact in the Recognition of Faces of Own- and Other- Race Persons.

    Journal of Social Issues, 41(3), 139-155

Buckhout, R. (1974, December). Eyewitness Testimony.Scientific American, 231(6), 23-31

Butts, S. J., & Mixon, K.D. (1995). Gender differences in eyewitness testimony. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 80(1), 59-64

Chance, J. E., Goldstein, A. G., & McBride, L. (1975). Differential experience and recognition memory of faces. Journal of Social Psychology,

    97(2), 243-253

Christianson, S. A. (1992). Emotional Stress and Eyewitness Memory: A Critical Review. Psychological Review, 112(2), 284-309

Claire, I.H., & Gudjonsson, G.H. (1993). Interrogative suggestibility, confabulation and acquiescence in people with mild learning disabilities

    (mental handicap): Implications for reliability during police interrogations. British Journal of Psychology, 32, 295-301

Clifford, B.R., & Scott, J. (1978). Individual and Situational Factors in Eyewitness Testimony.  Journal of Applied Psychology, 63(3), 352-359

Cutler, B.L., Penrod, S. D., & Martens, T. K. (1987). The reliability of eyewitness identifications: the role of system and estimator variables. Law 

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Cutler, B. L., Penrod, S. D., & Stuve, T. E. (1988). Juror Decision Making in Eyewitness Identification Cases. Law and Human Behavior, 12(1),


Deffenbacher, K. A. (1980). Eyewitness accuracy and confidence: Can we infer anything about this relationship.  Law and Human Behavior,  4(4),


Dekle, D.J., Beal, C.R., Elliot, R., & Huneycutt, D. (1996). Children as witnesses: A comparison of lineuup versus showup identification. Applied

    Cognitive Psychology, 10(1), 1-12

Fischer, R. P., Geiselman, R. F., & Amador, M. (1989). Field Test of the Cognitive Interview: Enhancing the Recollection of Actual Victims and

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Fischer, R.P., Geiselman, R.F., Raymond, D.S., Jurkevich, L.M., & Warhaftig, M.L. (1987). Enhancing eyewitness memory: refining the cognitive

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    Behavior, 25(3), 299-315

Gibling, F., & Davies, G. (1988). Reinstatement of Context Following Exposure to Post-Event Information. British Journal of Psychology, 79,


Goodman, G.S., & Reed, R.S. (1986). Age Differences in Eyewitness Testimony. Law and Human Behavior, 10(4), 317-332

Gudjonsson, G.H. (1989). Compliance in an interrogation situation: a new scale. Personality and individual differences, 10, 535-540

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Koehnken, G. (1987). Training police officers to detect deceptive eyewitness statements. Social Behavior: an international journal of applied 

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Loftus, E.F. (1997). Creating False Memories. Scientific American, 277(3), 70-76

Loftus, E.F., Loftus, G.R., & Messo, J. (1987). Some Facts About Weapon Focus. Law and Human Behavior, 11(1), 55-62

Loftus, E.F., & Zanni, G. (1975). Eyewitness testimony: The influence of the wording of a question. Bulletin of the Psychonomic Society, 5(1),


Maass, A., & Kohnken, G. (1989). Eyewitness Identification: Simulating the Weapon Effect. Law and Human Behavior, 13(4), 397-408

MacLeod, M.D., & Shepherd, J.W. (1986). Sex differences in eyewitness reports of criminal assaults. Medicine, Science, and the Law, 26,


Miller, D.W. (2000). Looking Askance at Eyewitness Testimony. Chronicle of Higher Education, 46(25), A19

Peiffer, L.C., & Trull, T. J. (2000). Predictors of Suggestibility and False- Memory Production in Young Adult Women. Journal of Personality

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Rattner, A. (1988). Convicted but Innocent: Wrongful Conviction and the Criminal Justice System, Law and Human Behavior, 12(3), 283-293

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    21(3), 283-297

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    Psychology, 17(10), 845-859

Ward, R. A., & Loftus, E. F. (1985). Eyewitness Performance in Different Psychological Types. Journal of General Psychology, 112(2), 191-200

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    Experience. Journal of Applied Psychology, 83(3), 360-376

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    16(5), 387-409

\Yarmey, A. D. (1998). The Effects of Discussion on Eyewitness Memory. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 28(17), 1637-1648