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Facial Composite Production by Eyewitnesses

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Current Directions in Psychological Science

Wiley-Blackwell

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      Eyewitness testimony.

      The criminal justice system relies heavily on eyewitness identification for investigating and prosecuting crimes. Psychology has built the only scientific literature on eyewitness identification and has warned the justice system of problems with eyewitness identification evidence. Recent DNA exoneration cases have corroborated the warnings of eyewitness identification researchers by showing that mistaken eyewitness identification was the largest single factor contributing to the conviction of these innocent people. We review major developments in the experimental literature concerning the way that various factors relate to the accuracy of eyewitness identification. These factors include characteristics of the witness, characteristics of the witnessed event, characteristics of testimony, lineup content, lineup instructions, and methods of testing. Problems with the literature are noted with respect to both the relative paucity of theory and the scarcity of base-rate information from actual cases.
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        Impairment in holistic face processing following early visual deprivation.

        Unlike most objects, faces are processed holistically: They are processed as a whole rather than as a collection of independent features. We examined the role of early visual experience in the development of this type of processing of faces by using the composite-face task, a measure of holistic processing, to test patients deprived of visual experience during infancy. Visually normal control subjects showed the expected composite-face effect: They had difficulty perceiving that the top halves of two faces were the same when the top halves were aligned with different bottom halves. Performance improved when holistic processing was disrupted by misaligning the top and bottom halves. Deprived patients, in contrast, showed no evidence of holistic processing, and in fact performed significantly better than control subjects when top and bottom halves were aligned. These findings suggest that early visual experience is necessary to set up or maintain the neural substrate that leads to holistic processing of faces.
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          Eyewitness Evidence: Improving Its Probative Value.

          The criminal justice system relies heavily on eyewitnesses to determine the facts surrounding criminal events. Eyewitnesses may identify culprits, recall conversations, or remember other details. An eyewitness who has no motive to lie is a powerful form of evidence for jurors, especially if the eyewitness appears to be highly confident about his or her recollection. In the absence of definitive proof to the contrary, the eyewitness's account is generally accepted by police, prosecutors, judges, and juries. However, the faith the legal system places in eyewitnesses has been shaken recently by the advent of forensic DNA testing. Given the right set of circumstances, forensic DNA testing can prove that a person who was convicted of a crime is, in fact, innocent. Analyses of DNA exoneration cases since 1992 reveal that mistaken eyewitness identification was involved in the vast majority of these convictions, accounting for more convictions of innocent people than all other factors combined. We review the latest figures on these DNA exonerations and explain why these cases can only be a small fraction of the mistaken identifications that are occurring. Decades before the advent of forensic DNA testing, psychologists were questioning the validity of eyewitness reports. Hugo Münsterberg's writings in the early part of the 20th century made a strong case for the involvement of psychological science in helping the legal system understand the vagaries of eyewitness testimony. But it was not until the mid- to late 1970s that psychologists began to conduct programmatic experiments aimed at understanding the extent of error and the variables that govern error when eyewitnesses give accounts of crimes they have witnessed. Many of the experiments conducted in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s resulted in articles by psychologists that contained strong warnings to the legal system that eyewitness evidence was being overvalued by the justice system in the sense that its impact on triers of fact (e.g., juries) exceeded its probative (legal-proof) value. Another message of the research was that the validity of eyewitness reports depends a great deal on the procedures that are used to obtain those reports and that the legal system was not using the best procedures. Although defense attorneys seized on this nascent research as a tool for the defense, it was largely ignored or ridiculed by prosecutors, judges, and police until the mid 1990s, when forensic DNA testing began to uncover cases of convictions of innocent persons on the basis of mistaken eyewitness accounts. Recently, a number of jurisdictions in the United States have implemented procedural reforms based on psychological research, but psychological science has yet to have its fullest possible influence on how the justice system collects and interprets eyewitness evidence. The psychological processes leading to eyewitness error represent a confluence of memory and social-influence variables that interact in complex ways. These processes lend themselves to study using experimental methods. Psychological science is in a strong position to help the criminal justice system understand eyewitness accounts of criminal events and improve their accuracy. A subset of the variables that affect eyewitness accuracy fall into what researchers call system variables, which are variables that the criminal justice system has control over, such as how eyewitnesses are instructed before they view a lineup and methods of interviewing eyewitnesses. We review a number of system variables and describe how psychological scientists have translated them into procedures that can improve the probative value of eyewitness accounts. We also review estimator variables, variables that affect eyewitness accuracy but over which the system has no control, such as cross-race versus within-race identifications. We describe some concerns regarding external validity and generalization that naturally arise when moving from the laboratory to the real world. These include issues of base rates, multicollinearity, selection effects, subject populations, and psychological realism. For each of these concerns, we briefly note ways in which both theory and field data help make the case for generalization.
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            Author and article information

            Journal
            Current Directions in Psychological Science
            Curr Dir Psychol Sci
            Wiley-Blackwell
            0963-7214
            1467-8721
            June 24 2016
            June 24 2016
            : 16
            : 1
            : 6-10
            10.1111/j.1467-8721.2007.00465.x
            © 2016

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