Editors' review

May 26, 2016

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Ever wonder how accurate eyewitness accounts actually are?  Picture yourself sitting in a room conversing with police officers about a crime that you witnessed earlier that day.  Will you be able to remember every detail of the event and people involved?  Was all of your attention focused on the crime and no other factors?  How can we be sure that every memory of the event is even true?  Eyewitness accounts in general have been a topic of concern for these very reasons.  Many defendants are proven guilty based on eyewitness accounts; some of which consist of distorted/untrue statements.  To read more about this topic, click here.   Due to these issues, there is a growing interest in researching eyewitness testimonies in psychology, especially in the cognitive field.

Memory in general is far from being perfect.  Errors are very common in memory.  There are different types of errors that can occur, one category being when introducing information to memory. Occasionally memories aren’t even formed because information fails to be encoded and stored.  Errors can also be made when trying to retrieve information from memory.  A widely known example of this is the concept of forgetting, where information in memory fades over time.  Can you recall every detail and event that occurred on last Tuesday?  Probably not, which demonstrates how quickly information can be forgotten, making it more important to have testimonies given very soon after the crime and to not wait many days.  As the elapsed time between the event and recall increases, the probability of forgetting increases with it.  Memories can also change by having details be added or removed, all happening unconsciously.  We, as humans, don’t have total control on what we remember and what information we forget. Because of these flaws in our memory, eyewitness accounts are proving to be less accurate.

Errors commonly occur in times of high stress because people don’t have to ability to pay full attention to everything occurring.  We can choose what to pay attention to, but the more items we try to focus on, the less likely all of the information will be stored in memory.  In cases like this, such as crime scenes, it is not specific details that are always stored, rather a summary of the situation.

Eyewitness testimonies are never going to be completely removed from our judicial system because they play crucial roles and are occasionally the only source of information about the event that is accessible to the police and jury.  Thus why psychologists have grown interested in finding the most reliable type of eyewitness testimony, either being written or spoken.  When taking an eyewitness account, police can either ask for a written report or can conduct a personal dialogue about the series of events.


Speaking and writing put different demands on the cognitive system.  The type of account that requires fewer demands allows the eyewitnesses to fully distribute their resources to the memory task.  There are different lines of research that show superiority for speaking.  An advantage is that it is faster, allowing for quicker recall and lessening the amount of time information is stored in memory; therefore limiting the amount of forgetting.  Another advantage is the use of body language and tone fluctuations when in an interview.  These factors can give away hints about their confidence in the information they are recalling.  In previous research it has been found that spoken accounts are more accurate, but display more falsehoods (Kellogg, 2007).  However, writing allows for self pacing and censoring over formerly produced information.  Therefore leading to fewer errors than speaking (Horowitz & Newman, 1964).  Writing also has the ability to be more efficient when there is numerous eyewitnesses because they can all give their accounts simultaneously, consequently reducing the rate of forgetting.

In 2014 a group of five psychologists assembled and created a study testing the accuracy of written accounts versus spoken accounts of eyewitnesses.  In the study the participants watched a short video of a staged crime between two women.  They were told to watch carefully because they had to report on it later.

The two different conditions that were manipulated in the experiment were the type of account the participant had to give and whether or not an interviewer was present.  It is important to see if the presence of an interviewer influences the accuracy of the reports.  This is because interviewers have the ability to guide eyewitnesses and prompt them to retrieve more details.  The cues that interviewers may give are crucial in the reports witnesses give.

In the first experiment, participants were told to report everything they could remember as entirely and correctly as possible without guessing.  However, in the second experiment, participants were asked to recall everything they remembered.  Basically the first group was given stricter instructions, which were supposed to help the participants’ recollections.  The experimenters hypothesized that the more specific guidance would aid the participants to recall more relevant information.  In both experiments there were general and specific questions asked about the crime and the people involved.  The experimenters also hypothesized that the more detailed instructions would be most beneficial on the more demanding task.

In general for both types of account, it was found that the stricter instructions led to more specified accounts; meaning that directions given to participants play a crucial role in the retrieval of the targeted information.  Also, for both experiments, the written accounts were more detailed, but the accuracy of every detail is questionable.  Contrasting to one of the hypotheses mentioned, the participants who gave oral reports did not benefit from the more detailed instructions, although the written reporters did.  One possible explanation for this result is that the participants who had to speak might have had a hard time recalling the instructions, where as the instructions were in front of the writing participants.  It was also found that the participants who wrote their reports did better in the absence of an interviewer.  This could be due to the absence of the extra stress of someone watching over them.  In conclusion, there was no significant evidence supporting whether written or spoken accounts are more accurate.  So far it has been concluded that both writing and spoken eyewitness accounts appear to be suitable.

A way to facilitate the most accurate eyewitness recollections needs to be discovered to help make the judicial system trust worthier!

To read more about Eyewitness Testimonies, try the following links:

Faulty Eyewitness Testimony

Innocent Criminal


Horowitz, M. W., & Newman, J. B. (1964). Spoken and written expression: an experimental analysis. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 68, 640-647.

Kellogg, R. T. (2007). Are written and spoken recall of text equivalent? American Journal of psychology, 120,415-428.

Sauerland, M., Krix, A.C., van Kan, N., Glunz, N. & Sak, A. (2014). Speaking is silver, writing is golden? The role of cognitive and social factors in written versus spoken witness accounts. Memory & Cognition. Retrieved from http://0-link.springer.com.library.colby.edu/article/10.3758/s13421-014-0401-6/fulltext.html