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Accuracy of eye witnesses

We have the impression that vivid memories are true and authentic even though they may be only particularly accurate. On a day-to-day basis the reconstructive nature of memory doesn’t really impact upon our daily activities. However it does have an impact in situations where accuracy of memory is very important. Anxiety is a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome. An eye witness is a person who has personally seen something happened and so can give a first-hand description of it. When the two come together, how does this affect the testimony of the EW?

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One area where psychologists have studied this impact is in the effect it has on eyewitness testimonies. A psychologist, Loftus (1987) believed anxiety made our memory worse and also reconstructed them. To support this claim, Loftus et al created a lab experiment called the ‘weapons effect’. Loftus monitored the gaze of participants and found that, when shown a film of a crime, they tend to focus their gaze on the gun used in the robbery. When questioned later, these participants were less able to identify the robber and recalled fewer details of the crime than other participants who saw a similar film, minus a gun. A number of studies support the idea that the presence of a weapon increases anxiety and focuses perception on only certain aspects. This suggests that ultimately anxiety shuts down our senses and makes the person a less reliable eyewitness. Although, it is debatable that Loftus’ theory was in fact incorrect.

A counter criticism to Loftus’ experiment is Mitchell et al’s (1998) explanation of the weapons effect. Mitchell claimed “the presence of a weapon is unusual and that is why people focus on it, therefore it is not anxiety of a situation but a novelty”; a strength to this argument is the fact that the ‘weapons effect’ raises some ethical issues, such as not having consent to show the footage of the violent film. This experiment also lacks ecological validity as the film is not taking place in real life, it is not ‘live’ which may affect the participants emotions and therefore affect their overall recall of the event shown.

This contributes to Yullie and Cutshalls (1986) experiment. The psychologists disagreed with Loftus’ theory and claimed that anxiety in fact made the memory better and more accurate. They did this by, examining the memories of 13 eyewitnesses, four to five months after they had witnessed a murder and attempted murder. Results indicated that witness’s memories were accurate, detailed and resistant to the effect of misinformation.

Put simply, the results showed that when an eyewitness gets anxiety it causes them to focus on the event and encode vital detail into their memories. A weakness of this argument is the fact that like the ‘weapons effect’ theory, Yullie and Cutshalls experiment also had some weaknesses. As Yullie and Cutshalls experiment was done in a natural environment it caused the experiment to become unreliable, as you can’t replicate it. There is also no control over the extraneous variables, such as media coverage and whether the participants communicate to one another during the four to five months after the event.

However, Peters (1988) criticised Yullie and Cutshalls experiment and agreed with Loftus’. Peters conducted a study in a health clinic where people were receiving inoculations, an event which causes anxiety. The experience of the participants was manipulated so that they saw the researcher and nurse for equal amount of times, this ties together with counter to Yullie and Cutshalls experiment as they had little control over the variables.

One week later the participants were asked to identify the nurse and researcher for a selection of photographs. It was found that the researcher was more readily recognised than the nurse; therefore the anxiety of the injection had affected their memory as maybe their attention had been drawn away from the nurse. There is a methodological strength to this experiment as it has validity and eliminates demand characteristics. The concept suggests that as they could not remember the nurse, their memories had been affected by the anxiety of receiving the needle.

Each argument raised has some strength and weakness to them. The balance of evidence suggests that to have a good memory when in an anxiety based event, we need a medium amount of anxiety to be able to retain information. Which leads me onto the, Yerkes-Dodson’s law. This law suggests that with low anxiety we wouldn’t remember anything as our attention would be low and with high anxiety we also wouldn’t retain anything as it would be hard to focus on a set amount of things.


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