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  • Voltaire Staff

Lying like an eyewitness

Lighting, distance, facial masks, and age can throw an eyewitness in disarray, a study has claimed

Image Courtesy: Unsplash

Eyewitness testimony has long been a cornerstone of criminal investigations, often considered reliable evidence in court. However, a recent research claims to have revealed a host of complexities and challenges inherent in accurately recalling and identifying a criminal's face.

The study published in journal Psychology, Crime & Law aimed to explore the factors that hamper eyewitnesses' testimony and influence their ability to remember and recognize a perpetrator's appearance.

The study conducted a live experiment with 1,325 participants – age 5 to 90 -- testing their ability to recall faces under certain strained condition such as remote distance, poor lighting, and the use of masks by "offenders" who were part of the experiment.

Thomas Nyman, the lead researcher of the study, emphasised a gap in existing research methodologies, noting that while prior studies largely focused on the structure of police line-ups, limited attention has been given to factors such as masks worn by offenders, the distance between the witness and the perpetrator, the lighting conditions, and the age of the eyewitness.

"We investigated their combined effect on accuracy and how internal (eg, eyes) versus external (eg, hair) masking impacts accuracy," the researchers said.

The study involved testing the participants responses at 5 m, 12.5 m, and 20 m, lighting -- optimal or sub-optimal--, and several types of facial masks, such as hoodies, sunglasses, or no mask at all.

The participants were then questioned about specific details regarding the physical attributes of the offender, their spatial proximity during the incident, and other relevant aspects.

Following this observation, participants were presented with a line-up comprising eight individuals, among whom the actual perpetrator may or may not have been included. Participants were tasked with identifying the criminal from the line-up and expressing their confidence level in their selection.

The findings revealed that when confronted with scenarios involving low lighting, a significant distance between the witness and the offender, and the use of facial masks by the perpetrator, participants encountered substantial difficulty in accurately identifying the criminal from the line-up.

These factors were shown to substantially impact the precision of facial memory recall.

Additionally, the study identified disparities in identification accuracy across different age groups. Younger children and older adults exhibited reduced accuracy in identifying the criminal compared to their young adult counterparts. This implies that age may play a pivotal role in the ability to remember faces, especially in challenging circumstances.

"We recommend that law enforcement agencies and researchers report these variables to allow for the postdiction of the likely accuracy of an eyewitness decision," the researchers said.




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