By: Lauren Maher (Bugle Team)

Ever been scurrying around your house in the morning, frantically searching for lost keys, phones and wallets, unable to find them? Turns out, the problem might be because you were looking with your eyes open! It has recently been reported that closing your eyes can help improve your memory (Nash, Nash, Morris & Smith, in press). While this research can help us find our keys in the morning, the findings have far more important implications for eyewitness testimony.

What is Eyewitness Testimony?

Eyewitness testimony simply refers to people’s accounts of events they have witnessed. For example, if you witnessed a crime, you would be the eyewitness, and your description of the events would be your testimony.

Elizabeth Loftus, a name well known by psychology undergraduates, is a key researcher in the field and many will recognise her for her “car experiment” (Loftus & Palmer, 1974), in which participants watched a video of two cars colliding and were then asked to estimate how fast each car was going. The key, however, lies in the details: each participant heard a slightly different formulation of the question that either described the cars as “smashing”, “colliding”, “bumping”, “hitting”, or “contacting” each other. Surprisingly, Loftus and Palmer (1974) found that the participants’ ratings of the cars’ speeds changed according to the word that was used (the cars were rated as going fastest for “smashed” and slowest for “contacted”).

This study raises an important issue, which is that eyewitnesses’ memory for events can be easily swayed by something as simple as the way questions are asked!

A Better Approach to Questioning Eyewitnesses

Two researchers, Geiselman and Fisher (1988), developed a set of rules/questions to ask when probing witnesses for their testimonies, which was called the ‘Cognitive Interview’. Geiselman and Fisher suggested interviewers should try to minimise distractions, ask open questions, and avoid interrupting and making judgmental comments. They also suggested that eyewitnesses should be asked to do the four following things to try and maximise memory:

  1. Context reinstatement

This means eyewitnesses were asked to think about the scene, even the really insignificant details e.g. was it sunny? Were there any smells?

  1. Report everything

Eyewitnesses were asked to report all the small details they could remember, not just things directly related to the crime/event they had witnessed.

  1. Recall from changed perspective

Eyewitnesses were asked to recall events from other peoples perspectives e.g. what would the woman standing opposite have seen? What about the person in the shop?

  1. Recall in reverse order (not just moving forward in time)

Although this may seem confusing, eyewitnesses were also asked to recall the events in different temporal orders e.g. remembering the last thing that happened and working back, or starting in the middle rather than just remembering a play by play from start to end!

Closing Your Eyes Improves Your Memory

Moving on from the 1980’s to the current day, Nash, Nash, Morris and Smith (2015) recently published findings suggesting that closing your eyes can benefit eyewitness testimony. Nash and his team (2015) were investigating whether the act of closing your eyes in the context of an interview would lead to discomfort (e.g. closing your eyes in front of a stranger in an unusual place might be a bit weird!), which could in turn potentially counteract the positive memory effects of doing so in the first place. Nash et al (2015) had participants watch a video clip, and then asked half of the participants to have a chat with an interviewer who asked them personal questions and tried to build a connection (rapport condition). The other half (non-rapport condition) had a completely un-engaging interviewer who used a neutral tone of voice and did not react to participants’ answers. The participants were then asked questions about the video clip.

Nash et al (2015) found that when participants closed their eyes, their recall (memory) was better. However the type of interviewer they were assigned to had no impact on their memory, although participants did rate themselves as feeling more comfortable when closing their eyes in front of the friendly interviewer – not entirely surprising.

Why would this be the case, though? Closing your eyes has been suggested to improve memory because it reduces cognitive load by factoring out visual input. This basically means your brain has to do less stuff when your eyes are closed, and therefore can focus more on trying to remember where you left your keys!

An obvious implication (beyond finding your keys) is that police officers, for example, may want to ask eyewitnesses to close their eyes to help them remember more things. Additionally, while being nice won’t make the witnesses remember more, it will make them feel more comfortable, so it’s important that interviewers come across as friendly and engaging!

References:

Geiselman, R, E., & Fisher, R. P. (1988) The Cognitive Interview: An innovative technique for questioning witnesses of crime. Journal of Police and Criminal Psychology, 4, 2-5.

Loftus, E. F., & Palmer, J. C. (1974).Reconstruction of auto-mobile destruction: An example of the interaction between language and memory. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 13, 585-589. 

Nash, R. A., Nash, A., Morris, A., & Smith, S. L. (in press) Does rapport-building boost the eyewitness eyeclosure effect in closed questioning? Legal & Criminological Psychology.

Nash, R. A., Nash, A., Morris, A., & Smith, S. L. (in press) Does rapport-building boost the eyewitness eyeclosure effect in closed questioning? Legal & Criminological Psychology.

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