ChapterPDF Available

Person descriptions as eyewitness evidence

Person Descriptions
as Eyewitness Evidence
Christian A. Meissner
University of Texas at El Paso
Siegfried L. Sporer
University of Giessen, Germany
Jonathan W. Schooler
University of British Columbia, Canada
Two teenage girls were enjoying their family vacation in a hotel hot tub one evening.
Shortly after their parents had left them, the girls were approached by a stranger, who
proceeded to join them in the hot tub. Following several minutes of conversation, the
stranger attempted to molest the older girl by touching her “private parts.” The older girl
struck the stranger in the face and told him to stop, and instructed the younger girl to
find their parents. After the older girl shouted “rape” several times, the stranger finally
exited the hot tub, gathered his belongings, and ran from the area. The girls would later
describe the stranger as a male in his twenties, with no shirt, wearing tan/brown shorts
and a shell necklace. He had dark hair, and a dark/suntanned complexion. Upon receiv-
ing the description, detectives released a BOLO (“be on the lookout”), and a suspect
matching the description was detained 45 minutes later as he walked on the beach about
a half-mile from the hotel. The girls were brought to the suspect and together identified
him as the stranger they had encountered. The suspect was arrested for the crime, but
prosecutors would later drop the charges when the suspect provided a detailed (and cor-
roborated) alibi for his whereabouts at the time of the incident. Simply put, detectives
had detained the wrong person.
Person descriptions represent an important element for detectives in the investiga-
tion of any crime. Unfortunately, the descriptions provided by witnesses or victims tend
to be rather nondistinct and, like the description provided by the teenage girls above,
can frequently apply to many people in the vicinity of the crime. Although descriptions
are most often useful for locating a suspect in the immediate aftermath of an incident,
they are also used throughout a criminal investigation to identify potential suspects from
mug books, to construct sketches or composites of a suspect, and as a basis for selecting
fillers when investigators are constructing a lineup identification parade and subsequently
assess the “fairness” of that lineup. In addition, witness descriptions are regularly intro-
duced at trial as a means for demonstrating the congruence between the suspect and a
witness’s memory. In Neil v. Biggers (1972), the U.S. Supreme Court indicated that wit-
ness descriptions could be used as one basis for determining the accuracy of a witness.
However, as discussed in this chapter, the relationship between a witness’s description
and his or her ability to perceptually identify the actual perpetrator is not clear-cut.
Given the importance of person descriptions as eyewitness evidence, psychologists
and criminologists have conducted a wealth of research aimed at establishing what is
known about the content and veracity of person descriptions, as well as factors that may
positively or negatively influence a witness’s ability to provide an accurate description.
The current chapter provides a review of this research, including a discussion of psycho-
logical factors that may influence person descriptions at encoding (e.g., alcohol, stress,
illumination, distance, etc.), the effects of delay and repeated descriptions over time, the
role of person variables (e.g., age, gender, race, etc.) and individual differences, and the
influence of misinformation from investigators and/or co-witnesses. In addition, we ad-
dress the variety of recall techniques that have been explored to improve the quality and
quantity of person descriptors, and the relationship between such description procedures
and witnesses’ subsequent attempts at perceptual identification of a suspect (i.e., the
verbal overshadowing effect, Schooler & Engstler-Schooler, 1990; or the use of person
descriptions as retrieval cues, Cutler, Penrod, & Martens, 1987; Sporer, in press).
Quantity and Quality of Descriptors
A number of archival studies have examined the content of person descriptions in real
cases. Likely the most well-known study was conducted by Kuehn (1974). This study
involved the analysis of person descriptions contained in 100 police protocols of cases
of bodily injury, rape, and robbery in Seattle, Washington. Statements were taken from
the witnesses immediately after the incident, and all perpetrators in the sample were
strangers. Unfortunately, it is not clear from Kuehn’s report whether the descriptions
were rendered as free descriptions or were the result of some standardized questioning
scheme employed by the local police. The number of details contained in the descrip-
tions was fairly meager overall (with a maximum of nine descriptors)—on average there
were 7.2 descriptors, whereas most witnesses reported 8 or 9 features. Only four vic-
tims were unable to provide any details at all. In descending order of frequency, gender,
age, height, build, race, weight, complexion, and hair color were mentioned. With the
exception of eye color (23%), all features were named by more than 70% of all vic-
tims. Kuehn concluded from these data that witnesses were able to convey a general
impression about the perpetrator but could not provide more specific features, like hair
or eye color.
In contrast to Kuehn (1974), Yuille and Cutshall (1986) examined a single shoot-
ing incident, involving a total of 21 witnesses, of which 13 collaborated in a follow-up
research interview. Surprisingly, the witnesses’ reports were remarkably elaborate and
highly accurate, even after the 5-month delay between the incident and the research
interviews. Based on these results, the authors questioned typical laboratory findings
that have capitalized on witness errors since the heyday of eyewitness testimony research
by Stern (1902) and Muensterberg (1908). However, one potential explanation for the
findings of Yuille and Cutshall may be that the type of case, which apparently was quite
spectacular, was likely to have involved multiple interviews of the witnesses, many con-
versations between witnesses and family/friends, as well as ample opportunity to read
about the events in the local press. We speculate that these multiple information expo-
sures may have served as opportunities for witnesses to rehearse these events and thus
improve recall (for more on the role of verbal and visual rehearsal in eyewitness recall,
see Read, Hammersley, Cross-Calvert, & McFadzen, 1989; Sporer, 1988, 1989).
Overall, Yuille and Cutshall (1986) found that the police interview had rendered a
total of 392 action, 180 person description, and 78 object description details, many of
which turned out to be correct (82%, 76%, and 89%, respectively). These figures were
even higher for the research interview, which asked additional questions that were of
primary interest to a memory researcher but not to a police investigator. Yet, despite the
large number of correct details elicited by both the police and the researchers in the in-
terviews there were also some errors in the person descriptions, most of which re-
ferred to estimates of height, weight, and age (23% errors out of a total of 46 such sta-
tistics in the police interview). Such estimates were deemed errors if they were outside
of an acceptable range determined by the authors (i.e., plus or minus 2 inches or
years, or 5 pounds). Second in errors were faulty descriptions of style and color of hair,
as well as style and color of clothing (18%). Problems with descriptions of clothing, par-
ticularly memory for colors, were noted long ago by Muensterberg (1908). Cutshall and
Yuille (1989) were subsequently able to elicit a greater number of details (although not
a greater proportion of accurate details) than the police from witnesses of shootings and
of bank robberies up to 2 years after the incident.
Sporer (1992a) analyzed criminal records containing 100 witnesses (46 male, 54 fe-
male) who provided a total of 139 person descriptions of perpetrators of capital crimes
(mostly cases of robbery and rape). About half of the descriptions were from witnesses
who were themselves victims or bystanders involved in the criminal action; the other
half were from persons who had observed the criminal outside the context of the crime
itself. Overall, person descriptions tended to be rather poor; the number of descriptive
details mentioned ranged from 1 to 48 details (M 9.71; SD 7.03). Almost one-
fourth of all descriptive details referred to general information such as height, age, and
race, where height estimates frequently referenced some (unknown) population norm
(e.g., “average height”, “normal body figure,” etc.). Another 31% of descriptors referred
to clothes, and 30% described the face of the perpetrator. Some witnesses also men-
tioned jewelry or the dialect spoken. Close to 5% of the descriptors referenced personal-
ity characteristics (which are useless when investigators are trying to find a person to ar-
rest, but may promote subsequent recognition of the person because of the deeper level
of processing possibly involved at encoding; see Sporer, 1991). It is also noteworthy that
quantity and pattern of descriptions found in this archival study closely resembled those
of a staged event study in which a confederate had interrupted a lecture to take away a
slide projector (Sporer, 1992b).
Of the facial descriptors analyzed by Sporer (1992a), the majority referred to the
upper half of the face, particularly the hair of the perpetrator. This finding confirms ear-
lier studies on contents of facial descriptions (Ellis, Shepherd, & Davies, 1980; Laughery,
Duval, & Wogalter, 1986; Shepherd, Ellis, & Davies, 1977) and on the importance of
upper portions of the face in the recognition process (e.g., Fisher & Cox, 1975). In fact,
the cheek and chin (but also the forehead) were rarely mentioned in these descriptions.
Although reference to hair (about 16% of all descriptors) appeared to be the most dom-
inant single descriptor, it is also the most problematic and is likely to be of little help in
the pursuit of a criminal because hair style can be most readily altered in comparison
with other more permanent features (e.g., inner features of a face). Similarly, the large
number of references to the clothing of the perpetrator is generally of limited value when
police are attempting to locate a perpetrator.
Lindsay, Martin, and Webber (1994) examined the descriptions of 105 criminals pub-
lished in the Kingston, Ontario newspaper (The Whig Standard) and compared their com-
pleteness with that of 100 descriptions (across five targets) obtained from a series of lab-
oratory studies. Participant-witnesses viewing staged crimes were most likely to report
clothing (99%), hair color (90%), and height (86%), whereas less than 50% reported
such obvious descriptors as gender, age, or race/ethnicity. The most frequently reported
feature of the face was the eyes (43%), and all other features were reported less than 25%
of the time. Witnesses to real crimes were significantly more likely to report gender (96%),
hair color (38%), clothing (60%), and race/ethnicity (25%), and facial features were
provided in less than 10% of the sample. Although the results of Lindsay et al. indicated
that laboratory witnesses provided more complete descriptions than real witnesses (7.35
vs. 3.94 features, respectively), they more generally concluded: “The data strongly sup-
port our concern that eyewitness descriptions are frequently vague” (p. 531).
Van Koppen and Lochun (1997) reported a large-scale archival analysis of person
descriptions in 431 robbery cases. A total of 1313 witnesses provided 2299 descriptions
of the offenders. Descriptors were subdivided into 24 permanent descriptors (e.g., gen-
der, skin color) and 19 temporary characteristics (e.g., particulars of clothing, type of
mask). Similar to Sporer’s (1992a) findings, the completeness of the descriptions was
rather poor. Of the possible maximum of 43 descriptors, the median number provided
by each witness was 8 (interquartile range 6). Permanent features were mentioned
more frequently (median 5, interquartile range 5) than temporary characteristics
(median 2, interquartile range 3). Considering that gender, appearance (including
race), and skin color were among the most frequently mentioned permanent character-
istics (characteristics that are likely the most obvious to any observer), the paucity of
these descriptions becomes even more dramatic. Less than 5% of the descriptors referred
to inner features of a face (eye color, nose, face color or complexion, mouth, eye shape,
teeth, earrings, chin, ear size, ears protruding), which are considered most important for
identifying another person (Ellis, 1992). Of the temporary characteristics, the majority
of descriptors referred to hats (51%) and hat color (31%), as well as jackets (28%), coats
(25%), and trousers (26%), and their respective colors (28%, 22%, and 18%).
Van Koppen and Lochun’s (1997) analysis was not restricted to the quantity of in-
formation recalled as in Sporer’s (1992a) study, but also sought to analyze the accuracy
of descriptions by validating the descriptions by witnesses against the descriptions con-
tained in the police database used in the Netherlands. Although more elements of the
descrptors were correct than incorrect, the majority of crucial facial descriptors were
wrong (e.g., accuracy of facial descriptors included: eye color 36%; nose 35%;
mouth 39%; chin 38%). Most strikingly, almost all descriptors of facial hair (beard
and mustache) failed to match the police database. Given that perpetrators may have
changed these aspects of their appearance over time, however, the latter finding is diffi-
cult to interpret. Interestingly, there was a negative correlation between accuracy and
completeness, indicating that when witnesses did provide more extensive descriptions
their accuracy suffered.
Estimates of Height and Weight
Almost all person descriptions contain references to the perceived height, weight, and
age of the perpetrator (Kuehn, 1974; Sporer, 1992a; van Koppen & Lochun, 1997; Yuille
& Cutshall, 1986); however, authors differ in their interpretation of existing data re-
garding the extent to which such estimates are accurate. Some authors have defined ac-
curacy as estimates falling within a certain range of “true” values (e.g., true value plus or
minus 2 inches or 5 pounds; see Yarmey & Yarmey, 1997; Yuille & Cutshall, 1986), con-
cluding that estimates appear to be rather accurate. Then again, treating values with a
difference of 4 inches (almost 10 cm) in height as “accurate” would allow an estimate of
170 cm to be equivalent to one of 180 cm, values that are substantially below or above
the population average (see Flin & Shepherd, 1986; Sporer, 1996).
When the accuracy of estimates for height and weight are defined as the correlation
between the actual values and their estimates, these correlations are well below their
maximum possible value. For example, Janssen and Horowski (1980) reported that the
average correlations between the actual and estimated heights in a series of studies with
students aged 10 to 18 fluctuated between .26 rs .90. As might be expected, the
correlations were smaller for younger children than for older teenagers. This age effect
could be either a function of the restricted experience of the smaller children with num-
bers (see also Davies, 1996) or a result of the smaller children’s own height, which seems
to assist adults in gauging their estimates of another person.
Next to the target’s true height and weight, probably the most important determi-
nant of this type of estimate is the witness’s own height and weight, perhaps modified by
his or her knowledge (or better, supposition) of what the average population norm might
be for a typical middle-aged male or female. Flin and Shepherd (1986) have presented a
comprehensive and representative study on this topic. The authors had 588 participants
estimate the height and weight of male targets (using a total of 14 targets of differing
heights and weights). Each target was accompanied by a second person, the context per-
son, who asked the participant for directions. Thereafter, the context person returned to
the participant and asked for an estimate of the target’s height and weight, as well as the
participant’s own height and weight. Overall, Flin and Shepherd found evidence for an
own-anchor effect in which participants used their own height or weight as a reference
to judge that of the target person. In contrast, neither the context person’s height nor his
or her weight appeared to influence participants’ estimates, as might have been expected
if participants were to compare the two individuals side by side. Generally, participants
underestimated the target person’s height and weight. There was also a tendency for par-
ticipants to underestimate the height of taller targets and to overestimate the height of
shorter targets—a finding that could be interpreted as regression to the mean. Flin and
Shepherd explained this finding with reference to subjects’ knowledge of population
norms, which might induce observers to shy away from extreme judgments. Hence, very
tall or very heavy targets were more likely to be underestimated.
Consistent with any memory task, the accuracy or completeness of person description is
likely to be influenced by a host of factors, including those present at encoding (e.g., ob-
servation to view, anxiety or stress, etc.) or throughout the retention interval (e.g., length
of the interval, post-event misinformation, etc.). The current section will review the
available laboratory, field, and archival research on such factors, as well as witness or tar-
get variables (e.g., age, race/ethnicity, gender, etc.) or other individual difference variables
that might influence description performance. Finally, various methods for obtaining per-
son descriptions are discussed here for their influence on accuracy and completeness.
Encoding-Based Factors
Opportunity to View. It has been assumed that many if not most crimes happen at
night; however, few studies have directly assessed the influence of illumination levels on
person descriptions. From the perception literature we know that color vision is dramat-
ically reduced at low levels of illumination, which implies that descriptions of clothing
or hair color given under these conditions must be treated with caution. In addition,
less information can be extracted under low levels of illumination (G. R. Loftus, 1985;
Reinhardt-Rutland, 1986), which should lead to poorer descriptions. One study con-
ducted by Yarmey (1986) has confirmed these extrapolations to person descriptions. More
specifically, Yarmey examined eyewitness recall and identification of an event under
conditions representing daylight, beginning of twilight, end of twilight, and night vision.
His results indicated a significant influence of illumination level on witness recall, in-
cluding details of the perpetrator, the victim, and the environment. As might have been
expected, recall was superior during the daylight and beginning of twilight conditions.
Although it has been assumed that the opportunity to view a target person (i.e., dis-
tance between or duration of the event) should significantly influence the accuracy or
completeness of person descriptions, only a handful of field studies have attempted to in-
vestigate such factors. For example, Yarmey, Jacob, and Porter (2002) conducted a study
in which participants interacted with a target person for 5 seconds or 30 seconds and
were subsequently asked to describe the encounter. As expected, their results indicated
that person descriptions (particularly for clothing) were superior when participants had
a longer time to observe the target person. Another aspect that appears to be important
regards whether the witness encodes information about a perpetrator with the intent of
later recalling it from memory. Along these lines, Yarmey (2004) found that instructions
to intentionally encode information from the event for a subsequent memory test led to
superior recall of person descriptions (again particularly for articles of clothing).
Although both laboratory and field research on such factors has been minimal, there
are some archival analyses of criminal records that have explored the importance of
viewing conditions. Despite claims for the superior ecological validity of archival studies
(Yuille & Cutshall, 1986), the problem with archival analyses is that the accuracy of the
descriptions generally cannot be determined—rather, a proxy for accuracy must be cre-
ated with respect to the precision of the description, or its relative consistency with that
of the individual found guilty for the crime. In Sporer’s (1992a) study, the mean number
of descriptors, length, and precision of person descriptions were coded and related to
low, medium, and high levels of a host of potentially relevant factors, including illumi-
nation, duration of event, and time to observe. The categories “low,” “medium,” and
“high” are not to be taken literally, as they may take on different meanings with respect
to the particular variable coded (e.g., “high illumination” was operationalized as bright
daylight or good artificial lighting). Level of illumination had the expected effect (such
that greater illumination led to more complete person descriptions), whereas duration
of the incident and time estimated for the target to be in view did not seem to influence
description completeness. Similarly, van Koppen and Lochun (1997) found that better
illumination and shorter distances between the witness and perpetrator were associated
with greater frequency of person descriptors. Whereas both of these studies supported
the predicted linear relationship between opportunity to view and recall, Kuehn’s (1974)
archival analysis found worse performance for twilight conditions than for observations
either at bright daylight or at night.
Stress or Anxiety. Eyewitness events are generally considered anxiety-provoking
situations in which the victim or witness is likely to experience a great deal of stress
during the encoding process. Consistent with this notion, a number of studies of eye-
witnesses have suggested that high levels of stress or anxiety impair memory by restrict-
ing attentional and executive processes at encoding and thereby prevent the consolida-
tion of information into a coherent event sequence (see Deffenbacher, 1983, 1994). On
the other hand, other studies suggest that stress may increase participants’ memory for
central details (Christianson, 1992) and that the negative effects of stress (at least in some
cases) may reverse with the passage of time (Burke, Heuer, & Reisberg, 1992; Christian-
son, 1984; for a general review see Deffenbacher, Bornstein, Penrod, & McGorty, 2004;
Schooler & Eich, 2000.) With regard to person descriptions, several laboratory studies
have demonstrated impairment in accuracy and completeness as a result of stress or anx-
iety. For example, Clifford and Hollin (1981) varied the violence of a to-be-remembered
event and found that participants in the violent conditions were less likely to recall de-
tails of the perpetrator (see also Loftus & Burns, 1982). In their recent meta-analysis on
the topic, Deffenbacher et al. (20004) found that heightened anxiety led to significant
decrements in recall accuracy (Cohen’s d .31) across studies.
The presence of a weapon, which may be accompanied by stress or fear, has also
been shown to divert a witness’s attention away from the face of the offender. A number
of studies have investigated the possibility that the presence of a weapon is associated
with impaired recall of details of the perpetrator or event. Consistent with the afore-
mentioned research, studies of the “weapon focus” effect have generally demonstrated a
significant influence of the presence of a weapon on person description accuracy (see
meta-analysis by Steblay, 1992). Recent research by Pickel (1998, 1999) has indicated
that the unusual or unexpected nature of a weapon may be responsible for the observed
effect on description accuracy, when contrasted with the “threat” posed by the object.
Archival studies of eyewitness testimony have also attempted to assess the influence
of anxiety, stress, or the presence of a weapon on the accuracy or completeness of person
descriptions. Given that stress in criminal situations could not be observed (or manipu-
lated) directly, the amounts of anxiety and arousal were coded retrospectively by classi-
fication of an event on the basis of the reports emerging from police records (e.g., pres-
ence of a deadly weapon, bodily injury, etc.) or of self-reports of anxiety provided by the
witnesses in the course of testimony. In Sporer’s (1992a) study, three groups of witnesses
were compared: victims, bystanders participating in the event without being victims,
and other witnesses who were questioned by the police about the perpetrator during the
investigation but were not themselves directly involved in the case (e.g., the owner of a
gunshop where the perpetrator bought his weapon). Overall, the most striking finding of
this analysis was that none of the various ways in which stress had been coded seemed to
indicate the expected deterioration in witness recall for high levels of stress and its asso-
ciated variables. In fact, there even appeared to be a (linear) increase in descriptive de-
tails as a function of some of these stress-related variables (e.g., greater reported anxiety
was associated with a greater number of details). An analysis of stress conducted by
Yuille and Cutshall (1986) showed similar results, whereas an analysis conducted by van
Koppen and Lochun (1997) demonstrated results consistent with the laboratory and
field research reported earlier (i.e., high levels of stress associated with impaired recall
performance). A more recent archival study by Wagstaff et al. (2003) demonstrated null
effects on the accuracy or completeness of person descriptions. The general inconsistency
observed between laboratory or field research and archival research may potentially be
accounted for by length of the retention interval. Laboratory studies have typically used
short retention intervals that are known to sometimes give an advantage to nonstressful
memories, whereas archival studies typically involve longer retention intervals, which
sometimes afford advantages to more stressful memories (Kleinsmith & Kaplan, 1963,
1964). It also possible that stressful experiences may be more likely to incur rehearsal,
which could increase the amount of details recalled. Importantly, in none of these
archival studies was it possible to ascertain the accuracy of the descriptions, so all con-
clusions from the archival data must be drawn with caution.
Alcohol or Drugs. The consumption of alcohol or drugs is frequently associated
with criminal activity (Yuille, 1986). Laboratory research has consistently demonstrated
that alcohol consumption inhibits the encoding process when administered beforehand
and thereby impairs subsequent recall of information (for a review see Sayette, 1999).
However, research has been somewhat limited in examining the influence of alcohol
or drug usage on the accuracy or completeness of eyewitness descriptions. One of the
few empirical studies examining the effect of alcohol consumption on witness recall was
conducted by Yuille and Tollestrup (1990). In general, the authors found that con-
sumption of alcohol significantly impaired participants’ ability to recall details (in both
frequency and accuracy of recall) of the event and/or target person, regardless of
whether the participant recalled immediately (and under the continued influence of al-
cohol) or 1 week later. Read, Yuille, and Tollestrup (1992; Experiment 1) subsequently
found similar effects. In his archival analysis, Sporer (1992a) also found that when wit-
nesses had consumed alcohol they were less able to report details about the perpetra-
tor’s appearance.
More recently, Yuille and his colleagues (Yuille, Tollestrup, Marxsen, Porter, & Herve,
1998) investigated the effects of marijuana use on eyewitness memory. Prior research
had generally shown detrimental effects of marijuana on memory recall (cf. Murray,
1986). The results of Yuille et al. demonstrated that marijuana use significantly impaired
the completeness of witnesses’ recall regarding the event or target person. This effect,
however, was moderated by the timing of recall such that the impairment of recall asso-
ciated with marijuana use was present only when participants were questioned immedi-
ately after the event. When participants in the marijuana and control conditions were
questioned after a 1-week delay, no differences in completeness of recall were observed.
In contrast to completeness of recall, no significant effects of marijuana use were found
when accuracy of recall was considered. It is apparent that further research is needed to
evaluate the influence of alcohol and drugs on eyewitness recall.
Retention Factors
To the layperson it may sound like a truism that accurate retrieval of information should
deteriorate following increased levels of delay; however, the form of the postulated for-
getting function varies with the type of material (e.g., visual vs. verbal) as well as the
form of the memory test (e.g., recall vs. recognition; see Shepherd, Ellis, & Davies, 1982;
Shepherd, 1983; Sporer, 1989; Wixted & Ebbesen, 1997). The current section discusses
the available research (both laboratory, field, and archival) regarding the influence of re-
tention factors on person descriptions, including the length of the delay, the strength of
the memory trace, and the intrusion of post-event information.
In general, laboratory research has shown significant detrimental effects of delay in
the accuracy and completeness of person descriptions. For example, Ellis, Shepherd,
and Davies (1980) had participants describe one face immediately after viewing it, and
another either 1 hour, the next day, or 1 week following exposure. Participants remem-
bered significantly fewer details after 1 week compared with the two shorter retention
intervals, and memory loss was rather equally distributed across specific facial features.
The accuracy of person descriptions also declined significantly with the longer delay in-
terval. In a similar laboratory experiment, Meissner (2002) found significant losses in
both the completeness and the accuracy of facial descriptors when participants provided
a description either immediately or following a 1-week delay.
In their archival analysis, van Koppen and Lochun (1997) observed a pattern con-
sistent with the aforementioned laboratory studies, such that witnesses provided fewer
person descriptors following longer retention intervals. In contrast to this study, Yuille
and Cutshall (1986) and Cutshall and Yuille (1989) emphasized strikingly high levels of
recall from witnesses of real crimes as late as 2 years after the incidents. As mentioned
previously, these high levels of performance were likely mediated by repeated question-
ing (and rehearsal) prior to recall at the time of the study (see Sporer, 1989).
It should be noted that the course of time alone is unlikely to have a detrimental
effect on recall; rather, both the strength of the initial memory trace and interference
from a variety of activities during the delay interval are likely the major influence of a
witness’s ultimate recall of person descriptors. Generally referred to as “post-event infor-
mation,” witnesses may obtain information during the retention interval (either deliber-
ately or unintentionally) through a number of sources or tasks that they engage in. For
example, overhearing a description provided by another person or being shown an erro-
neous facial composite or sketch can lead the witness to incorporate erroneous details
into his or her own description of the perpetrator, and the likelihood of such post-event
information influencing subsequent recall has been shown to increase following a long
retention interval (Loftus & Greene, 1980; Loftus & Ketcham, 1983; Shaw, Garven, &
Wood, 1997; Sporer, 1996b). The related effects of misleading questioning by investiga-
tors (referred to as “misinformation”) and collaborative recall with another witness (or
“co-witness” effects) are discussed below.
Witness and Target-Person Variables
As in the eyewitness identification literature, a number of witness and target variables
(e.g., gender, age, ethnicity, etc.) appear to influence the accuracy and completeness of
person descriptions. This section reviews the available literature on such variables.
Gender. Although many studies on eyewitness memory have included both male
and female participants, few have analyzed gender differences. Several studies conducted
by Yarmey (1986, 1993, 2004) have generally indicated few differences in the recall of
men and women. When differences were noted, they typically involved responses to spe-
cific attributes that women may have been more likely to attend to at encoding (e.g.,
jewelry, hair color or length, and weight; see Yarmey, 2004), or they involved more com-
plex interactions between variables (such as levels of illumination; see Yarmey, 1986). In
several studies, Yarmey noted that men appeared more confident in their responses than
women (Yarmey, 1986, 1993).
MacLeod and Shepherd (1986) have drawn attention to gender differences in an
archival study of criminal assault cases. Similar to research by Yarmey (1986, 2004), gen-
der differences were found to covary in a complex manner with such variables as the
type of questions analyzed (e.g., action details vs. descriptive details; statements refer-
ring to self, victim, accused, or periphery) and the type of incident (involving injury of
the victim or not). In his archival analysis, Sporer (1992a) reported that male witnesses
provided on average longer descriptions than females (M 7.50 vs. 7.10 number of
lines in the protocol, respectively). In contrast, the number of descriptors and rated pre-
cision of statements showed an opposite but nonsignificant trend favoring females.
Thus, it appears that although females may have said less quantitatively, they did not
necessarily convey less information.
Child Witnesses. Although some studies have found that the relative accuracy in
reports of children may not differ from that of adults (Goodman & Reed, 1986; Leippe,
Romanczyk, & Manion, 1991; Marin, Holmes, Guth, & Kovac, 1979), adults’ state-
ments are likely to be much longer and more detailed than those of children (Davies,
Tarrant, & Flin, 1989; Dent & Stephenson, 1979; Leippe et al., 1979; Marin et al., 1979).
In contrast, a recent study conducted by Pozzulo and Warren (2003, Experiment 1)
observed both greater accuracy and completeness of person descriptions provided by
adults versus youths (ages 10 to 14). Further analyses indicated that adults were more
likely to report features of the face, aspects of the body (i.e., height, weight, and build),
and race of the perpetrator, whereas youths were more likely to report various acces-
sories (e.g., belt or glasses). With regard to accuracy, youths were significantly less accu-
rate than adults in describing interior facial features (e.g., eyes, nose, or mouth), aspects
of the body, and the age of the perpetrator. In a follow-up study using a live event, Poz-
zulo and Warren (Experiment 2) observed the more classic pattern involving a greater
frequency of person descriptors by adults when compared with youths, but no differ-
ences in the overall accuracy of features reported. The analysis of specific features was
largely consistent with the first study, except that aspects of the target’s clothing were
more likely to be reported by adults in the sample. Recent research by Lindholm (2005)
has also suggested that witnesses, particularly children and young adults, may actually
perform better when recalling descriptions of target persons matching their own age
group. Such own-age effects (similar to the cross-race effects discussed below) may result
from a variety of experiential or motivational factors (cf. Sporer, 2001a), and further
research on this topic seems warranted.
Saywitz (1995) has suggested that it may be important to adapt one’s language when
interviewing children such that questions are more comprehensible to young children.
In particular, interviewers should use short sentences with a simple grammatical struc-
ture, common phrases, and proper names. They should avoid the passive voice, double
negatives, and indirect questions. Before estimates are obtained, interviewers should
also make sure that children understand concepts like size, distance, weight, age, and
time, as well as particular body parts and various color names. For example, Dent (1982)
reported large inaccuracies in estimates with children between 8 and 13 years of age.
Furthermore, age estimates may suffer from children’s lack of knowledge of facial cues to
aging (Ellis, 1992). Providing children (and adults) with possible ranges or specific an-
chors (Dent, 1982; Sporer, 1996b) or a color plate or color wheel may lead to better re-
sults for some aspects of person descriptions than free descriptions. In contrast, specific
questions (e.g., What was the color of her hair?) may lead not only to more information
but also to more inaccurate information than general questions (e.g., What was her ap-
pearance?; Dent & Stephenson, 1979).
One challenge in understanding the influence of misinformation on children rela-
tive to adults is that children may be both more likely to forget details of the original ex-
perience (including the appearance of the perpetrator) and more likely to forget any mis-
information they receive about the individual after the fact (Schooler, 1998; Schooler &
Loftus, 1993). Thus, it is possible that testing children following a delay (when they have
had the opportunity to forget the misinformation) may provide the best opportunity for
achieving veridical recall. In their classic review of the topic, Ceci and Bruck (1993) also
posited that certain cognitive (e.g., memory trace strength or source-monitoring ability)
and social (e.g., conformity to an authority figure) activities can mediate a child’s sus-
ceptibility to suggestion in recall. Although the authors caution against the perils of sug-
gestive questioning, they warn against completely discounting children’s recall. In their
own words, “children are able to encode and retrieve large amounts of information, es-
pecially when it is personally experienced and highly meaningful” (p. 434).
Elderly Witnesses. Aging in late adulthood has been shown to affect both the per-
ceptual and memory abilities of witnesses (for a review, see Yarmey, 1996). Elderly wit-
nesses (i.e., above 65 years), for example, are increasingly more likely to demonstrate
deficits in their visual acuity at night, and in their ability to perceive depth and to adapt
to darkness. Both color vision (particularly blue and blue-green) and memory for colors
are also likely to decline with age. At later age levels, individuals are also more likely to
demonstrate difficulty with source monitoring (Cohen & Faulkner, 1989; Henkel, John-
son, & de Leonardis, 1998), which may be crucial in many eyewitness situations (e.g., to
counter the influence of suggestive questioning).
In a field experiment in which both showup and lineup identifications were admin-
istered to participants ranging in age between 18 and 65 (Yarmey, Yarmey, & Yarmey,
1994), 651 individuals were randomly approached in public places and asked for direc-
tions by one of two young adult, female confederates. The duration of exposure to the
target was approximately 15 seconds. Two minutes later the witness was approached by
a female investigator and was asked to describe the target and to identify her face and
voice. With regard to description accuracy, young adults (18–29 years of age) were sig-
nificantly superior (M 72%) to middle-aged witnesses (30–44 years of age) (M 61%),
who in turn were superior to older adults (45–65 years of age) (M 54%). These results
comport with prior research conducted by Yarmey and his colleagues (e.g., Yarmey &
Kent, 1980), which indicated that “young adults on average were twice as complete and
20% more accurate in free narration in their descriptions of a criminal incident than
were the elderly” (Yarmey, 1996, p. 268). Recent research by Searcy, Bartlett, Memon, and
Swanson (2001) has demonstrated similar effects on person description completeness
and accuracy for young versus elderly adults. However, to the extent that most of these
studies have used only young adults as targets to be observed and described, these stud-
ies may reflect as much an in-group bias in the form of an own-age effect (Sporer, 2001a)
as deficits in the memory of elderly witnesses.
Cross-ethnic Differences. Although more than 60 studies have investigated recog-
nition memory for own- versus other-race faces (for reviews see Chance & Goldstein,
1996; Meissner & Brigham, 2001b; Sporer, 2001a), very few studies have attempted to
determine whether participants differ in the way they describe faces of their own and
another race (Sporer, 2001b). Those that have investigated descriptions of own- versus
other-race faces have suggested that individuals attend to features deemed relevant to
own-race faces and further attempt to apply this encoding scheme inappropriately when
examining other-race faces (Ellis, Deregowski, & Shepherd, 1975; Shepherd & Dere-
gowski, 1981). For example, Ellis and colleagues (1975) demonstrated several differ-
ences in the type of features that black and white participants recalled (regardless of the
race of face). Although Ellis and colleagues did not assess descriptions for accuracy or
discriminability, they did note that white participants often reported rather “redundant”
descriptions of black faces (e.g., “he has black skin, black, kinky hair and brown eyes”)
that would likely be indiscriminant upon later assessment (p. 123).
Fallshore and Schooler (1995) compared Caucasian undergraduates’ ability to iden-
tify and describe African American and Caucasian faces. As is typically found, they
observed the cross-race effect for lineup identification decisions, such that participants
were better able to recognize Caucasian relative to African American faces. However,
when description accuracy was assessed with the use of a communication accuracy par-
adigm in which subject-judges attempted to identify the faces based on witnesses’ verbal
descriptions, no cross-race effect was observed (although a numerical advantage was
shown for the identification of other-race faces). Fallshore and Schooler speculated that
differences in the pattern of results associated with cross-racial face recognition versus
face description may be due to differential reliance on configural versus featural process-
ing for own versus other race faces, respectively (see Rhodes, Brake, Taylor, & Tan, 1989).
Accordingly, if the source of the own-race face recognition advantage were an enhanced
ability to rely on configural information (Sporer, 2001a), then it follows that verbal de-
scription ability, which typically relies on featural knowledge (see Farah, Wilson, Drain,
& Tanaka, 1998; Wells & Turtle, 1987), should not reveal such differences. Thus, al-
though the relative dearth of studies on the topic clearly suggests the need for additional
research, the absence of evidence for an own-race advantage for person description may
reflect fundamental differences in the processes associated with face recognition versus
Methods for Obtaining Person Descriptions
Several methods of eliciting a person description have been developed over the years,
from standard free recall approaches to feature checklists and techniques based upon
principles of cognitive psychology (e.g., the cognitive interview). In this section, we dis-
cuss research on the generation of person descriptions and their positive and negative
effects. Along the way, we also address the role of leading questions and attempts at per-
mitting witnesses to collaborate in generating a description, and we consider the effect
of repeated questioning on the accuracy and completeness of person descriptions.
Free Recall vs. Leading Questions. Likely the most common technique used by
investigators to obtain a person description involves a request for the witness to simply
recall what he or she remembers about the perpetrator of the crime. Although such free
recall descriptions are often quite accurate, unfortunately they rarely satisfy investigators,
because of their likelihood of being incomplete with regard to critical details (Lipton,
1977). Thus, investigators will frequently follow up with more specific, close-ended ques-
tions to complete the description (e.g., Do you remember the color of the man’s hair?). In
addition, investigators may have previously received information regarding the perpetra-
tor and so will attempt to confirm this information by inquiring about more specific de-
tails (e.g., Did the man have red hair with long sideburns?) or may include this information
in the context of inquiring about another detail (e.g., This man with the red hair and long
sideburns, did he have any facial hair?). Unfortunately, such leading questions can have rather
harmful consequences for the witness’s attempts at subsequent recall, as studies indicate
that witnesses are quite likely to incorporate potentially inaccurate information (“misin-
formation”) into their person descriptions (Loftus, 1975, 1979; Loftus & Zanni, 1975).
For example, Loftus and Greene (1980) observed that participants who viewed a face
and then heard a description of the face that was attributed to another witness later in-
corporated the verbal expressions of that witness into their description, even when the
description was in error.
Feature Checklists. As noted above, one primary drawback to the use of free recall
tasks regards the incompleteness of person descriptions. Witnesses will often vary in their
output criterion for recalling details of an event (Koriat & Goldsmith, 1996), and a com-
mon difficulty with person descriptions involves the limited vocabulary that individuals
have for describing the human face. In an attempt to alleviate this problem, researchers
have sought to develop feature checklists that might aid witnesses in providing more
complete (and useful) descriptions of the perpetrator they viewed. For example, Shep-
herd (1986; see also Shepherd & Ellis, 1996; Sporer, in press) and his colleagues have
developed the Aberdeen Face Rating Schedule, which consists of some 50 items on
which witnesses are asked to rate individual features of a face on five-point scales (for a
published version of these scales, see Sporer, in press). Using these forms, observers are
prompted to use certain features that otherwise they might omit or forget. However, ac-
curacy of these descriptions might be poor, as people may frequently mark the middle
(“normal”) value of the scale when they either don’t remember or guess the information
(Sporer, in press). Nonetheless, forms of this type are useful both for communicating in-
formation to other agencies and for conducting computerized searches to identify indi-
viduals in mug shot databases who might be presented to the witness (cf. Pryke, Lindsay,
& Pozzulo, 2000). A prototype of such a system was developed by psychologists at the
University of Aberdeen (see Shepherd, 1986; Shepherd & Ellis, 1996), and another sim-
ilar system, SIGMA-IRIS, was used by the Austrian police (Zima & Zeiner, 1982).
One potential problem with the use of feature checklists regards their presentation
of a rather exhaustive list of person descriptors, many of which the witness may never
have attended to at encoding. The information elicited is either not very informative (as
when witnesses mark default, “normal” values) or even incorrect, and the accuracy of
the information is not related to the accuracy of a later identification (Sporer, in press).
When the witness signifies the recollection of several features that are incongruent with
the actual perpetrator, this may cause interference quite similar to the misinformation
effects discussed above. In several studies, Wogalter (1991, 1996) has shown that such
feature checklists (in contrast to a free recall or imaging task) can produce more incor-
rect features and subsequently interfere with witnesses’ ability to identify the perpetra-
tor. As a result, feature checklists may not provide the best means for collecting eyewit-
ness information.
Collaborative Recall. Should witnesses be permitted to discuss their memory for
the event with one another in generating a common, agreed-upon description for the
perpetrator? There are, of course, potential benefits from collaborative recall, but there
would also be potential costs of cross-contamination if witnesses were to share erroneous
information with one another. Psychologists have studied this problem in the context of
person descriptions, attempting to understand any benefits of permitting collaborative
recall on the accuracy and completeness of descriptions, and the extent to which wit-
nesses may adopt erroneous information provided by another witness into their descrip-
tions. For example, Warnick and Sanders (1980) investigated the influence of group dis-
cussion of a previously viewed event on individual witness’s subsequent recall. Their
results indicated superior accuracy and completeness of recall for participants who had
discussed the event in a group when compared with participants who recalled the infor-
mation independently. Yarmey and Morris (1998) conducted a similar study, but had
some participants also provide a consensus description of the perpetrator and event
(some immediately, others following a 1-week delay). The results of Yarmey and Morris
also indicated that group discussions led to more correct details being recalled when
compared with individual attempts at recall, but no similar increase in erroneous details.
Given that witnesses’ person descriptions are generally quite accurate, it seems rea-
sonable that collaborative recall would have some positive effects on the amount of
information recalled. But are witnesses particularly susceptible to adopting erroneous
details that might be provided by another witness? To explore such a “conformity effect,”
Gabbert, Memon, and Allan (2003) created a situation in which witnesses viewed events
differing in several key features. Witnesses were then later asked to discuss the event
with another witness before providing a description independently. Consistent with pre-
vious studies of the misinformation paradigm (cf. Shaw et al., 1997), a rather substantial
percentage of participants (71%) incorporated erroneous details provided to them by
the co-witness. Thus, to the extent that a co-witness might provide erroneous informa-
tion, collaborative recall may contaminate the person descriptions of others who partic-
ipate in the discussion.
Repeated Questioning. Witnesses may be asked to provide a description of the
perpetrator and event on multiple occasions, including immediately following the event,
throughout the investigative process, in depositions and pretrial hearings, and finally
(but most importantly) on the witness stand before a jury. To what extent might repeated
questioning influence the veridicality of the information provided by the witness? The
general cognitive literature has shown both positive and negative effects of repeated re-
call (Brown, 1923). For example, individuals may benefit from repeated attempts by
recalling information or items that had not previously been reported (Payne, 1987;
Roediger & Challis, 1989). To avoid confusion, we adopt the distinction between hyper-
mnesia, that is, an increase in net recall (number of new details minus number of items
lost), and reminiscence, that is, the gross recall of details provided at least once across
a number of trials (Payne, 1987; Turtle & Yuille, 1994). In their study of eyewitnesses,
Scrivner and Safer (1988) demonstrated hypermnesia during the repeated recall of event
and perpetrator details from a previously viewed crime. Turtle and Yuille (1994) par-
tially replicated these findings with longer retention intervals between successive re-
call episodes, demonstrating reminiscence but not hypermnesia. Bornstein, Liebel, and
Scarberry (1998) further demonstrated that repeated testing can improve recall for de-
tails of a negatively arousing event.
In addition to the possibility of more complete descriptions, repeated testing has
also been shown to preserve an individual’s memory by strengthening associations that
are retrieved (see Bjork, 1988). One important moderator, however, regards the reten-
tion interval prior to the first attempt at retrieval—to the extent that the retention in-
terval is brief, more information may be preserved by the act of retrieval (Bahrick, 2000;
Ebbesen & Rienick, 1998; Shaw, Bjork, & Handall, 1995). Ebbesen and Rienick (1998)
varied the interval between exposure to a target and the first recall attempt (1 day,
7 days, or 28 days), and all participants provided a second recall attempt after 4 weeks.
Their results indicated that, across all conditions, participants recalled about one less
descriptor at the 4-week test (M 8.50) than at all other tests (M 9.50). Although
the authors stress the fact that there was virtually no decline in the recall of personal
attributes once a recall attempt was made, the percentage of errors for facial features,
clothing color, and clothing style was still substantial. Even recall for the ethnicity of the
person who participants had interacted with showed error rates between 13% and 23%.
Nonetheless, these results do appear to demonstrate the predicted protection of person
description memory afforded by repeated questioning. In a similar fashion, Dunning and
Stern (1992) reported two experiments in which participants showed a (nonsignificant)
tendency to recall more person information correctly, with no change in incorrect or
confabulated details, over repeated reports. The interval between reports, however, was
only 5 minutes, which is functionally quite different from the situation in which wit-
nesses are repeatedly asked about events at different occasions separated by days or even
months (Sporer, 1992a; van Koppen & Lochun, 1997).
In contrast to the benefits of increased completeness and maintenance of the mem-
ory, Roediger and his colleagues have demonstrated that repeated testing can also have
rather paradoxical effects in which erroneous information may be reported and incor-
porated into subsequent recall episodes (see Roediger, McDermott, & Goff, 1997; Roedi-
ger, Wheeler, & Rajaram, 1993). For example, a study by Roediger, Jacoby, and McDer-
mott (1996) demonstrated that when participants were encouraged to recall erroneous
information from a previously viewed crime, they were more likely to report that infor-
mation in later attempts at recall (cf. Schooler, Foster, & Loftus, 1987). Meissner (2002)
subsequently replicated the pervasive effects of self-generated misinformation in the
context of person descriptions, particularly when participants were forced to report
descriptors that they were unsure of.
Cognitive Interview. Over the years, researchers have been interested in devising
techniques that might improve the accuracy and completeness of information obtained
from witnesses. Likely the most well-known technique is the cognitive interview, which
was initially developed by Geiselman and Fisher in the early 1980s (for a review, see
Fisher & Geiselman, 1992). Overall, the cognitive interview consists of four main com-
ponents: (1) context reinstatement, which includes mentally reinstating the environ-
mental and personal context of the original event; (2) instruction to “report all” infor-
mation, including partial information, even if it seems unimportant; (3) recounting the
event in a variety of temporal orders; and (4) reporting the events from a variety of per-
spectives. With the use of the cognitive interview, a host of studies have shown that de-
scriptions of persons, objects, and events can be reliably improved when compared with
other standard (free recall) interview techniques.
In the first of these studies, Geiselman et al. (1984) obtained 11.00 correct details
in response to open-ended questions about characteristics of a person from witnesses in-
structed with the cognitive interview, compared with 7.38 details by witnesses in a stan-
dard interview condition. Importantly, the cognitive interview did not lead to an increase
in incorrect details. Whereas this basic pattern of results has been confirmed in studies
with real witnesses (Fisher, Geiselman, & Amador, 1989), other studies have noted an
increase in the recall of incorrect details gathered with the cognitive interview. For ex-
ample, a study by Finger and Pezdek (1999) found that the cognitive interview increased
the recall of both correct and incorrect facial descriptors when compared with a stan-
dard interview procedure. Confirming this pattern, a recent meta-analysis of 42 studies
by Koehnken, Milne, Memon, and Bull (1999) revealed a large increase in the number
of correct details elicited by the cognitive interview and a smaller, yet significant, in-
crease in the number of incorrect details elicited. Furthermore, the meta-analysis indi-
cated that accuracy rates elicited with the cognitive interview were about the same as
accuracy rates achieved with traditional interview methods (84% vs. 82%, respectively).
It should be noted that the majority of studies examining the cognitive interview have
not focused on obtaining person descriptions per se, so further research in this direction
seems worthwhile.
So far our discussion has focused on the nature and quality of person descriptions. An
important related issue involves the relationship between the description and identifica-
tion of faces. This in turn leads to two distinct (albeit related) questions. First, what is
the relationship between the quality with which a witness describes a face and the accu-
racy with which he or she subsequently identifies it? Second, what is the influence of
describing a face on its subsequent identification? As will be seen, the answers to both
of these questions are not as intuitive as one might expect.
The Description-Identification Relationship
It seems quite reasonable that witnesses who are better at describing a perpetrator
should also be better at identifying him. The intuitive nature of this relationship is in-
herent in the arguments in many eyewitness cases where inconsistencies between a wit-
ness’s initial description of a perpetrator and the appearance of the suspect are high-
lighted to undermine the credibility of the identification. Both the U.S. Supreme Court
(Neil v. Biggers, 1972) and the German Supreme Court have used the quality of person
descriptions as indicators to evaluate the accuracy of person identifications in criminal
trials (see Sporer & Cutler, 2003). Despite the appeal of the belief that a strong relation-
ship should exist between face description quality and identification accuracy, research
reveals that this relationship is at best very weak and often nonexistent. Although
Sporer (1992b) reported a significant positive relation (assessed by a point-biserial cor-
relation) between the number of descriptors and identification accuracy in a staged
event study (r .28), other studies have not confirmed this finding when focusing on
the accuracy of descriptions. For example, Grass and Sporer (1991) staged another
event in a classroom and then 1 week later had participants describe the target’s appear-
ance and respond to prompted questions about the target’s appearance. Participants
were then presented live simultaneous, live sequential, or photographic sequential line-
ups. These authors found no relationship between two judges’ assessments of either the
completeness (r .06) or accuracy (r .04) of the descriptions and identification
performance. Similar failures to find a relationship between face description quality and
recognition performance have been observed in a number of other studies (Pigott &
Brigham, 1985; Sporer, in press). Furthermore, Wells and Leippe (1981) actually found a
nonsignificant, yet sizable, negative relationship (r .41) between the accuracy of
witnesses verbal recall of other aspects of the scene of a simulated crime and their iden-
tification of the target individual.
Although an absence of a relationship between person description quality and iden-
tification performance is by far the most common result, there are a few circumstances
under which a relationship has been observed. Using the communication accuracy par-
adigm, Fallshore and Schooler (1995) examined the relationship between a description’s
quality and the ability of another individual to use a given description to identify the in-
dividual described from among a set of distractors. In the context of describing and iden-
tifying own- versus other-race faces, the authors found no significant relationship be-
tween description accuracy and identification performance for own-race faces (r .12),
but a significant relationship in performance on other-race faces (r .36). This finding
further supports the view that other-race faces may be recognized in a more featural
manner than own-race faces (Rhodes et al., 1989; Sporer, 2001a). Accordingly, inas-
much as the recognition of other-race faces depends on the quality of witnesses’ memory
of individual features, the veracity of the witnesses’ memory for those features (as re-
vealed by the quality of their descriptions) becomes predictive of their recognition per-
formance. This finding also potentially offers a key for understanding why face descrip-
tion quality bears so little relationship to identification performance with own-race
faces—namely, the two tasks may draw on fundamentally different types of knowledge,
with the former depending on participants’ memory for distinctive features and the lat-
ter depending on their nonverbal knowledge of the face in its entirety (see Farah et al.,
1998; Wells & Turtle, 1987).
A second exception to the typical absence of a relationship between description
quality and face recognition quality comes from studies that have compared the relative
ease with which different faces can be described versus recognized. Wells (1985) showed
participants multiple faces and then examined their ability to both describe and recog-
nize each face. He found that distinctive faces tended to be easier to describe and to rec-
ognize than less distinct faces, thereby leading to a modest relationship between recog-
nition accuracy and description quality (r .27) across faces. Although this modest
correlation does suggest that certain distinctive faces can be recognized on the basis of
individual features, it certainly does not undermine the more common conclusion that
typically little relationship between verbal description quality and recognition accuracy
can be expected.
A final exception to the absence of a relationship between description quality and
recognition performance has been observed in studies in which participants were forced
to generate rather elaborate descriptions of faces and were later asked to identify these
individuals in a lineup identification task (cf. Meissner, Brigham, & Kelley, 2001). In
these studies, it appears that the elicitation of elaborate verbal descriptions may lead
participants to generate inaccurate details, which then impairs their recognition perfor-
mance. Indeed, several studies using such a paradigm (Finger & Pezdek, 1999; Meissner,
2002; Meissner et al., 2001) have found that incorrect details reported in participants’
descriptions are predictive of subsequent identification errors.
In short, it seems that despite the clear intuition that witnesses who are better at
describing a target should also be better at recognizing it, this relationship has proved
to be quite elusive and generally weak. Though the absence of such a relationship may
undermine this frequently relied-upon method for assessing the credibility of witnesses,
it also provides an important link in our understanding of the nature of person descrip-
tions—namely, that person descriptions may draw upon knowledge or cognitive pro-
cesses that are very different from those invoked in the identification of a face. More
specifically, person descriptions appear to encourage a focus upon verbalizable features
of the face that are not always useful for perceptually individuating a given face from
among similar distractors. In contrast, recognition of faces has been shown to involve a
configural process in which features combine to create a nonverbalizable perceptual set
that is stored and later accessed for pattern recognition (Farah et al., 1998). The ex-
ceptions to the incompatibility of these processes appear to involve faces that are rec-
ognizable based upon a distinctive local feature, or conditions in which retrieval of a
face description distorts the veracity of the memory trace and interferes with subsequent
The Influence of Person Descriptions
on Identification: Verbal Overshadowing
The fundamental difference between describing a face and recognizing it also contributes
to some counterintuitive findings regarding the influence of verbally describing a face on
subsequent recognition of that face. Intuitively we might expect that describing a face
would be helpful for subsequent memory performance, because it constitutes a form of
verbal rehearsal, and verbal rehearsal is well known to enhance memory performance
(e.g., Darley & Glass, 1975; Glenberg & Adams, 1978; see Sporer, 1989). There is some
evidence that visually rehearsing a face, even after being prompted by a verbal descrip-
tion cue, may indeed improve recognition (Sporer, 1988). However, a growing body of re-
search suggests that contrary to this intuition, efforts to describe a previously seen face
can actually impair subsequent memory performance, at least under some circumstances.
In the original documentation of this counterintuitive effect of verbal description on
face recognition (termed verbal overshadowing), Schooler and Engstler-Schooler (1990)
showed participants a videotape of a bank robbery. Some participants were instructed to
describe the robber in as much detail as possible while others engaged in an unrelated
filler activity. Finally, all participants were shown a lineup containing the robber and
seven foils. The results revealed that participants who had described the robber were
markedly less accurate in recognizing him compared with no-description controls. Fol-
low-up experiments by Schooler and Engstler-Schooler were largely consistent with the
verbal overshadowing hypothesis that the negative effects of verbalization were due to a
mismatch between the visual information or processes associated with the original expe-
rience and the verbal information or processes associated with the act of verbal descrip-
tion. For example, the negative effects of verbal description generalized to another type
of nonverbal stimuli (i.e., colors), but not to more readily verbalized stimuli (i.e., the con-
tents of what the robber said). Similarly, whereas verbal rehearsal repeatedly disrupted
performance, visualizing the robber’s face had no effect on subsequent identification.
Since its original demonstration, the verbal overshadowing phenomenon has been
replicated numerous times (Dodson, Johnson, & Schooler, 1997; Fallshore & Schooler,
1995; Ryan & Schooler, 1998; Schooler, Ryan, & Reder, 1996; Sporer, 1989). At the same
time, however, it has also failed to replicate on a number of occasions (Lovett, Small, &
Engstrom, 1992; Yu & Geiselman, 1993). A meta-analysis of the verbal overshadowing
effect was recently conducted by Meissner and Brigham (2001a). Across a sample of
15 studies (29 effect size comparisons; N 2018), Meissner and Brigham observed a
small, yet significant, verbal overshadowing effect (Zr .12) demonstrating that par-
ticipants who described a target face were 1.27 times more likely to later misidentify the
face from a lineup recognition task when compared with participants who did not gen-
erate a description prior to identification.
Although the verbal overshadowing effect is a reliable phenomenon, it nevertheless
appears to be somewhat fragile. Moreover, while research following the original dem-
onstration of verbal overshadowing is largely (if not entirely) consistent with the claim
that it is associated with discrepancies between the modality of the original visual en-
coding, the precise mechanism responsible for the effect remains an issue of some con-
tention. We briefly review the research surrounding this topic and then consider the
merits of several current explanations. As will be seen, there is compelling evidence in
support of each of the primary accounts, yet no single explanation can accommodate all
of the extant findings suggesting that multiple mechanisms may be involved.
Recoding Interference. In their original account of the verbal overshadowing ef-
fect, Schooler and Engstler-Schooler (1990) proposed that it results from recoding in-
terference in which “the verbalization of a visual memory can foster the formation of
a nonveridical verbally biased representation corresponding to the original stimulus”
(p. 62). Such an account generally explains why the overshadowing effect is exclusively
observed with nonverbal stimuli such as faces that are difficult to put into words, but not
with stimuli that are more easily described.
More recently, Meissner and his colleagues (Meissner, 2002; Meissner et al., 2001)
have provided additional support for the recoding interference account by demonstrat-
ing that the influence of verbalization is mediated by the amount of incorrect descriptors
that participants are encouraged to generate. Specifically they found that verbal disrup-
tion was maximized when participants were “forced” to provide elaborate descriptions of
the face. Under such forced recall conditions, Meissner and colleagues (2001) found
that participants were more likely to include erroneous elements in their descriptions
and subsequently demonstrated verbal overshadowing in their poor performance on
a lineup identification task (27% accuracy) when compared with participants in a no-
description control condition (52% accuracy). In contrast, another group of participants
were warned to provide very accurate descriptions and not to guess at any particular
features. Those in this warning condition actually demonstrated verbal enhancement
(63% accuracy) when compared with participants in the control or forced conditions.
Meissner and colleagues have replicated this “instructional bias” effect in several stud-
ies (Meissner, 2002; Meissner et al., 2001; see also Finger & Pezdek, 1999; MacLin, Tap-
scott, & Malpass, 2002) and have found that the effect persists despite delays of 30 min-
utes or 1 week, despite instructions to source monitor, and across repeated attempts at
recall prior to identification. Taken together, these results suggest that extensive verbal-
ization can lead to the production of a self-generated misinformation effect whereby par-
ticipants are misled by the erroneous details present in their own descriptions. Further
support of this account has also come from a moderator analysis conducted by Meissner
and Brigham (2001a) demonstrating that variations in the reliability of verbal overshad-
owing studies could be reconciled by differences in the procedure used by various re-
searchers. In particular, studies that utilized elaborative description procedures led to
more reliable verbal overshadowing effects than those that utilized a standard free-recall
Transfer Inappropriate Processing Shift. Although the recoding interference ac-
count nicely accommodates many verbal overshadowing findings, there are some results
that it does not easily handle (for a review see Schooler, Fiore, & Brandimonte, 1997;
Schooler, 2002). First, whereas a relationship between verbalization quality and recog-
nition performance has been observed in some studies (e.g., Finger & Pezdek, 1999,
Meissner, 2002; Meissner et al., 2001), other studies have failed to find such a relation-
ship (e.g., Schooler & Engstler-Schooler, 1990). If verbal overshadowing is due to inac-
curacies present in the verbal description, then, as Meissner and others have noted, such
inaccuracies should be predictive of performance. The failure to find such a relationship
across all studies, regardless of the type of recall instructions or task provided, is there-
fore potentially problematic for this account (Schooler, 2002).
A second problem for the recoding interference account involves studies dem-
onstrating that verbalization can interfere with the recognition of other nonverbalized
faces. For example, Dodson and colleagues (1997) presented participants with two faces
(a male and a female face) and then had them describe just one of them. On a subse-
quent recognition test, they observed that verbalization interfered with the recognition
of the nonverbalized face as much as it did with the verbalized face. Additional studies
have demonstrated that even describing a parent’s face from memory can interfere with
recognition of a recently encoded (and unrelated) face. More recently, Brown and Lloyd-
Jones (2002, 2003) have introduced a novel overshadowing paradigm in which partici-
pants are asked to encode a series of faces. Half of the participants are then asked to pro-
vide a description of the final face they viewed, and the second group of participants is
asked to complete an unrelated filler task. Thereafter, all participants are provided with
a recognition test in which a series of faces are shown to them (both novel faces and
those from the study set). Brown and Lloyd-Jones have consistently found that describ-
ing the final face produces a verbal overshadowing effect in the recognition of all faces
from the study set.
If verbal overshadowing is the product of relying on an inaccurate verbal code, then
it is hard to understand why verbalization would have comparable effects when the face
in question was itself never actually verbalized. Given these concerns, Schooler and his
colleagues have suggested an alternative to the recoding interference account, originally
termed “transfer inappropriate retrieval” (Schooler et al., 1997) but subsequently re-
named “transfer inappropriate processing shift” (TIPS) (Schooler, 2002), based upon
evidence that retrieval per se may not be a critical component of the process. According
to Schooler and colleagues, verbal descriptions may induce a general processing shift
that dampens the subsequent application of nonverbal configural processes. In effect,
verbal description causes participants to become “stuck” in a verbal mode of processing
faces, which is then applied (inappropriately transferred) to the recognition test, result-
ing in disruption.
The TIPS account nicely accommodates the basic finding that verbalization im-
pairs recognition of nonverbal stimuli (such as faces), but not stimuli that are easily
verbalizable (as only the former would be disrupted by an excessive focus on verbal pro-
cessing). It also accounts for the findings that verbalizing one face can interfere with
recognition of a different face (because of the general nature of the processing shift).
Finally, TIPS is consistent with the influence of other manipulations (e.g., focusing
on individual elements of composite figures) that disrupt face recognition performance
(Macrae & Lewis, 2002) and provides a useful way of conceptualizing a variety of situ-
ations in which the engagement in one task can impair performance on subsequent
tasks. At the same time, however, it does not offer a simple account of why a relation-
ship is sometimes observed between the quality of verbal descriptions and recognition
Criterion Shifts. Until recently, the debate regarding the mechanisms underlying
the negative effects of verbal description on face recognition were limited to the recod-
ing interference and transfer inappropriate processing accounts. However, a third ac-
count has been suggested in which verbalization is said to more simply induce a criterion
shift such that individuals who provide a description are subsequently less likely to make
a positive identification (irrespective of accuracy). In a target-present lineup (used by
the majority of researchers investigating the verbal overshadowing effect), such a shift
would lead to a greater frequency of misses and thus to reduced accuracy. In testing this
hypothesis, Clare and Lewandowsky (2004) found that verbal description of a previously
presented face impaired performance on suspect present lineups when participants were
provided a “not present” option, but not when they were forced to select from among
the faces presented. Moreover, on a target-absent lineup, verbalization actually improved
performance (being more cautious necessarily leads to less false identifications)—a find-
ing that the authors note is not predicted by either the recoding interference or TIPS
While representing an important additional account of verbal overshadowing ef-
fects, Clare and Lewandowsky (2004) acknowledge that this approach cannot explain
all the extant findings. Specifically, a number of studies have found verbal overshadow-
ing effects with paradigms that either did not include a “not present” option (e.g., Fall-
shore & Schooler, 1995) or assessed performance on target-absent lineups (e.g., Meiss-
ner, 2002). In addition, the recognition paradigm introduced by Brown and Lloyd-Jones
(2002, 2003) permitted the calculation of signal detection measures of discrimination
and response criterion, but found an overshadowing effect on the former measure. Taken
together, these findings prove difficult for a criterion shift account and encourage further
research on the precise mechanism of the verbal overshadowing effect.
Summary of Verbal Overshadowing Findings. In the end it seems that all three
current accounts of the negative effects of verbal description on face recognition have
merit. Under some conditions, such as when individuals provide elaborate descriptions
of a face and a relationship between description quality and recognition accuracy ex-
ists, it seems quite likely that verbalization produces a self-generated misinformation ef-
fect in which participants rely upon their erroneous description at the expense of their
more veridical visual memory. Under other conditions, particularly when no relation-
ship between description performance and recognition accuracy is observed and/or when
verbalization is observed to impair the recognition of faces other than those described,
it seems likely that verbalization induces a transfer inappropriate processing shift,
whereby featural processing operations are inappropriately applied to a recognition test
that would be better served by nonverbal, configural processes. Under still other situa-
tions, particularly when not present options are included, and the negative effects of
verbalization are limited to increased misses, a criterion shift may be in operation.
Clearly future research is needed to sort out more precisely when each of these respec-
tive mechanisms may be at play. Nevertheless, such research seems greatly warranted,
given that verbal description is an inherent element in many eyewitness situations, and
that understanding the precise mechanisms by which such descriptions can impair
memory is certain to be critical to minimizing the negative effects that such descriptions
might otherwise have. In the meantime, investigators should be cautioned against en-
couraging elaborate descriptions of a perpetrator, so as to minimize the effects of self-
generated misinformation on later identification.
A pervasive theme of research on eyewitness performance is that memory is not partic-
ularly reliable. Unfortunately, this theme appears to be particularly pronounced in the
context of person descriptions. Person descriptions tend to be vague and nondiscrimina-
tive and are susceptible to many of the sources of error that plague other forms of eye-
witness memory (e.g., the effects of arousal, poor encoding conditions, misinformation,
declines with age, etc.). At the same time, there appear to be some aspects of person de-
scriptions that are uniquely problematic. For example, whereas in general it is useful for
witnesses to generate as much information about a witnessed event as possible (e.g.,
Fisher et al., 1989), in the context of person description, encouraging people to spend
extensive time generating their descriptions can actually impair face recognition (Finger
& Pezdek, 1999) and result in the generation of a greater proportion of inaccurate de-
tails (Meissner et al., 2001).
Although much has been learned about person description, there is still more that
needs to be discerned. Theoretically, an important area for future research is to further
flesh out the shared and unique processes that contribute to individuals’ ability to rec-
ognize as opposed to describe faces. A variety of converging lines of evidence suggest
that person descriptions may draw on processes that are distinct from those involved in
face recognition. Whereas face recognition benefits from focusing on the global qualities
of a face (Farah et al., 1998), face description benefits more from consideration of indi-
vidual features (Wells & Turtle, 1987). Similarly, whereas face recognition consistently
reveals an own-race advantage (a process known to rely on configural processing), face
description has generally failed to show such a difference (Meissner & Brigham, 2001b;
Sporer, 2001a, 2001b). These findings, in conjunction with a rather low or inconsistent
relationship between the quality of face descriptions and recognition performance, as
well as the verbal overshadowing phenomenon, suggest that face recognition and face
description may rely on fundamentally different processes.
From this perspective it appears that future research might benefit from more pre-
cisely delineating the distinct processes contributing to person description versus recog-
nition and explicating the behavioral and neurocognitive underpinnings of those pro-
cesses. For example, recent research has found that face recognition performance is
impaired if, between encoding and test, participants are shown large letters composed of
small letters and are asked to attend to the smaller letters—a procedure believed to pro-
mote featural processing (Macrae & Lewis, 2002). However, what would be the effect of
such a manipulation on person description? Given the hypothesis that person descrip-
tion relies more on featural processing, it seems quite plausible that although a focus on
local processing impairs face recognition, it may actually improve face description! It has
also been observed that focusing on large letters in this task can enhance face recogni-
tion; however, according to the current perspective, a configural process might actually
impair person description. It also seems quite plausible that person description and face
recognition may differentially draw upon separate areas of the brain, with face recogni-
tion relying more on the nonverbal operations associated with the right hemisphere
(Leehey, Carey, Diamond, & Cahn, 1978) and face description relying more on the ver-
bal operations associated with the left hemisphere (Hellige, 1993). Further investigation
of the unique and sometimes conflicting processes associated with person recognition
and description may be crucial to enhancing our theoretical understanding of these two
critical elements of eyewitness memory.
In addition to suggesting important theoretical directions for future research, the
present analysis also points to some critical applied issues that must be resolved if we are
to maximize the efficacy of person descriptions in eyewitness contexts. As noted, it ap-
pears that the value of person descriptions critically depends upon how much informa-
tion individuals are required to generate, with extensive descriptions leading to both
more inaccurate and more disruptive descriptions. However, determining the precise
amount of information that will lead to maximum description quality has yet to be de-
termined. Exactly how much information should witnesses be asked to provide? If details
are not spontaneously offered, should they be probed for? And if so, which details are ac-
ceptable to inquire about, and which details may lead to elaborative interference? If a
witness does offer an extensive description that is potentially more riddled with inaccu-
racies, are there some details (e.g., hair color) that might be more likely to be accurate
than others (e.g., shape of face)? Are the details that are generated first more likely to
be accurate than those generated later, and, if so, can the utility of person descriptions
be enhanced by differentially emphasizing details that are more likely to be accurate
from those that are more suspect? Although clearly there is much more that we need to
research, we are in a far better position to know when and how to use this critical source
of eyewitness information by recognizing the unique issues that affect person description
The writing of this manuscript was supported by a grant from the National Science
Foundation to the first author (CAM) and a grant from the Deutsche Forschungsgemein-
schaft (German Science Foundation) to the second author (SLS).
Bahrick, H. (2000). Long-term maintenance of knowledge. In E. Tulving & F. I. M. Craik, The
Oxford handbook of memory (pp. 347–362). New York: Oxford University Press.
Bjork, R. A. (1988). Retrieval practice and the maintenance of knowledge. In M. M. Gruneberg,
P. E. Morris, & R. N. Sykes (Eds.), Practical aspects of memory (Vol. 2, pp. 396–401). London:
Bornstein, B. H., Liebel, L. M., & Scarberry, N. C. (1998). Repeated testing in eyewitness mem-
ory: A means to improve recall of a negative emotional event. Applied Cognitive Psychology,
12, 119–131.
Brown, W. (1923). To what extent is memory measured by a single recall trial. Journal of Experi-
mental Psychology, 6, 377–382.
Brown, C., & Lloyd-Jones, T. J. (2002). Verbal overshadowing in a multiple face presentation
paradigm: Effects of description instruction. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 16, 873–885.
Brown, C., & Lloyd-Jones, T. J. (2003). Verbal overshadowing of multiple face and car recogni-
tion: Effects of within- versus across-category verbal descriptions. Applied Cognitive Psychol-
ogy, 17, 183–201.
Burke, A., Heuer, F., & Reisberg, D. (1992). Remembering emotional events. Memory & Cogni-
tion, 20, 277–290.
Ceci, S. J., & Bruck, M. (1993). Suggestibility of the child witness: A historical review and
synthesis. Psychological Bulletin, 113, 403–439.
Chance, J. E., & Goldstein, A. G. (1996). The other-race effect and eyewitness identification. In
S. L. Sporer, R. S. Malpass, & G. Koehnken (Eds.), Psychological issues in eyewitness identifi-
cation (pp. 153–176). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Christianson, S. (1984). The relationship between induced emotional arousal and amnesia. Scan-
dinavian Journal of Psychology, 25, 147–160.
Christianson, S. (1992). Emotional stress and eyewitness memory: A critical review. Psychological
Bulletin, 112, 284–309.
Clare, J., & Lewandowsky, S. (2004). Verbalizing facial memory: Criterion effects in verbal over-
shadowing. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, & Cognition, 30, 739–755.
Clifford, B. R., & Hollin, C. R. (1981). Effects of the type of incident and the number of perpe-
trators on eyewitness memory. Journal of Applied Psychology, 66, 364–370.
Cohen, G., & Faulkner, D. (1989). Age differences in source forgetting: Effects on reality moni-
toring and on eyewitness testimony. Psychology & Aging, 4, 10–17.
Cutler, B. L., Penrod, S. D., & Martens, T. K. (1987). Improving the reliability of eyewitness
identifications: Putting context into context. Journal of Applied Psychology, 72, 629–637.
Cutshall, J., & Yuille, J. C. (1989). Field studies of eyewitness memory of actual crimes. In D. C.
Raskin (Ed.), Psychological methods in criminal investigation and evidence (pp. 97–124). New
York: Springer.
Darley, C. F., & Glass, A. L. (1971). Effects of rehearsal and serial list position on recall. Journal
of Experimental Psychology, 93, 83–89.
Davies, G. M. (1996). Children’s identification evidence. In S. L. Sporer, R. S. Malpass, &
G. Koehnken (Eds.), Psychological issues in eyewitness identification (pp. 233–258). Mahwah,
NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Davies, G., Tarrant, A., & Flin, R. (1989). Close encounters of the witness kind: Children’s
memory for a simulated health inspection. British Journal of Psychology, 80, 415–429.
Deffenbacher, K. A. (1983). The influence of arousal on reliability of testimony. In S. M. A.
Lloyd-Bostock & B. R. Clifford (Eds.), Evaluating witness evidence (pp. 235–251). Chichester,
England: Wiley.
Deffenbacher, K. A. (1994). Effects of arousal on everyday memory. Human Performance, 7,
Deffenbacher, K. A., Bornstein, B. H., Penrod, S. D., & McGorty, E. K. (2004). A meta-analytic
review of the effects of high stress on eyewitness memory. Law & Human Behavior, 28,
Dent, H. (1982). The effects of interviewing strategies on the results of interviews with child wit-
nesses. In A. Trankell (Ed.), Reconstructing the past (pp. 279–298). Stockholm: Norstedt.
Dent, H., & Stephenson, G. (1979). An experimental study of the effectiveness of different tech-
niques of questioning child witnesses. British Journal of Social & Clinical Psychology, 18, 41–51.
Dodson, C. S., Johnson, M. K., & Schooler, J. W. (1997). The verbal overshadowing effect: Why
descriptions impair face recognition. Memory & Cognition, 25, 129–139.
Dunning, D., & Stern, L. B. (1992). Examining the generality of eyewitness hypermnesia: A close
look at time delay and question type. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 6, 643–657.
Ebbesen, E. B., & Rienick, C. B. (1998). Retention interval and eyewitness memory for events
and personal identifying attributes. Journal of Applied Psychology, 5, 745–762.
Ellis, H. D. (1992). The development of face processing skills. Proceedings of the Royal Society,
Series B, 335, 105–111.
Ellis, H. D., Deregowski, J. B., & Shepherd, J. W. (1975). Descriptions of white and black faces
by white and black subjects. International Journal of Psychology, 10, 119–123.
Ellis, H. D., Shepherd, J. W., & Davies, G. M. (1980). The deterioration of verbal descriptions of
faces over different delay intervals. Journal of Police Science & Administration, 8, 101–106.
Fallshore, M., & Schooler, J. W. (1995). The verbal vulnerability of perceptual expertise. Journal
of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, & Cognition, 21, 1608–1623.
Farah, M. J., Wilson, K. D., Drain, M., & Tanaka, J. N. (1998). What is “special” about face per-
ception? Psychological Review, 105, 482–498.
Finger, K., & Pezdek, K. (1999). The effect of verbal description on face identification accuracy:
“Release from verbal overshadowing.” Journal of Applied Psychology, 84, 340–348.
Fisher, G. H., & Cox, R. L. (1975). Recognizing human faces. Applied Ergonomics, 6, 104–109.
Fisher, R. P., & Geiselman, R. E. (1992). Memory-enhancing techniques for investigative interview-
ing. Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas.
Fisher, R. P., Geiselman, R. E., & Amador, M. (1989). Field test of the cognitive interview:
Enhancing the recollection of actual victims and witnesses of a crime. Journal of Applied Psy-
chology, 74, 722–727.
Flin, R. H., & Shepherd, J. W. (1986). Tall stories: Eyewitnesses’ ability to estimate height and
weight characteristics. Human Learning, 5, 29–38.
Gabbert, F., Memon, A., & Allan, K. (2003). Memory conformity: Can eyewitnesses influence
each other’s memories for an event? Applied Cognitive Psychology, 17, 533–543.
Geiselman, R. E., Fisher, R. P., Firstenberg, I., Hutton, L. A., Sullivan, S. J., Avetissian, I. V.,
et al. (1984). Enhancement of eyewitness memory: An empirical evaluation of a cognitive
interview. Journal of Police Science and Administration, 12, 74–80.
Glenberg, A., & Adams, F. (1978). Type I rehearsal and recognition. Journal of Verbal Learning
and Verbal Behavior, 17, 455–163.
Goodman, G. S., & Reed, R. S. (1986). Age differences in eyewitness testimony. Law & Human
Behavior, 10, 317–332.
Grass, E., & Sporer, S. L. (1991, March). Richtig oder falsch? Zur Vorhersage von Identifi-
zierungsleistungen durch weitere Aussagen von Zeugen [Correct or false? Post-dicting eyewit-
ness identification accuracy from verbal statements]. Paper presented at the 33rd Tagung
experimentell arbeitender Psychologen in Giesen, Germany.
Hellige, J. B. (1993). Unity of thought and action: Varieties of interaction between the left and
right cerebral hemispheres. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 2, 21–25.
Henkel, L. A., Johnson, M. K., & De Leonardis, D. M. (1998). Aging and source monitoring:
Cognitive processes and neuropsychological correlates. Journal of Experimental Psychology:
General, 127, 251–268.
Janssen, J. P., & Horowski, A. C. (1980). Schueler schaetzen Koerpergroessen: Akzentuierungs-
tendenz als kognitiver Stil der Personenwahrnehmung [Children estimate height: Accentu-
ation tendencies as a cognitive style in person perception]. Zeitschrift für Entwicklungspsy-
chologie und Paedagogische Psychologie, 10, 167–176.
Kleinsmith, L. J., & Kaplan, S. (1963). Paired-associate learning as a function of arousal and
interpolated interval. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 65, 190–193.
Kleinsmith, L. J., & Kaplan, S. (1964). Interaction of arousal and recall interval in nonsense syl-
lable paired-associate learning. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 67, 124–126.
Koehnken, G., Milne, R., Memon, A., & Bull, R. (1999). The cognitive interview: A meta-
analysis. Psychology, Crime & Law, 5, 3–27.
Koriat, A., & Goldsmith, M. (1996). Monitoring and control processes in the strategic regulation
of memory accuracy. Psychological Review, 103, 490–517.
Kuehn, L. L. (1974). Looking down a gun barrel: Person perception and violent crime. Perceptual
& Motor Skills, 39, 1159–1164.
Laughery, K. R., Duval, C., & Wogalter, M. S. (1986). Dynamics of facial recall. In H. D. Ellis,
M. A. Jeeves, F. Newcombe, & A. Young (Eds.), Aspects of face processing (pp. 373–387). Dor-
drecht: Martinus Nijhoff.
Leehey, S., Carey, S., Diamond, R., & Cahn, A. (1978). Upright and inverted faces: The right
hemisphere knows the difference. Cortex, 14, 411–419.
Leippe, M. L., Romanczyk, A., & Manion, A. P. (1991). Eyewitness memory for a touching expe-
rience: Accuracy differences between child and adult witnesses. Journal of Applied Psychology,
76, 367–379.
Lindholm, T. (2005). Own-age biases in verbal person memory. Memory, 13, 21–30.
Lindsay, R. C. L., Martin, R., & Webber, L. (1994). Default values in eyewitness descriptions:
A problem for the match-to-description lineup foil selection strategy. Law & Human Behavior,
18, 527–541.
Lipton, J. P. (1977). On the psychology of eyewitness testimony. Journal of Applied Psychology, 62,
Loftus, E. F. (1975). Leading questions and the eyewitness report. Cognitive Psychology, 7,
Loftus, E. F. (1979). Eyewitness testimony. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Loftus, E., & Burns, T. E. (1982). Mental shock can produce retrograde amnesia. Memory &
Cognition, 10, 318–323.
Loftus, E. F., & Greene, E. (1980). Warning: Even memory for faces may be contagious. Law &
Human Behavior, 4, 323–334.
Loftus, E. F., & Ketcham, K. E. (1983). The malleability of eyewitness accounts. In S. M. A.
Lloyd-Bostock and B. R. Clifford (Eds.) Evaluating witness evidence (pp. 159–171). New York:
John Wiley & Sons.
Loftus, E. F., & Zanni, G. (1975). Eyewitness testimony: The influence of the wording of a ques-
tion. Bulletin of the Psychonomic Society, 5, 86–88.
Loftus, G. R. (1985). Picture perception: Effects luminance on available information and infor-
mation extraction rate. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 114, 342–356.
Lovett, S. B., Small, M. Y., & Engstrom, S. A. (1992, November). The verbal overshadowing effect:
Now you see it, now you don’t. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Psychonomic
Society, St. Louis, MO.
MacLeod, M. D., & Shepherd, J. W. (1986). Sex differences in eyewitness reports of criminal
assaults. Medicine, Science & the Law, 26, 311–318.
MacLin, O. H., Tapscott, R. L., & Malpass, R. S. (2002). The development of a computer system
to collect descriptions of culprits. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 16, 937–945.
Macrae, C. N., & Lewis, H. L. (2002). Do I know you?: Processing orientation and face recogni-
tion. Psychological Science, 13, 194–196.
Marin, B. V., Holmes, D. L., Guth, M., & Kovac, P. (1979). The potential of children as eye-
witnesses. Law & Human Behavior, 3, 295–305.
Meissner, C. A. (2002). Applied aspects of the instructional bias effect in verbal overshadowing.
Applied Cognitive Psychology, 16, 911–928.
Meissner, C. A., & Brigham, J. C. (2001a). A meta-analysis of the verbal overshadowing effect
in face identification. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 15, 603–616.
Meissner, C. A., & Brigham, J. C. (2001b). Thirty years of investigating the own-race bias in
memory for faces: A meta-analytic review. Psychology, Public Policy, & Law, 7, 3–35.
Meissner, C. A., Brigham, J. C., & Kelley, C. M. (2001). The influence of retrieval processes
in verbal overshadowing. Memory & Cognition, 29, 176–186.
Muensterberg, H. (1908). On the witness stand. Essays on psychology and crime. New York: Double-
day, Page.
Murray, J. B. (1986). Marijuana’s effects on human cognitive functions, psychomotor functions,
and personality. Journal of General Psychology, 113, 23–55.
Neil v. Biggers, 409 U.S. 188 (1972).
Payne, D. G. (1987). Hypermnesia and reminiscence in recall: A historical and empirical review.
Psychological Bulletin, 101, 5–27.
Pickel, K. L. (1998). Unusualness and threat as possible causes of “weapon focus.” Memory, 6,
Pickel, K. L. (1999). The influence of context on the “weapon focus” effect. Law & Human
Behavior, 23, 299–311.
Pigott, M., & Brigham, J. C. (1985). Relationship between accuracy of prior description and fa-
cial recognition. Journal of Applied Psychology, 70, 547–555.
Pozzulo, J. D., & Warren, K. L. (2003). Descriptions and identification of strangers by youth and
adult eyewitnesses. Journal of Applied Psychology, 88, 315–323.
Pryke, S., Lindsay, R. C. L., & Pozzulo, J. D. (2000). Sorting mug shots: Methodological issues.
Applied Cognitive Psychology, 14, 81–96.
Read, J. D., Hammersley, R., Cross-Calvert, S., & McFadzen, E. (1989). Rehearsal of faces and
details in action events. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 3, 295–311.
Read, J. D., Yuille, J. C., & Tollestrup, P. (1992). Recollections of a robbery: Effects of arousal
and alcohol upon recall and person identification. Law & Human Behavior, 16, 425–446.
Reinhardt-Rutland, A. H. (1986). Note on nonveridical visual perception and pedestrian acci-
dents at night. Perceptual & Motor Skills, 63, 371–374.
Rhodes, G., Brake, S., Taylor, K., & Tan, S. (1989). Expertise and configural coding in face
recognition. British Journal of Psychology, 80, 313–331.
Roediger, H. L., & Challis, B. H. (1989). Hypermnesia: Improvements in recall with repeated
testing. In C. Izawa (Ed.), Current issues in cognitive processes: The Tulane Flowerree Sympo-
sium on Cognition (pp. 175–199). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Roediger, H. L., Jacoby, J. D., & McDermott, K. B. (1996). Misinformation effects in recall:
Creating false memories through repeated retrieval. Journal of Memory and Language, 35,
Roediger, H. L., McDermott, K. B., & Goff, L. M. (1997). Recovery of true and false memories:
Paradoxical effects of repeated testing. In M. A. Conway (Ed.), Recovered memories and false
memories (pp. 118–149). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Roediger, H. L., Wheeler, M. A., & Rajaram, S. (1993). Remembering, knowing, and recon-
structing the past. In D. L. Medin (Ed.), The psychology of learning and motivation: Advances
in research and theory (pp. 97–134). San Diego: Academic Press.
Ryan, R. S., & Schooler, J. W. (1998). Whom do words hurt?: Individual differences in suscepti-
bility to verbal overshadowing. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 12, 105–126.
Sayette, M. A. (1999). Cognitive theory and research. In K. Leonard & H. Blume (Eds.), Psy-
chological theories of drinking and alcoholism (2nd ed., pp. 247–291). New York: Guilford
Saywitz, K. J. (1995). Improving children’s testimony: The question, the answer, and the envi-
ronment. In M. S. Zaragoza, J. R. Graham, G. C. N. Hall, R. Hirschman, & Y. S. Ben-Porath
(Eds.), Memory and testimony in the child witness (pp. 113–140). London: Sage.
Schooler, J. W. (1998). The distinctions of false and fuzzy memories. Journal of Experimental Child
Psychology, 71, 130–143.
Schooler, J. W. (2002). Verbalization produces a transfer inappropriate processing shift. Applied
Cognitive Psychology, 16, 989–997.
Schooler, J. W., & Eich, E. (2000). Memory for emotional events. In E. Tulving & F. I. M. Craik,
The Oxford handbook of memory (pp. 379–392). New York: Oxford University Press.
Schooler, J. W., & Engstler-Schooler, T. Y. (1990). Verbal overshadowing of visual memories:
Some things are better left unsaid. Cognitive Psychology, 22, 36–71.
Schooler, J. W., Fiore, S. M., & Brandimonte, M. A. (1997). At a loss from words: Verbal over-
shadowing of perceptual memories. In D. Medin’s (Ed.), Handbook of learning and motivation
(Vol. 37). Orlando, FL: Academic Press.
Schooler, J. W., Foster, R. A., & Loftus, E. F. (1988). Some deleterious consequences of the act
of recollection. Memory and Cognition, 16, 243–251.
Schooler, J. W., & Loftus E. F. (1993). Multiple mechanisms mediate individual differences in
eyewitness accuracy and suggestibility. In H. W. Reese and J. M. Puckett (Eds.), Mechanisms
of practical cognition (pp. 177–203). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Schooler, J. W., Ryan, R. S., & Reder, L. M. (1996). The costs and benefits of verbalization. In
D. Herrmann, M. Johnson, C. McEvoy, C. Hertzog, & P. Hertels (Eds.), Basic and applied
memory: New findings (pp. 51–65). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Searcy, J. H., Bartlett, J. C., Memon, A., & Swanson, K. (2001). Aging and lineup performance
at long retention intervals: Effects of metamemory and context reinstatement. Journal of
Applied Psychology, 86, 207–214.
Shaw, J. S., Bjork, R. A., & Handal, A. (1995). Retrieval-induced forgetting in an eyewitness-
memory paradigm. Psychonomic Bulletin and Review, 2(2), 249–253.
Shaw, J. S., Garven, S., & Wood, J. M. (1997). Co-witness information can have immediate
effects on eyewitness memory reports. Law & Human Behavior, 21, 503–523.
Shepherd, J. W. (1983). Identification after long delays. In S. M. A. Lloyd-Bostock & B. R. Clif-
ford (Eds.), Evaluating witness evidence (pp. 173–187). Chichester: Wiley.
Shepherd, J. W. (1986). An interactive computer system for retrieving faces. In H. D. Ellis, M. A.
Jeeves, F. Newcombe, & A. Young (Eds.), Aspects of face processing (pp. 398–409). Dordrecht/
Boston/Lancaster: Martinus Nijhoff.
Shepherd, J. W., & Deregowski, J. B. (1981). Races and faces: A comparison of the responses of
Africans and Europeans to faces of the same and different races. British Journal of Social Psy-
chology, 20, 125–133.
Shepherd, J. W., & Ellis, H. D. (1996). Face recall—Methods and problems. In S. L. Sporer, R. S.
Malpass, & G. Koehnken (Eds.), Psychological issues in eyewitness identification (pp. 87–115).
Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Shepherd, J. W., Ellis, H. D., & Davies, G. M. (1977). Perceiving and remembering faces. Techni-
cal report to the Home Office under Contract no. POL/73/1675/24/1.
Shepherd, J. W., Ellis, H. D., & Davies, G. M. (1982). Identification evidence: A psychological
examination. Aberdeen: Aberdeen University Press.
Sporer, S. L. (in press). Person descriptions as retrieval cues: Do they really help? Psychology,
Crime, and Law.
Sporer, S. L. (1988). Long-term improvement of facial recognition through visual rehearsal. In
M. M. Gruneberg, P. E. Morris, & R. N. Sykes (Eds.), Practical aspects of memory (pp. 182–
188). London: Wiley.
Sporer, S. L. (1989). Verbal and visual processes in person identification. In H. Wegener,
F. Lösel, & J. Haisch (Eds.), Criminal behavior and the criminal justice system (pp. 303–324).
New York/Berlin: Springer.
Sporer, S.L. (1991). Encoding strategies and the recognition of human faces. Journal of Experi-
mental Psychology: Human Learning, Memory and Cognition, 17, 323–333.
Sporer, S. L. (1992a, March). An archival analysis of person descriptions. Paper presented at the
Biennial Meeting of the American Psychology-Law Society in San Diego, California.
Sporer, S. L. (1992b). Post-dicting eyewitness accuracy: Confidence, decision-times and person
descriptions of choosers and non-choosers. European Journal of Social Psychology, 22, 157–180.
Sporer, S. L. (1996a). Describing others: Psychological issues. In S. L. Sporer, R. S. Malpass, &
G. Koehnken (Eds.), Psychological issues in eyewitness identification (pp. 53–86). Mahwah, NJ:
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Sporer, S. L. (1996b). Experimentally induced person mix-ups through media exposure and ways
to avoid them. In G. M. Davies, S. Lloyd-Bostock, M. McMurran, & C. Wilson (Eds.), Psy-
chology and law: Advances in research (pp. 64–73). Berlin: De Gruyter.
Sporer, S. L. (2001a). Recognizing faces of other ethnic groups: An integration of theories. Psy-
chology, Public Policy, & Law, 7, 36–97.
Sporer, S. L. (2001b). The cross-race bias: Beyond recognition of faces in the laboratory. Psychol-
ogy, Public Policy, and Law, 7, 170–200.
Sporer, S. L., & Cutler, B. L. (2003). Identification evidence in Germany: Common sense as-
sumptions, empirical evidence, guidelines, and judicial practices. In P. J. van Koppen & S. D.
Penrod (Eds.), Adversarial vs. inquisitorial justice: Psychological perspectives on criminal justice
systems (pp. 191–208). New York: Plenum.
Steblay, N. M. (1992). A meta-analytic review of the weapon focus effect. Law & Human Behav-
ior, 16, 413–424.
Stern, L. W. (1902). Zur Psychologie der Aussage [Psychology of report]. Zeitschrift für die gesamte
Strafrechtswissenschaft, 22, 315–370.
Turtle, J. W., & Yuille, J. C. (1994). Lost but not forgotten details: Repeated eyewitness recall
leads to reminiscence but not hypermnesia. Journal of Applied Psychology, 79, 260–271.
van Koppen, P., & Lochun, S. (1997). Portraying perpetrators: the validity of offender descrip-
tions by witnesses. Law and Human Behavior, 21, 661–685.
Wagstaff, G. F., MacVeigh, J., Boston, R., Scott, L., Brunas-Wagstaff, J., & Cole, J. (2003). Can
laboratory findings on eyewitness testimony be generalized to the real world? An archival
analysis of the influence of violence, weapon presence, and age on eyewitness accuracy. Jour-
nal of Psychology: Interdisciplinary & Applied, 137, 17–28.
Warnick, D. H., & Sanders, G. S. (1980). The effects of group discussion on eyewitness accuracy.
Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 10, 249–259.
Wells, G. L. (1985). Verbal descriptions of faces from memory: Are they diagnostic of identifica-
tion accuracy. Journal of Applied Psychology, 70, 619–626.
Wells, G. L., & Leippe, M. R. (1981). How do triers of fact infer the accuracy of eyewitness iden-
tifications? Using memory for peripheral detail can be misleading. Journal of Applied Psychol-
ogy, 66, 682–687.
Wells, G. L., & Turtle, J. W. (1987). What is the best way to encode faces? In M. M. Gruneberg,
P. E. Morris, & R. N. Sykes (Eds.), Practical aspects of memory: Current research & issues
(pp. 163–168). New York: Wiley & Sons.
Wixted, J. T., & Ebbesen, E. B. (1997). Genuine power curves in forgetting: A quantitative
analysis of individual subject forgetting functions. Memory & Cognition, 25, 731–739.
Wogalter, M. S. (1991). Effects of post-exposure description and imaging on subsequent face
recognition performance. Proceedings of the Human Factors Society, 35, 575–579.
Wogalter, M. S. (1996). Describing faces from memory: Accuracy and effects on subsequent recog-
nition performance. Proceedings of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society, 40, 536–540.
Yarmey, A. D. (1986). Verbal, visual, and voice identification of a rape suspect under different
levels of illumination. Journal of Applied Psychology, 71, 363–370.
Yarmey, A. D. (1993). Adult age and gender differences in eyewitness recall in field settings.
Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 23, 1921–1932.
Yarmey, A. D. (1996). Age and eyewitness memory. In S. L. Sporer, R. S. Malpass, & G. Koehnken
(Eds.), Psychological issues in eyewitness identification (pp. 259–278). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence
Erlbaum Associates.
Yarmey, A. D. (2004). Eyewitness recall and photo identification: A field experiment. Psychology,
Crime & Law, 10, 53–68.
Yarmey, A. D., Jacob, J., & Porter, A. (2002). Person recall in field settings. Journal of Applied
Social Psychology, 32, 2354–2367.
Yarmey, A. D., & Kent, J. (1980). Eyewitness identification by elderly and young adults. Law &
Human Behavior, 4, 359–371.
Yarmey, A. D., & Morris, S. (1998). The effects of discussion on eyewitness memory. Journal of
Applied Social Psychology, 28, 1637–1648.
Yarmey, A. D., & Yarmey, M. (1997). Eyewitness recall and duration estimates in field settings.
Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 27, 330–344.
Yarmey, A. D., Yarmey, A. L., & Yarmey, M. J. (1994). Face and voice identifications in showups
and lineups. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 8, 453–464.
Yu, C. J., & Geiselman, R. E. (1993). Effects of constructing identi-kit composites on photo-
spread identification performance. Criminal Justice & Behavior, 20, 280–292.
Yuille, J. C. (1986). Meaningful research in the police context. In J. C. Yuille (Ed.), Police selec-
tion and training: The role of psychology (pp. 225–246). Dordrecht, the Netherlands: Martinus
Yuille, J. C., & Cutshall, J. L. (1986). A case study of eyewitness memory of a crime. Journal of
Applied Psychology, 71, 291–301.
Yuille, J. C., & Tollestrup, P. A. (1990). Some effects of alcohol on eyewitness memory. Journal of
Applied Psychology, 75, 268–273.
Yuille, J. C., Tollestrup, P. A., Marxsen, D., Porter, S., & Herve, H. F. M. (1998). An exploration
on the effects of marijuana on eyewitness memory. International Journal of Law & Psychiatry,
21, 117–128.
Zima, H., & Zeiner, W. (1982). Das Versuchsprojekt “Sigma.” Neue Wege zur Erfassung und
Auswertung von Signalementdaten [Project “Sigma”: New way of gathering and evaluating
person descriptions]. Kriminalistik, 36, 593–596.
... Person descriptions given by eyewitnesses have been largely neglected for a long time, with only scarce scientific knowledge available until now (Fahsing et al., 2004). Person descriptions given by victims or witnesses frequently apply to many potential persons and tend to be rather non-distinctive (Meissner et al., 2007). During free recall to describe an unfamiliar person, witnesses usually provide information about gender, age, height, build, race, hair color, and clothing (Kuehn, 1974;Lindsay et al., 1994a;Voelkle et al., 2012). ...
... While some descriptors tend to be useful to describe an unknown person, others tend to be problematic, especially in the identification process. For example, clothing or references to the hair are likely to be of little help as they can readily be altered by a culprit (Meissner et al., 2007). ...
... The level of accuracy of person descriptions by witnesses may be an important factor that influences the arrangement for a mugbook, especially since the verbal description of a culprit might be associated with the later identification of the culprit. Current research assumes a rather small relationship between a prior description and a subsequent identification at best (Meissner et al., 2007). This might be because description and identification draw on different types of knowledge. ...
Full-text available
Mugbook searches are conducted in case a suspect is not known and to assess if a previously convicted person might be recognized as a potential culprit. The goal of the two experiments reported here was to analyze if prior statements and information about the suspect can aid in the evaluation if such a mugbook search is subsequently advised or not. In experiment 1, memory accuracy for person descriptors was tested in order to analyze, which attributes could be chosen to down-scale the mugbook prior to testing. Results showed that age was the most accurate descriptor, followed by ethnicity and height. At the same time self-assessed low subjective accuracy of culprit descriptions by the witness seemed to be divergent to the objective actual performance accuracy. In experiment 2, a mugbook search was conducted after participants viewed a video of a staged crime and gave a description of the culprit. Results showed that accuracy in mugbook searches correlated positively with the total number of person descriptors given by the witness as well as with witness’ description of external facial features. Predictive confidence (i.e., subjective rating of own performance in the subsequent mugbook search), however did not show any relation to the identification accuracy in the actual mugbook search. These results highlight the notion that mugbooks should not be conducted according to the subjective estimation of the witness’ performance but more according to the actual statements and descriptions that the witness can give about the culprit.
... The task of providing personal descriptions of perpetrators, particularly when prompted by open-ended questions, might be considered a recall task without memory cues and requires a direct retrieval of reconstructed information about an event (Kahana, Rizzuto, & Schneider, 2005). It was generally found that personal descriptions given by eyewitnesses tend to be vague, non-discriminative and sensitive to many sources of error, which makes eyewitness testimony unreliable (Meissner, Sporer, & Schooler, 2007). However, when salient details were described, such as gender, ethnicity, age, built, hair colour, hairstyle and height, the descriptions might be fairly precise and accuracy climbed up to 80% (e.g. ...
... Generally, it was found that the accuracy of personal descriptions was weak, as it was hovering around zero. Therefore, participants were found to be less reliable witnesses, which corresponds to the findings of Meissner et al. (2007). The fact that participants were not emotionally involved in the observed event, which may have affected the completeness of personal descriptions, could potentially explain such a low accuracy level (Houston, Clifford, Phillips, & Memon, 2013). ...
Full-text available
The purpose of this paper is to investigate whether there are any differences between male and female police officers when performing a job-related fitness test, as well as to determine the individual level of specific strengths and motor abilities (hereinafter: SSMAs) as an indicator of work ability. The research was conducted in Serbia on a sample of 111 respondents (40 female and 71 male). In order to determine the SSMAs, this research applied the Obstacle Course test for assessing specific abilities of police officers (OCSAPO1). Three variables were observed during the test: time needed for the completion of the test (tSAPO1), maximum heart rate and capillary blood lactate concentration. On average, men completed the test statistically significantly more efficiently than women, i.e. by 10.3%. According to the percentile distribution of tSAPO1, 5% of women and 14.1% of men proved to be significantly above the average level of all tested respondents. However, based on test results, 11.3% of men and 47.5% of women needed to improve their SSMAs in order to meet occupational requirements. The OCSAPO1 test could be further used as one of the criteria that could help to further classify police officers for various types of police work according to their physical abilities. It could be used to assess the SSMAs relevant for a particular job position according to individual merits and regardless of gender, which would provide the conditions necessary for achieving “equal opportunities” for women and thus do away with the system of binary logic and gender dualism of the police organisation as a context of masculine culture, which, a priori, excludes women by using physical abilities as the strongest argument in favour of maintaining the existing gender practice. Keywords: police organisation, gender dualism, physical abilities, job-related fitness test
... The task of providing personal descriptions of perpetrators, particularly when prompted by open-ended questions, might be considered a recall task without memory cues and requires a direct retrieval of reconstructed information about an event (Kahana, Rizzuto, & Schneider, 2005). It was generally found that personal descriptions given by eyewitnesses tend to be vague, non-discriminative and sensitive to many sources of error, which makes eyewitness testimony unreliable (Meissner, Sporer, & Schooler, 2007). However, when salient details were described, such as gender, ethnicity, age, built, hair colour, hairstyle and height, the descriptions might be fairly precise and accuracy climbed up to 80% (e.g. ...
... Generally, it was found that the accuracy of personal descriptions was weak, as it was hovering around zero. Therefore, participants were found to be less reliable witnesses, which corresponds to the findings of Meissner et al. (2007). The fact that participants were not emotionally involved in the observed event, which may have affected the completeness of personal descriptions, could potentially explain such a low accuracy level (Houston, Clifford, Phillips, & Memon, 2013). ...
Full-text available
Journal of Criminal Investigation and Criminology, 71(4), 247-256. -------------------- Eyewitness testimony remains an important element in resolving criminal investigations. Despite a great deal of research on the subject, the understanding of the effects that witness gender might have on their testimony remains rather limited. The aim of the present study was to examine own-gender bias in recalling personal descriptions of perpetrators. Participants, who were invited to take part in the study, were told they were providing real-life assistance to criminal investigators and potentially helping them to verify hypotheses concerning an actual crime. The participants comprised 256 undergraduate volunteers, who were placed in one of the four groups. Each group observed one of the four crime scenarios that were varied only in terms of gender of either the victim or the perpetrator. All scenarios were designed as footage taken by a CCTV surveillance camera and involved two-minute videos of a staged assault and robbery. After seven days, participants completed a survey on the basis of which the accuracy and quantity of perpetrators’ personal descriptions were checked. Results revealed that participants’ accuracy of memory recall was modest. It was found that gender had a significant main effect on the accuracy of personal descriptions in all four research conditions, while an own-gender bias was also established. The highest accuracy of perpetrators’ personal descriptions was found when male participants reported details of a male perpetrator attacking a female victim, and when female participants described a female perpetrator attacking a female victim. The lowest accuracy was established when female participants described the male perpetrator molesting the male victim. However, no effect of gender on the amount of reported personal descriptions was found.
... The eyewitness literature is therefore limited in offering insights into whether the process of generating facial descriptions for identification, independent of memory demands, is error-prone in and of itself. In addition, research in the domain of eyewitness recognition does not address how useful face descriptions are in circumstances when the person making the identification is a different person to the initial describer (Meissner et al., 2007). We therefore know little about how effectively individuals can communicate facial information to others. ...
Face descriptions inform real‐world identification decisions, for example when eyewitnesses describe criminal perpetrators. However, it is unclear how effective face descriptions are for identification. Here, we examined the accuracy of face identification from verbal descriptions, and how individual differences in face perception relate to producing and using descriptions for identification. In Study 1, participants completed a face communication task in pairs. Each participant saw a single face, and via verbal communication only, the pair decided if they were viewing the same person or different people. Dyads achieved 72% accuracy, compared to 81% when participants completed the task individually by matching face pairs side‐by‐side. Performance on the face communication and perceptual matching tasks were uncorrelated, perhaps due to low measurement reliability of the face communication task. In subsequent studies, we examined the abilities of face ‘describers’ (Study 2) and ‘identifiers’ separately (Study 3). We found that ‘super‐recognizers’ – people with extremely high perceptual face identification abilities – outperformed controls in both studies. Overall, these results show that people can successfully describe faces for identification. Preliminary evidence suggests that this ability – and the ability use facial descriptions for identification – has some association with perceptual face identification skill.
... The benefit of selecting fillers based on a witness' description is that it provides an obvious stopping point for how similar the fillers should be (e.g., if the witness mentions three physical characteristics of the perpetrator, officers can match on those three dimensions and nothing more), and reduces the amount of subjectivity involved in the selection process. However, the potential costs of using description-matched fillers are that descriptions can be inaccurate, or sparse in detail, which may partly stem from the fact that faces are difficult to describe (e.g., see Frowd et al., 2005;Meissner et al., 2007). In addition, as mentioned above, there is evidence that the level of similarity that optimizes performance is less similar than lineups with purely description-matched fillers (Colloff et al., 2021;Wells et al., 1993). ...
Full-text available
When selecting fillers to include in a police lineup, one must consider the level of similarity between the suspect and potential fillers. In order to reduce misidentifications, an innocent suspect should not stand out. Therefore, it is important that the fillers share some degree of similarity. Importantly, increasing suspect-filler similarity too much will render the task too difficult reducing correct identifications of a guilty suspect. Determining how much similarity yields optimal identification performance is the focus of the proposed study. Extant research on lineup construction has provided somewhat mixed results. In part, this is likely because similarity is often defined in relative terms due to the subjective nature of similarity. In the current study, we propose an experiment in which we manipulate suspect-filler similarity via a multidimensional scaling model constructed using objective facial measurements. In doing so, we test the “propitious heterogeneity” and the diagnostic-feature-detection hypotheses which predict an advantage of lineups with low similarity fillers in terms of discriminability.
... The long-held understanding is that information obtained from witnesses to a crime is often of great importance in influencing the course of criminal investigations and their outcomes (Coupe and Griffiths, 1996;Kebbell and Milne, 1998). As such, it is not surprising that eyewitness memory has been relatively well researched, particularly concerning factors that may influence a witness's ability to communicate a comprehensive and reliable account about the crime event (see Meissner et al., 2007). Less is known, however, concerning the amount and accuracy of information gathered from witnesses and then transferred into their written statements. ...
Full-text available
F o r P e e r R e v i e w O n l y Interview skills and witness accounts 1 | P a g e When law enforcement interview witnesses and write their statements. Abstract Eyewitness testimony is important to criminal investigations. Research has found that remembering is a process that can be distorted by various factors, such as how witnesses are interviewed. Further, prior research has also found that written statements taken by the investigator are not always accurate. The present study explored for what is believed the first time whether interviewing skills are associated with both how much correct verbal information is provided by witnesses and also the accuracy of written statements, using a sample of 30 interviews conducted by serving professional investigators. We found greater inaccuracies at each of these two phases when interviewers were assessed as being less skilled, when compared to interviews conducted by their more highly rated counterparts. Interviewing skills thus appear important when interviewers attempt to gain accurate information from witnesses, and when they generate accurate written statements. Implications for policies, practice, and for future research, are discussed.
... action, object and location details: 94.39%). Indeed, Meissner et al. (2007) showed that the person-related details category was of particular interest to the interviewers and that the latter tended to ask more leading and repeated questions on this subject, despite their training in interview methods such as the CI. However, these observations do not explain why the number of errors on person-related details is higher in CIS than in SI. ...
The current study aimed at testing the impact of the cognitive interview for suspects (CIS) used by trained custom officers on the quantity of gathered details, compared to a control standard interview (SI) used by untrained officers. Forty‐five mock‐suspects were required to perform a series of actions and each was interviewed by a pair of customs officers. Participants had to give statements containing truthful parts and deceptive parts. The CIS elicited significantly more details than the SI. Truthful parts of the statements contained more details than deceptive parts. An interaction effect revealed that the CIS elicited a higher number of action details in truthful parts. It is worthwhile for professionals in the field to adopt the CIS, which provides valuable benefits for information gathering. Moreover, the increase in action details raise the question of considering it as a possible lie detection tool.
... If perpetrators look very different and witness descriptions are very good (for review, see Meissner et al. 2007), then police officer(s) may be able to easily indicate which lineup corresponds to which perpetrator. However, when perpetrators are visually similar or act in a similar manner, this can increase cognitive load in eyewitnesses. ...
Full-text available
Although many crimes involve multiple perpetrators, most eyewitness studies examine identification accuracy within the context of a single perpetrator. Prior research has indicated that stronger memory traces and lower cognitive load result in more accurate perpetrator identifications. In this study, 180 participants were shown a video of a simulated theft that involved two perpetrators. Afterwards, participants were randomly shown two lineups, each with a six-person simultaneous lineup. In one group (n = 60), the participant selected which lineup to view first; in the other groups, the administrator selected which lineup to view first. When the administrator chose the viewing order, half of the participants (n = 60) were aware of which lineup corresponded to which perpetrator and half (n = 60) were not. The participants who selected which lineup to view first correctly rejected target-absent lineups more often (65%) than those who did not know which lineup corresponded to which perpetrator (45%). There were no differences between the participants who selected which lineup to view first and those who could not choose the order but were aware which lineup corresponded to which perpetrator. In conclusion, being aware of which lineup corresponds to which perpetrator seems to be an important factor associated with eyewitnesses’ cognitive load.
Prior research has shown that searching for multiple targets in a visual search task enhances distractor memory in a subsequent recognition test. Three non-mutually exclusive accounts have been offered to explain this phenomenon. The mental comparison hypothesis states that searching for multiple targets requires participants to make more mental comparisons between the targets and the distractors, which enhances distractor memory. The attention allocation hypothesis states that participants allocate more attention to distractors because a multiple-target search cue leads them to expect a more difficult search. Finally, the partial match hypothesis states that searching for multiple targets increases the amount of featural overlap between targets and distractors, which necessitates greater attention in order to reject each distractor. In two experiments, we examined these hypotheses by manipulating visual working memory (VWM) load and target-distractor similarity of AI-generated faces in a visual search (i.e., RSVP) task. Distractor similarity was manipulated using a multidimensional scaling model constructed from facial landmarks and other metadata of each face. In both experiments, distractors from multiple-target searches were recognized better than distractors from single-target searches. Experiment 2 additionally revealed that increased target-distractor similarity during search improved distractor recognition memory, consistent with the partial match hypothesis.
Faces are the most common biometric used for the identification of a person. Law enforcement agencies use face as a key point to identify the suspect involved in unlawful activities. Forensic sketches are normally developed by the sketch artist based on verbal details provided by an eyewitness about the suspect. In a forensic sketch, the facial description depends on the memory of the eyewitness; therefore, there is uncertainty in facial attributes. In the recent past, lots of sketch-to-photograph retrieval methods are proposed by many researchers; however, they have ignored the uncertainty of facial attributes for suspect face retrieval. Recently, linguistic information is also utilized for suspect face retrieval. In this paper, we have provided an extensive review of the available methods for suspect face retrieval using visual and linguistic information. The review focuses firstly on the traditional methods and their categorization also shows the evolution of suspect face retrieval approaches over the years. We have also shown the summary of the performance of representative state-of-the-art methods.
Full-text available
To test the hypothesis that the quality of an eyewitness's description of a face is useful for predicting the accuracy of a subsequent identification, 176 undergraduates were presented with pictures of 88 target faces. Ss were asked to rate the personality characteristics and to provide a description of the target; Ss were later required to identify the target from a set of 21 photographs. A significant point-biserial correlation between description accuracy and identification accuracy was found. This relationship was not due to a process wherein good describers were good identifiers, but to the fact that faces that were better described were better identified, a relationship that could not be tested in the designs of previous studies. The quality of an S's description of a given face did no better than did a 2nd S's description of that face in terms of predicting the former S's identification accuracy. Because the description–identification relationship was mediated by target factors rather than S characteristics, it is suggested that different assessments (e.g., of target-face uniqueness) could better predict identification accuracy. (19 ref)
The New Police Officer During the past twenty years the tasks required of police officers have expanded and changed with dramatic rapidi ty. The tradi tional roles of the police had been those of law enforcement and the maintenance of public order. As a consequence police officers were typically large-bodied males, selected for their physical abilities and trained to accept orders and enforce the law. Over the past two decades, however, the industrialized nations have placed a variety of new demands on police officers. To traditional law enforcement and public order tasks have been added social work, mental health duties, and cORllluni ty relations work. For example, domestic disputes, violence between husbands and wives, lovers, relatives, etc. , have increased in frequency and severity (or at least there has been a dramatic increase in reporting the occurence of domestic violence). Our societies have no formal system to deal with domestic disputes and the responsibility to do so, in most countries, has fallen to the police. In fact, in some areas as many as 607. of calls for service to the police are related to domestic disputes (see the chapter in this text by Dutton). As a result the police officer has had to become a skilled social worker, able to intervene with sensi ti vi ty in domestic situations. Alternatively, in the case of West Germany, the officer has had to learn to work co-operatively with social workers (see the chapter by Steinhilper).
This is the first volume that directly compares the practices of adversarial and inquisitorial systems of law from a psychological perspective. It aims at understanding why American and European continental systems differ so much, while both systems entertain much support in their communities. In the chapters it is demonstrated how the different systems chose different solutions for many of the same problems and how the solutions are related to the typical characteristics of the adversarial and the inquisitorial systems of criminal law. Particular emphasis is placed on problems addressed by psychological researchers and practitioners in the two systems. Chapters cover topics including: police investigative techniques, risk assessment, the death penalty, recovered memories, child witnesses, line-up practices, expert witnesses, trial procedures, and lay versus judge decision making. The book is written for advanced audiences in psychology and law.
Participants viewed either a violent, arousing film or a non-violent, control version of the same film. After viewing the film, they made three successive attempts to recall details of the event. Participants who were exposed to the negative emotional event were better than control participants at recalling details of the event itself, but they were worse at recalling details that preceded or followed the violence. Both groups of participants recalled significantly more information over successive recall attempts, suggesting that memory impairment due to arousal can be alleviated by repeated testing. Repeated testing was also associated with a small but reliable increase in memory intrusions. The implications of these findings for research on hypermnesia and on the relationship between arousal and memory are discussed. © 1998 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
Investigated the appropriateness of a Supreme Court guideline for the evaluation of eyewitness identification evidence that concerns the relationship between the accuracy of an eyewitness's description of a suspect and the witness's accuracy in his/her lineup decision. 120 undergraduates were exposed briefly to a target person and required to describe his physical characteristics. Later they were asked to identify the target person from a photograph lineup in which he was or was not present. Ss' certainty in their decision was also assessed. Results provide no support for the validity of the Supreme Court's guideline: There was no relationship between description and identification accuracy or between an S's description and the characteristics of the person identified (rightly or wrongly) from the lineup. When all Ss who identified someone from the lineup were combined, a substantial relationship between confidence and accuracy was found. Theoretical issues concerning the effects of differences between target persons and between witnessing conditions are discussed. (36 ref)