Weapon Focus & Witness Reliability

When discussing the reliability of memory, one will frequently come across the research of Elizabeth Loftus, who has written extensively on the tendency for misinformation presented after the fact to distort the accuracy of later recall. A sample case presented in this summary by Loftus of memory distortion references multiple studies in which participants who were shown a video of a car accident can be misled to report having seen a yield sign when, in fact, there was a stop sign instead. This occurs because, in the window of time between the experience of an event and its retrieval from long-term memory, the witness is vulnerable to receiving new information about the event and incorporating that into their understanding of what actually happened. It is beneficial, of course, when the brain is given accurate feedback that helps it to contextualize and fill in details that may have been missed or partially forgotten, but it also leaves the door open for false memories. The process of recall is, to quote, ‘a highly constructive activity that gathers bits and pieces from other sources’, and it is precisely this activity that researchers are able to manipulate to ‘create’ the non-existent yield sign or, in perhaps a more popular example, increase participants’ estimates of a car’s speed in hindsight of an observed crash with leading questions and biased language.

Overall, Loftus identified a number of factors which influenced the likelihood of creating false memories, to include how long ago the event occurred, the age of the subject, the way that post-event information is presented, and certain elements of the nature of the event itself. This research has contributed appreciably to the treatment of eyewitness accounts in the judicial system as we now have a greater awareness of people’s tendencies to believe in and testify on memories that turn out to be counterfactual. For this entry, I intend to focus on a specific type of memory distortion known as weapon focus, which was also researched by Loftus. In essence, it is a tendency also connected to inattentional blindness in which someone who has witnessed a crime involving a weapon will vividly remember the weapon itself but may struggle to bring back other relevant information from the scene.

A 1987 research study by Loftus, Loftus, and Messo provided the first empirical evidence for weapon focus with an experiment in which subjects were shown a given set of eighteen slides in rapid succession. There were two possible scenes of an interaction between a cashier and a customer which were nearly identical, save for four slides in which the customer either presents a check to pay for a purchase or pulls a gun and is given money. The first piece of evidence came from eye movement tracking, where observers in the gun condition showed consistently more visual fixations on the gun and held their gaze for longer by comparison to subjects in the check condition. This should not be considered remarkable in and of itself; it’s hardly a stretch to assume that a gun would draw greater attention than something as contextually mundane as a paper check. The more compelling finding is that, when compared to the check condition, the gun had a significant negative impact on a viewer’s subsequent performance questions about the scene, and they were only able to correctly identify the actor from their scene 15% of the time from a twelve person line-up, compared to 35% in the control group. This shows that, contrary to popular belief, heightened awareness alone does not necessarily aid in better future recall. This result is consistent with other research into inattentional blindness, where unattended items in an individual’s visual field can be excluded from conscious processing despite being fully in view.

With discussion on this effect, the authors note that there are multiple potential explanations. In a 2007 study by Lorraine Hope and Daniel Wright, it was found that one key factor may be the emergence of unexpected stimuli. Hope and Wright provided volunteers with a similar scene to the previously mentioned study, but this time the man could be holding either a gun, an ordinary wallet, or a brightly colored feather duster, which is notably unusual but also non-threatening. Here, the unusual object condition showed comparable mental processing demand for subjects, although participants in the weapon condition still performed worse in contrast to the other two groups on both accuracy and confidence of recall for aspects of the scene not directly related to the object itself.

Another study by Kerri Pickel offers two more experiments related to context in which a gun is presented either at a baseball field or at a shooting range, then held either by a police officer or by a priest. In both trials, the weapon effect was only demonstrated in cases where a gun was unexpected and not when the presence of a gun could be reasonably anticipated based on prior knowledge. Importantly, when participants were asked to provide a qualitative threat assessment to the scene they viewed, there was no statistically significant impact of higher threat levels on the effects of weapon focus. In combination with the aforementioned study, it would seem that the context hypothesis is better supported by academic literature on the subject, although, with regards to the former, it may not be the only contributing factor. Other general attributes of unreliable witness memory, as discussed at the top of this post, are also considered likely contributors to the phenomenon.

1 thought on “Weapon Focus & Witness Reliability

  1. caycay20

    First I would like to say that this post is very interesting and ties into what we are now talking about in class perfectly! It was also great that you brought in multiple studies on this matter because that only broadens and let you think about different perspectives on the topic. Additionally, I like that you added that “heightened awareness alone does not necessarily aid in better future recall”. This takes into account the may different ways that our brain preforms under situations of duress. That the brain is rather excluding certain items from our conscious so that we can focus more on immediate danger or threat at hand, i.e. a gun in a persons hand rather than the actual identification of the person with the gun. Also, I feel like I can somewhat connect to because it is relevant to the career field that I want to go into, Forensic Psychology. Forensic Psychologist do many things but more particularly they aid law enforcement to convict the guilty. As I go into my career it would be my job to deal with situations like the ones you mentioned with false memory and misinformation effects. More specifically, dealing with the credibility of eyewitnesses and with criminals. So this study was right up my ally!

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