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Can you see me now? Different races & familiar places

Wednesday, March 23, 2011
posted by Rita Handrich

Most of us know that eye-witnesses are simply notoriously inaccurate but there is some new work out there you should know about. First up, new information on cross-racial identification and then some intriguing information about familiar places and counter-intuitive errors.

Cross-racial identification:

There’s a large body of research on the inaccuracy of cross-racial identification.  Recently a New York task force advocated the standardization of police lineups and suspect photo arrays to cut down inaccurate identification. They made these recommendations following a review of the research on cross-racial identification:

In an examination of cross-racial identification errors in criminal cases, Cornell law professor Sheri Lynn Johnson in a 1984 paper listed a series of earlier laboratory studies showing the so-called “own-race phenomenon,” where recognition rates could differ by 30 percent. They showed whites were significantly less able to recognize black or Asian faces, with other studies showing somewhat similar results for blacks and Asians.

For those of us who have followed the research on mistakes in cross-racial identification—this is a very good idea. You can review the task force report here.

Familiarity breeds mistakes:

You would think that testifying about what happened in an area very familiar to you would be a piece of cake. But no!  The more familiar we are with a particular area (like a college campus, for example) the more biased (and inaccurate) we are about spatial memory. If you are more familiar with the northern area of your neighborhood or campus—you see the southern area as more distant and foreign than it actually is on a map.

We actually tend to be less biased (more objective) when we are newer to an area and more biased as our time spent increases (and therefore, as our familiarity grows). The researchers are not clear on how this bias occurs, but believe part of it occurs as you take on a “cultural identity” as, for example, a ‘northsider’ or a southsider’. This research has interesting implications for witness preparation as well as for the issue of how to make your client more like jurors.  You’ll probably hear more from us on this one.



Uttal DH, Friedman A, Hand LL, & Warren C (2010). Learning fine-grained and category information in navigable real-world space. Memory & cognition, 38 (8), 1026-40 PMID: 21156867

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