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Eye witness identification is notoriously inaccurate, but some researchers are figuring out ways to make it better. We have brought you information about how you can increase the accuracy of witness recall through the simple act of having a witness close their eyes. And now we learn that you can increase the accuracy of eye witness IDs by simply forcing eye witnesses to respond quickly.

Researchers tested a “radical alternative” to traditional police lineups. Participants were both college students and community members (with an age range of 16 to 60 years across three different experiments). Rather than a lineup with multiple suspects to consider, researchers showed photos of individual suspects in a sequential presentation. According to the researchers, past research shows that strong memories are accessed more rapidly than weak ones and accurate eyewitness IDs are made much more quickly than inaccurate identifications.

Participants viewed a series of 12 lineup photos (although they did not know how many they would view) and were asked to identify a crime perpetrator from a video they had watched either immediately prior to the lineup presentation or a week earlier. (The two conditions were employed to see if the delay in seeing a lineup would affect accuracy in identification.)

The researchers asked participants to do two things:

First, the participants rated their confidence in the correctness of their “match” between the culprit and each lineup member (with a scoring system that ranged from total uncertainty to 100% certainty). Control participants answered a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ about whether the photograph depicted the perpetrator.

Second, the participants in the experimental condition had to perform the matching process with “severe time constraints” (a three second time limit). Control participants viewed the photo and then selected ‘yes’ or ‘no’ without the three second time constraint.

Consistent with past research, the researchers found a higher level of accuracy (66% more accurate by the final experiment) in those participants asked to decide quickly whether the photograph was indeed the perpetrator. The more certain the participant was of the match, the more accurate they were.

This is important research in terms of improving eye witness accuracy. As the researchers point out, it is a radical change from current procedures–and thus more research is needed. Should the increase in accuracy be replicated, this could be a much more accurate way to assess eye witness identification and therefore reduce wrongful convictions.

Brewer, N., Weber, N., & Wootton, D. (2012). Identifying the bad guy in a lineup using deadlined confidence judgments. Psychological Science.

The ABA Blawg 100 is again seeking nominations for inclusion in their Top 100 list of blogs. If you find us interesting, thoughtful, provocative, or useful–please consider filling out their nomination form hereThe deadline for nominations is September 7th, 2012 so do it now! Thanks. 


Comments Off on Think fast! Is this the perpetrator? How certain are you?

Lying makes me sick!

Wednesday, August 29, 2012
posted by Douglas Keene

You may be sick and tired of people lying, but it seems that your own lies are making you sick and tired as well. None of us like to be lied to and yet, most of us lie routinely [about 11 times a week according to these researchers]. We justify our bad behavior of course. We have reasons for not telling the truth. But when others lie to us–they are simply bad people. And we don’t like it. So here’s the best reason we’ve seen to curb that impulse to shade the truth: if you lie, you could die–or at least suffer a bit.

Researchers tracked the health of 110 adults for 10 weeks. Half the participants were asked to stop lying during the ten weeks (defined as no false statements although they could still omit the truth, keep secrets and dodge questions they did not wish to answer).  The other half were not given any instructions on lying. All the participants took lie detector tests weekly, reported the number of fibs they told each week, and completed questionnaires about their physical and mental health and the quality of their relationships.

“Over the course of 10 weeks, the link between less lying and improved health was significantly stronger for participants in the no-lie group, the study found. For example, when participants in the no-lie group told three fewer white lies than they did in other weeks, they experienced on average about four fewer mental-health complaints, such as feeling tense or melancholy, and about three fewer physical complaints, such as sore throats and headaches, the study found. In contrast, when control group members told three fewer white lies, they experienced two fewer mental-health complaints and about one less physical complaint. The pattern was similar for major lies, Kelly said.”

So even though all of us lie, it makes us sick! Mentally and physically and it damages our relationships. That’s a pretty good motivator to work harder to tell the truth. We would point out that the research definition of “lying” is pretty flexible. You can still deflect, omit, dodge and yet, reap the health benefits! The researchers caution that the process of monitoring and reducing lies is certainly not an easy thing. They say most study participants were only able to pare down their lies to once a week. Most of the participants reported they stopped exaggerating their day-to-day accomplishments, dropped untruthful excuses and told partial truths instead.

The easiest way to stop lying is to choose to affiliate with those who encourage you to be truthful rather than telling you it’s okay to lie. It’s a good goal to attempt: living a life without lies. And who knows? It may help you live longer.

APA Conference 2012 presentation: “A Life Without Lies: How Living Honestly Can Affect Health,” Anita E Kelly, Session 3189, 12 to 12:50 p.m., Saturday, Aug. 4, Room W303C, Level III, Orange County Convention Center.



You’ve probably seen those movies where the paranoid killer believes the TV is speaking to him (it’s usually a man) directly. Well, this isn’t like that. This one is true. Researchers in the Netherlands are actually doing research on my tendency to get lost once I leave my cul de sac.

My lack of directional capability is well-known to those around me. GPS changed my life. No longer do I drive gripped with fear that I am horribly lost and will not make it to my destination in a timely fashion. Now, if I make a wrong turn, my GPS calmly (although it does seem sometimes to be a little irritated) says “make a U-turn if possible” and so I do. I was, therefore, only mildly taken aback to discover this new research on the “ability” to lose your car in the parking lot.

For a succinct description of the findings, here is the [edited] abstract:

The present study investigated qualitative aspects of spatial memory for the parking place of one’s car during an incidental visit to a shopping mall. A total of 115 participants (59 men and 56 women, age range: 19–85 years) performed a number of short tests, designed to measure several aspects of applied spatial memory, prior to leaving a shopping mall in order to return to their car. 

Gender differences were observed on two aspects of spatial memory. First, women reported more landmarks in their route descriptions than men, whereas men used metric terms more often than women. 

Second, men outperformed women with respect to estimating the distance to their car. A main effect of age was observed for map location reconstruction: Older participants had more difficulty in relocating their car on a map. 

Apparently, the researchers stopped people from leaving the shopping mall and asked them to participate in the study. And they found that women performed less well. Older people also had more difficulty (this does not auger well for me.) However, most people eventually made it home, with only 14% (yes, mostly women) making substantial detours.

And here’s an interesting comment from the article itself: “50% of the participants reported to have encountered rare to quite frequent lapses in memory for their car’s location.”  (This is reassuring to me.) And this technological tool is also new to me: “A strategic tool involved the use of an electronic coding device which stores the coordinates of the parked location and can guide the owner back by a digital compass.” 

It’s akin to the recent post here on prospective memory (forgetting to remember). Those of us who have spatial difficulties use a variety of strategies to avoid losing our car in the parking lot:

Fix the parking space in your mind in relation to the door you are about to enter. [In the research study, men tended to focus on distance to the door and women on landmarks to help find the general location of the car.]

Note what is displayed by the door you enter so that you can readily find your way back to the vehicle. [Researchers referred to this strategy as ‘retracing your route’.]

If all else fails, use your key fob to set off the panic alarm on your car and let your car ‘tell’ you, where it is parked. [Oddly, the researchers did not report use of this strategy. Perhaps the participants were self-conscious and did not want to let the researchers know they were truly lost. This would explain the 14% of “substantial detours”.]

It’s all about memory cues and technology. Whether it’s prospective memory or spatial memory–memory cues and technology advances can make our forays out into the world easier and less anxiety provoking. Such a good thing.

…Or absent a good mental strategy, you can download a helpful app to your smartphone, or get a clever device that helps even when your phone GPS signal is weak.

Postma, A., Van Oers, M., Back, F., & Plukaard, S. (2012). Losing your car in the parking lot: Spatial memory in the real world. Applied Cognitive Psychology DOI: 10.1002/acp.2844



Got an upcoming trial and a psychopath for a client? First, please accept our sincere condolences. “Then go to Neurolaw in terms of causation and your client gets a lesser sentence (and returns to society faster)”.

Time Magazine has done a thorough writeup on the study and all the various conditions the researchers built in to assess the impact of specific information about psychopathy on 200 trial judges across the country.

Essentially, what the researchers did was to explore whether judges would punish psychopaths less severely if their behavior was blamed on genetic brain differences. And, they also wondered if these judges would instead punish more severely due to the high rate of recidivism we see in psychopaths. The answer to both questions is yes. They punish more severely and they punish less severely. We accept your thanks for clearing this up for you.  Ahem…

Researchers presented one of four versions of the hypothetical case to 181 judges in 19 states. In all versions, judges read scientific evidence that the convicted criminal was a psychopath and what that meant, namely that psychopathy is incurable. Half of the judges also received expert testimony on the genetic and neurobiological causes of the criminal behavior, presented either by the defense as a mitigating factor, or by the prosecution, which argued that it should increase the convict’s sentence. The other judges got no mention of the idea that biological differences in the convict’s brain could have caused his behavior. Researchers controlled for the fact that different states have different sentencing laws.

The judges who were given a biological explanation for the convict’s psychopathy issued shorter sentences, but notably, all judges committed the criminal to significantly more prison time than their average nine years for aggravated battery. And while all judges viewed psychopathy as an aggravating factor in sentencing, the judges who heard evidence about the genetic and neurobiological causes of the condition from the defense reported viewing it as less aggravating. Nearly 9 in 10 judges listed at least one aggravating factor in their reasoning for their sentence, but when they heard the expert testimony from the defense, the percentage of judges who also listed mitigating factors rose from 30% to 66%. And judges who received this evidence were 2.5 times more likely than other judges to report actually having weighed aggravating versus mitigating factors in deciding their sentence.

“The judges did not let the defendant off,” said lead author Lisa Aspinwall of the University of Utah in a statement. “They just reduced the sentence and showed major changes in the quality of their reasoning.” The researchers noted that they were surprised the judges reduced their sentencing at all, considering that they were dealing with psychopaths who are in general a highly unsympathetic bunch.”

The results are intriguing. Even though we can be educated about realities of how the psychopath is hardwired differently and feels no empathy for their victim–we still feel a twinge of sympathy when we hear it isn’t something they cannot help. “His brain made him do it.” It is as though we are impressed by neurolaw explanations but don’t really realize how much it impresses us–even when “we” are a judge. We’ve written about real cases where neurolaw explanations for behavior worked to result in acquittals and those where the jurors simply didn’t buy it. It’s a fascinating area of emerging law.

The good news is that the judges in this study all chose to levy a sentence harsher than that demanded by aggravated battery. The disconcerting news is that when you hear mitigating evidence presented by the defense attorney, you are likely to cut the defendant some slack– even when you are a judge. It will be intriguing to watch how neurolaw explanations continue to affect more naive dispensers of justice: the jurors.

Aspinwall LG, Brown TR, & Tabery J (2012). The double-edged sword: does biomechanism increase or decrease judges’ sentencing of psychopaths? Science (New York, N.Y.), 337 (6096), 846-9 PMID: 22904010



This story isn’t actually about money. We’ve written a fair amount about American bias against Asians. And we’re not alone. Friendly and liberal Canada appears to have the same issues with Asian Canadians.

Apparently, the Bank of Canada was using focus groups to “test” their new $100 banknotes prior to release. The image on the banknote was an “Asian-looking woman scientist”. And much like our mock jurors, the focus group participants went down a rabbit trail. This particular rabbit trail was ethnicity-based. Multiculturalism hit a wall.

Here are some of the comments from the focus group participants. The comments are characterized in the report, rather than quoted, and appear to have been “sanitized” for presentation to the Bank of Canada.

“Some believe that it presents a stereotype of Asians excelling in technology and/or the sciences. Others feel that an Asian should not be the only ethnicity represented on the banknotes. Other ethnicities should also be shown.”

A few even said the yellow-brown color of the $100 banknote reinforced the perception that the woman was Asian, and “racialized” the note. 

“The person on it appears to be of Asian descent which doesn’t rep(resent) Canada. It is fairly ugly.”

Apparently there were also concerns that the Asian woman was on such a large denomination of banknote ($100) rather than on a smaller and less valuable banknote. Wow. So. The Bank of Canada went back to the drawing board and “neutralized” the woman’s ethnicity. In other words, they made her look Caucasian.

Asian Canadians are insulted and hurt. There are comments that the Bank of Canada’s decision to “neutralize her ethnicity” amounts to an overly sensitive reaction to racist comments and the Bank is being criticized for not standing by the original design. Not surprisingly, the bank isn’t commenting on the controversy.

Ethnocentrism is everywhere. It’s all of us. This real-life tale serves as further evidence that when we see people “different” than us, we unconsciously reject the person by finding excuses to reject them for reasons unrelated to any salient issue before us. It’s a powerful lesson we often learn about (and often in very disturbing detail) in pretrial research.

It doesn’t really matter if the issue is gender, age, ethnicity, religious predilection, sexual orientation, disability status or whatever difference. Differences tend to divide. Our task is to identify how the specific case “divides” and figure out how to refocus attention on similarities despite differences and thereby reduce bias. Ultimately, the “different” person needs to become familiar for us to be comfortable.