Sociology 2234E Lecture Notes - Eyewitness Identification, Socioeconomic Status, Leading Question
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Unit 16: Social Psychology of Justice and Law
The Canadian Justice System
The Canadian justice system consists of:
o Civil Law, whereby one party brings a complaint against another for violating the former‟s rights
in some way.
o Criminal Law, whereby someone commits a crime and the police arrest a suspect.
The crown attorney's office decides whether there is enough evidence to press formal charges.
Factors Involving the Scene
o Time (day vs. night)
o Presence of others
Factors Involving the (alleged) Perpetrator
o Socioeconomic status
o Race / Ethnicity
o Character / Personality
Factors Involving the Witnesses
o Acquisition of information
o Storage of information
o Retrieval of information
The accuracy of eye-witness identification depends on the viewing conditions at the time the vcrime
Research shows that most jurors believe witnesses can correctly identify the criminal, even when
viewing conditions are poor (see Figure SPA3.1)
o Eyewitness testimonies are responsible for more wrongful conviction than all other causes
Acquisition - the process by which people notice and pay attention to information in the environment.
o People can acquire only a subset of the information available in the environment
o The more stress people are under the worse their memories are – more difficult to make an
Storage - the process by which people hold in memory the information they have acquired from the
o Reconstructive Memory: the process whereby memories for an event become distorted by
information encountered after the event has occurred
Can change our memory of the event
The way police/lawyers question witnesses can change reports about what they saw – asking
misleading questions, etc.
o Source Monitoring: the process whereby people try to identify the source of their memories
People often become mixed up about where they saw or heard something
Eyewitnesses whoa re asked misleading questions often report seeing things that were not
Retrieval - the process by which people recall information stored in their memory
Why Are Eyewitnesses Often Wrong?
To be an accurate eyewitness, a person must successfully complete three stages of memory
processing – there are sources of error at each of the three levels (Fig. SPA3.2)
Own Race bias suggest that people are better at recognizing faces of their own race than those of
o People have more contact with members of their own race
o We pay more attention to the individuating features of being of our own race
Judging Whether Eyewitnesses are Mistaken
Research (Dunning & Stern,1994) about the accuracy of witnesses showed:
o Accurate witnesses say that they didn‟t really know how they recognized the man, that his face
just „popped out‟ at them.
o Inaccurate witnesses say that they used a process of elimination whereby they deliberately
compared one face to another.
Can Eyewitness Testimony be Improved?
A cognitive interview is a technique whereby a trained interviewer tries to improve eyewitnesses‟
memories by focusing their attention on the details and context of the event.
The cognitive interview has not been found to be any better than hypnosis, and it might increase
errors, especially in children.
Recovered memories are recollections of an event, such as sexual abuse, that have been forgotten or
The false memory syndrome is remembering a past traumatic experience that is objectively false but
nevertheless accepted as true.
Attributions police make of alleged perpetrators
Interrogation and suggestibility
The police line-up-do's and don't
Lie detection and the role of polygraph tests
Tunnel Vision: a situation where the police become convinced of the guilt of a particular suspect, and
ignore other legitimate avenues of investigation
o Focus on evidence that implicates the suspect, while discounting evidence that may indicate their
o Occurs most when there is a high level of public pressure on the police to secure a suspect
o May tend to focus on an individual in the area who is known to have a prior criminal record
Interrogation and suggestibility
o Interrogators are highly trained in the psychological tactics of social influence.
o Most exploit certain weaknesses in human nature. These weaknesses rely on the stress that
results when people experience contrasting extremes, like dominance and submission, control
and dependence, and the maximization and minimization of consequences
o With a few exceptions, the police are allowed to lie to a suspect to get him to confess.
The belief is that an innocent person would never confess to a crime she didn't commit, even
if she were confronted with false physical evidence.
Unfortunately, that's not always the case