Attribution of crime motives biases eyewitnesses’ memory and sentencing decisions

Deborah Hellmann, Amina Memon

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In court, the basic expectation is that eyewitness accounts are solely based on what the witness saw. Research on post-event influences has shown that this is not always the case and memory distortions are quite common. However, potential effects of an eyewitness’ attributions regarding a perpetrator’s crime motives have been widely neglected in this domain. In this paper, we present two experiments (N = 209) in which eyewitnesses were led to conclude that a perpetrator’s motives for a crime were either dispositional or situational. As expected, misinformation consistent with an eyewitness’ attribution of crime motives was typically falsely recognised as true whereas inconsistent misinformation was correctly rejected. Furthermore, a dispositional vs. situational attribution of crime motives resulted in more severe (mock) sentencing supporting previous research. The findings are discussed in the context of schema-consistent biases and the effect of attributions about character in a legal setting.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)957-976
Number of pages20
JournalPsychology, Crime and Law
Issue number10
Early online date30 Jun 2016
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 30 Jun 2016

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