Rethinking the Reliability of Eyewitness Memory

John Wixted, Laura Mickes, Ronald Fisher

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Although certain pockets within the broad field of academic psychology have come to appreciate that eyewitness memory is more reliable than was once believed, the prevailing view, by far, is that eyewitness memory is unreliable – a blanket assessment that increasingly pervades the legal system. On the surface, this verdict seems unavoidable because (1) research convincingly shows that memory is malleable, and (2) eyewitness misidentifications are known to have played a role in most of the DNA exonerations of the innocent. However, we argue here that, like DNA evidence and other kinds of scientifically validated forensic evidence, eyewitness memory is reliable if it is not contaminated and if proper testing procedures are used. This conclusion applies to eyewitness memory broadly conceived, whether the test involves recognition (from a police lineup) or recall (during a police interview). From this perspective, eyewitness memory has been wrongfully convicted of mistakes that are better construed as having been committed by other actors in the legal system, not by the eyewitnesses themselves. Eyewitnesses typically provide reliable evidence on an initial, uncontaminated memory test, and this is true even for most of the wrongful convictions that were later reversed by DNA evidence.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)324-335
Number of pages12
JournalPerspectives on Psychological Science
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 2 May 2018

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