The role of estimator variables in eyewitness identification

Carolyn Semmler, John Dunn, Laura Mickes, John Wixted

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Estimator variables are factors that can affect the accuracy of eyewitness identifications but that are outside of the control of the criminal justice system. Examples include (1) the duration of exposure to the perpetrator, (2) the passage of time between the crime and the identification (retention interval), (3) the distance between the witness and the perpetrator at the time of the crime. Suboptimal estimator variables (e.g., long distance) have long been thought to reduce the reliability of eyewitness identifications (IDs), but recent evidence suggests that this is not true of IDs made with high confidence and may or may not be true of IDs made with lower confidence. The evidence suggests that while suboptimal estimator variables decrease discriminability (i.e., the ability to distinguish innocent from guilty suspects), they do not decrease the reliability of IDs made with high confidence. Such findings are inconsistent with the longstanding “optimality hypothesis” and therefore require a new theoretical framework. Here, we propose that a signal-detection-based likelihood ratio account – which has long been a mainstay of basic theories of recognition memory – naturally accounts for these findings.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)400-415
Number of pages16
JournalJournal of Experimental Psychology: Applied
Issue number3
Early online date1 Feb 2018
Publication statusPublished - Sept 2018

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