Identifying criminals: no biasing effect of criminal context on recalled threat

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McElvaney, TJ 
Mareschal, I 

To date, it is still unclear whether there is a systematic pattern in the errors made in eyewitness recall and whether certain features of a person are more likely to lead to false identification. Moreover, we also do not know the extent of systematic errors impacting identification of a person from their body rather than solely their face. To address this, based on the contextual model of eyewitness identification (CMEI; Osborne & Davies, 2014, Applied Cognitive Psychology, 28[3], 392-402), we hypothesized that having framed a target as a perpetrator of a violent crime, participants would recall that target person as appearing more like a stereotypical criminal (i.e., more threatening). In three separate experiments, participants were first presented with either no frame, a neutral frame, or a criminal frame (perpetrators of a violent crime) accompanying a target (either a face or body). Participants were then asked to identify the original target from a selection of people that varied in facial threat or body musculature. Contrary to our hypotheses, we found no evidence of bias. However, identification accuracy was highest for the most threatening target bodies high in musculature, as well as bodies paired with detailed neutral contextual information. Overall, these findings suggest that while no systematic bias exists in the recall of criminal bodies, the nature of the body itself and the context in which it is presented can significantly impact identification accuracy.

Context effects, Memory, Perception, Priming
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Memory and Cognition
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Psychonomic Society