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Nearly 2,000 witnesses can be wrong


A mock crime, a mugging and purse snatch, was staged as representative of the usually difficult observation conditions present in crime situations. The film was shown on a television newscast and to small audiences under more controlled conditions. A few moments after the crime, witnesses were shown a lineup and asked to identify the culprit. Of the television respondents, 74% attempted an identification; only 19% were correct (n.s.). The film audience witnesses were only slightly better (24.8%) than chance (p <.05). Analyses of recalled descriptions showed that most witnesses had seen and recalled very little of the culprit’s features, but they were motivated by the demand of the lineup situation to try to identify anyway.

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The author wishes to thank Molly Sidi, WNBC-TV, New York, for her fine imaginative presentation of the documentary film of which this study became a part. I am also grateful to the fine team of undergraduate students from Brooklyn College who acted in, showed, analyzed, and helped to think through the many elements of our research program on the eyewitness. Support for this research was provided in part by Faculty Research Award Program of the City University of New York. A brief write-up about Study 1 appeared in Social Action and the Law, 1975, 2(3). The entire report, with supporting data, additional tables, forms, and instructions, will be available as Center for Responsive Psychology Monograph No. CR- 22, 1980, Brooklyn College, Brooklyn, New York 11210. Reprints of this article and CR-22 can be obtained by writing to the author at the Center for Responsive Psychology, Brooklyn College, Brooklyn, New York, 11210.

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Buckhout, R. Nearly 2,000 witnesses can be wrong. Bull. Psychon. Soc. 16, 307–310 (1980).

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  • Eyewitness Identification
  • Television Viewer
  • Eyewitness Testimony
  • Brooklyn College
  • Choice Number