60-Second Mind

Improving Eyewitness Accuracy in Police Lineups

Making decisions faster may improve the accuracy of choosing the guilty person from a police lineup. Christie Nicholson reports

Ronald Cotton went to prison for rape. The victim picked him from a lineup convinced she was accurate. She picked him again years later when his case was reopened. This second lineup included the actual rapist. After 11 years behind bars, Cotton was later exonerated by DNA evidence.

Experts say that the current lineup format pressures witnesses to identify a suspect, even when they lack confidence. So researchers are trying to improve the accuracy of such identifications.

One recent study had more than 900 participants watch a short film of a staged? crime. Up to a week after watching the film, the viewers looked at photos of suspects one at a time, and rated how confident they were about each one’s guilt.  

Half of the participants could take as long as they wanted to look at the photos. The other half had to decide within a few seconds. And the fast group was up to 66 percent more accurate.  The study is in the Journal of Psychological Science.

Strong memories are accessed more quickly than weak memories, which may explain why choosing fast tends to mean choosing right. Another factor that’s putting the standard police lineup itself on trial.

—Christie Nicholson

[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]

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