A Role for Theory in Eyewitness Identification Research

Authored by: Neil Brewer , Nathan Weber , Carolyn Semmler

Handbook of Eyewitness Psychology

Print publication date:  October  2006
Online publication date:  May  2014

Print ISBN: 9780805881073
eBook ISBN: 9781315805535
Adobe ISBN: 9781317777830

10.4324/9781315805535.ch9

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Abstract

For 20 to 30 years eyewitness identification research has been expanding, and, increasingly, it is providing a focus for researchers in cognitive, developmental, and social psychology. By relying on carefully controlled experimentation, often guided by observations from actual criminal cases (e.g., Kirby v. Illinois, 1972; People v. McDonald, 1984; United States v. Ash, 1973; United States v. Wade, 1967), this research has advanced our understanding of eyewitness fallibility and provided many useful practical guidelines for the conduct of eyewitness identification tests (Technical Working Group for Eyewitness Evidence, 1999). Many of the advances in the field have resulted from the fact that research has directly targeted specific practical issues (e.g., the nature of instructions given to witnesses prior to the identification test, the mode of presentation of lineup members at the identification test). Much less prominent, however, has been research that has been motivated primarily by the desire to refine our theories of identification decision processes. Here we endeavor to make the case that continued and meaningful practical developments will be most likely to occur if we can provide significant theoretical insights into key aspects of the identification decision process, and that this should be a major motivating factor in future research. A problem with the purely practically motivated approach is that research studies run the risk of being haphazard or uncoordinated, leading to one-off forays into the particular field of inquiry. In contrast, a theoretically based approach, which asks fundamental questions about the nature of the processes underlying eyewitness identification behavior, can provide a structure or integrative framework that should guide research toward a more satisfying conclusion. Although the latter approach sometimes conveys the impression that researchers are merely treading water when it comes to the development of practical applications, it is our belief that, ultimately, the most useful and powerful practical claims will derive from such an approach.

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