Monitor archives:
Copyrighted material

Older Eyewitnesses May Be Unreliable, Study Says

by Karen Emerton

Crime Eyewitness Easily Swayed by Cops, Study Finds
New research shows that adult eyewitnesses over age sixty are more likely to make false choices when faced with a line up of suspects, particularly if they have already seen one of the faces in an earlier setting.

The new research at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland used videotaped simulated crime events followed by photo lineups. Delay between exposure to the event and identification of the subject varied from approximately 40 minutes to around 48 hours. "Our research was motivated by laboratory studies on the effects of aging on the ability of adults aged over 60 to accurately recognize the faces of strangers" says Dr Amina Memon, director of the research.

The first of the four studies looked at how participants were affected by seeing mug-shots before identification. Half of a group of both young and old witnesses were shown mug-shots before watching a video of a car theft.

"Although none of the mugshots actually showed the car thief, after a delay of 48 hours one of the innocent mug-shot faces was falsely picked out of an identification lineup," explains Dr Memon. "Prior exposure to mugshots increased false identifications of innocent people for both age groups with older adults making more false choices overall" she adds.

In another study, witnesses watched a video sequence where a man walked through a park and had a brief interaction with a young woman. A week later, participants were presented with a written account of the video either portraying the stranger in a positive or a negative light. "Some participants were given an account which described the stranger as innocently meeting the girl for a date whilst others were told the man had assaulted the young woman" says Dr. Memon. The positive story resulted in more positive statements about the stranger from all age groups.

However when older participants were asked to say whether or not the stranger was present in a photo identification parade the older group made more mistakes with those aged over 69 made 75 percent making more false choices. "Although there were no age differences in the ability to identify whether or not the stranger was actually present in the identification parade an age related increase in false choices was clearly evident in the much older group of participants."

Another study focused on 60 older adults to find out their identification abilities. Participants met a confederate during which they had the chance to chat to her and an hour later were asked to pick her out of an identification parade even though she was not in it. "87 percent of these older participants falsely identified a face from the lineup," says Dr. Memon. "This research seriously calls into question the age group used in identification parades and whether or not using mug-shots is actually helpful in identifying potential criminals."

Comments? Send a letter to the editor.

Albion Monitor March 16, 2002 (

All Rights Reserved.

Contact for permission to use in any format.