Elizabeth Loftus has conducted many studies on eyewitness testimony
In 1974 she worked with John Palmer to look at the ways that memory
can be distorted. The studies general aim was to explore the accuracy
of memory after witnessing a car accident. In particular it was to
find out if leading questions distort the accuracy of eyewitness’s
immediate recall. It also aimed to see if it was true that people were
open to hints, as people are extremely bad at estimating the speed of
45 students were shown 7films of different traffic accidents. After
each film, participants were given a questionnaire asking them to
describe the accident and then answer a sequence of specific questions
about it. The questionnaire contained one critical question ‘about how
fast were the cars going when they hit each other’. This was given to
1 group of participants. The other 4 groups were given different verbs
to replace the word ‘hit’.
Loftus and Palmer found that the group given the verb ‘smashed’
estimated a higher speed than the other groups. The group given verb
‘contacted’ estimated a lower speed than the other groups.
This research study shows us that leading questions can effect the
accuracy of memory.
An additional explanation is that the shape of question actually
alters the participant’s memory account of the accident, which guides
them to give a higher or lower estimate.
One criticism of this study is that it is not true to life. A
laboratory experiment may not signify real life, as people may not
take the experiment seriously and/or they are not emotionally aroused
as they would be in a real life accident.
Another criticism of this study is that the experimental design may
have led to particular inevitable responses from participants. They
may feel unsure about what to do and how to behave, and therefore
would look for clues of what is expected from them.
In 1975 Loftus worked alone to conduct another study on EWT. She
showed participants a short video of 8 demonstrators delivering a
lecture. Participants were later given a questionnaire, containing the
critical question: ‘was the leader of the 4 (or 12) demonstrators a
male?’. one week later participants were asked several questions
including one about the number of demonstrators. Those who had been
asked about 4 demonstrators gave a mean answer of 6.4, while those
asked about 12 demonstrators gave a mean of 8.9. This further supports
the idea that post-event information effects following recall.
In 1974 Loftus described a fabricated case to 50 students. A man and
his granddaughter had been murdered during a robbery at a grocery
store. On the evidence presented just 9 students thought the suspect
was guilty. Yet, another group of 50 students was told that there was