Car Crash Experiment

Just how valid are eye-witness testimonies? In 1974, it was tested by Elizabeth Loftus and John Palmer. The two psychologists set out to test if language can alter testimonies. There were two different experiments, both testing the same hypothesis.

Experiment One:

Forty-five students were asked to participate in a laboratory study in which they would be entered in one of five conditions. Each participant was to watch a film of a traffic accident provided to them, ranging in duration from 5 to 30 seconds. After watching the film, the participants were to describe what they witnessed. They were each asked a series of specific questions, with careful wording. The main focus question was “About how fast were the cars going when they ______ each other?” The blank represents where one of the five conditions would be placed. Each participant was asked that question but the missing verb could be any of the following: smashed, collided, bumped, hit, or contacted.

This was done to see if the change in the verb has an effect on the speed that the participants answered. Findings proved that the participants that were asked the question with the verb “smashed” reported that the cars were going faster than the participants who were asked with the verb “hit.”

Experiment Two:

145 students were shown a video of a car driving down a countryside and then in the last four seconds, the video showed a multiple car accident. After the video the students were asked questions about the film. 50 students were asked “how fast were the cars going when they hit each other?”, another 50 were asked the same questioned but the verb was replaced with “smashed”, similar to experiment one. The other 50 students weren’t asked any questions to serve as a control group.

One week after this setting, the students were asked to return and were asked if they saw broken glass in the accident scene. Results showed that the students who were originally asked the question with the verb “smashed” reported the broken glass twice as much as the students who were asked with the verb “hit.” The control group, which was not asked any questions, reported broken glass just as much as the group who were asked with the verb “hit.” Here are the results:

loftus results of experiment two

These studies cannot be exemplified as results of an actual eye-witness testimony due to the lack of a real traffic accident. Also, the participants are not considered general population because they were all students. However, these studies did prove that memory can be altered just by a change in a word, and that is pretty crazy if you ask me.

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2 thoughts on “Car Crash Experiment”

  1. We learned about this experiment in Psych 100 and I thought it was so interesting! No wonder so many people are falsely convicted. We in the US are unique in the way that we count on eyewitness accounts for crimes. Great blog post!

  2. Once again, what a cool experiment! I actually did a stat experiment in high school that had people read off words (that had hot/cold connotations) while looking at red or blue colors and the people looking at red had remembered more “hot” words.

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