Author Archives: jmt5790

How reliable is “eyewitness” testimony?

According to The Innocence Project, when looking at their first 325 DNA exonerations, nearly three-quarters (72%) of the wrongful conviction cases were due to eyewitness misidentification. A scary thought. In the latter part of 2011, the New Jersey Supreme Court joined a growing list of institutions who were calling into question the use of eyewitness identification in criminal trials. The unanimously passed ruling by the New Jersey court noted that this type of evidence suffered from a “troubling lack of reliability” and called for the revision of the tests used to measure eyewitness reliability. The issue was taken up by the United States Supreme Court in November 2011.

The New Jersey court’s decision was based on recent scientific studies and was brought on by the 2004 case of Larry Henderson. Convicted of manslaughter, Henderson’s lawyers later argued that police involved in the investigation exploited the flawed memories of witnesses through suggestibility by influencing identification efforts with subtle suggestions aimed at leading witnesses towards falsely identifying Henderson as the killer. The ruling by the New Jersey court is a recognition of the fact that our memories are not videotaped playbacks of the past. In fact, memory is easily influenced and therefore fallible.

There are many factors that make eyewitness testimony far from fail-safe. Suggestibility which I mentioned previously is one of the most concerning. Identifying faces is already a difficult task. The difficulty increases when the high emotions present during crimes influences what an individual pays attention to. Our emotions narrow our range of attention, perhaps most notably by causing witnesses to crimes focus on any weapons rather than assailant’s faces.

Familiarity with faces can also lead to errors, as already distracted witnesses can sometimes identify someone merely because they are familiar with the individuals face but cannot remember the correct source of their familiarity – also called source monitoring. Being questioned after witnessing a crime can also be problematic because reactivating one’s memory of an event makes it easier to influence and create false memories.

In order to ward off any of these errors, a number of actions have been proposed to help maintain the integrity of eyewitness testimony. Notifying witnesses that they perpetrator may not be in the lineup, using similar looking people in lineups, presenting each individual in a lineup one at a time, making sure that the officer administering the lineup does not know who the suspect is, and lastly, developing effective interview techniques such as the cognitive interview which was created to facilitate memory retrieval. These suggestions are based on psychological research.

Going back to the court’s ruling, in 2012, the US Supreme Court did find in favor of law enforcement agencies when it decided to back eyewitness identification in an 8-1 ruling. Still, Justice Ginsberg again iterated the importance of guarding against suggestibility during eyewitness testimony both by putting in place the safeguards mentioned previously as well as through ensuring proper police conduct.



Goldstein, E. B. (2011). Cognitive Psychology: Connecting Mind, Research, and Everyday Experience. Wadsworth: Belmont, CA.

Mears, B. (2012, Jan 11). Supreme Court backs eyewitness identification with 8-1 ruling. CNN. Retrieved from

Spoto, M. (2011, March 28). Camden manslaughter case has N.J. Supreme Court questioning reliability of witness identifications. Retrieved from

The Causes of Wrongful Conviction. (n.d.) The Innocence Project. Retrieved from



More Tests Please!

In preparation for our recent midterm, I did what your average college student does: I crammed the day before and attempted to essentially parrot back the information for the test. And as is also typically the case, I did a mediocre job. But over the course of the midterm, I was struck by how much information one needed to remember and understand in order to pass this cumulative examination of the first half of the course. It seemed, frankly, somewhat unreasonable, particularly for online students. Without the benefit of a professor to visually and verbally engage me in a complex topic that I only have a vague understanding of, the task seemed a bit overwhelming. Additionally, knowing that my midterm score would dramatically change my overall grade if I did not perform well caused me a fair degree of stress.

With all of this in mind, I was intrigued by the notion of the “testing effect”. According to our Lesson 8 commentary, the testing effect suggests that frequent testing would improve our performance due to the increased opportunities to practice retrieving information. In a 2014 piece for The Atlantic, Jessica Lahey explores research on this topic. Henry Roediger , a cognitive psychologist at Washington University asserts that the type of tests used on students comes into play when attempting to maximize their understanding and retention of material. So-called “summative” tests such as the SAT’s and standardized tests fail to teach while being taken, focusing instead on measuring students’ sum total abilities at a particular time. Instead, Roediger promotes the frequent use of “formative” tests throughout the course of the class in order to “reveal gaps and foster active, continuous engagement in the material”. Formative testing allows educators to monitor student progress and adapt accordingly. Meanwhile, students are able to identify areas of strength and target weaknesses.

The theory behind continuous formative testing is in fact the testing effect – information that is repeatedly tested is more likely to be recalled. Roediger posits that students who are tested frequently must remain more engaged, knowing that there is, for instance, a weekly exam. The information these students are learning is thus processed more deeply and with frequent testing, becomes encoded in their long-term memory for longer periods of time. To contrast, cramming information for midterm and final exams usually does not allow for contemplation on the meaning of to-be-remembered information and therefore is no strategy for ensuring the long-term storage of knowledge – crammed information is typically quickly forgotten.

It seems almost sacrilegious to promote the use of frequent testing as a student. However, for courses that require the absorption of complex information, and especially in an online schooling environment where so much time is spent just reading and attempting to comprehend on one’s own – I am an advocate of any method that could help me increase my understanding and performance.


Lahey, Jessica. (21 January 2014). Students Should Be Tested More, Not Less. The    Atlantic. Retrieved from be-tested-more-not-less/283195/

Pennsylvania State University World Campus. (2015). Psychology 256. Lesson 8: Long-Term Memory: Encoding and Retrieval. Retrieved from




Is our perception colored by our emotions?

New research on the association between color and emotion is aiming to broaden the notion of “top-down” cognitive processing. Goldstein (2011) describes top-down processing as information processing that begins with a person’s “prior knowledge or expectations” (p. 52). This knowledge combines with information gained from the “stimulation of receptors by stimuli from the environment” (“bottom-up processing”) and forms our perception of any given situation (p. 50). A study from the University of Rochester in New York led by Christopher Thornstenson appears to show that feeling sad can inhibit our ability to perceive the color blue (Kaplan, 2015). Conversely, researchers from North Dakota State University report that individuals with hostile personalities show a preference for the color red over blue (Dobson, 2014). Both studies conclude that our moods and emotions can literally “color” our perception of our environment.

Intrigued by the frequency with which colors or color-based phrases (“feeling blue” or “seeing red”) are used to express one’s mood, Thorstenson and team decided to explore whether these metaphors reflected an actual connection between our moods and perceptions of color. Participants in their study were exposed to stimuli intended to induce feelings of sadness, cheerfulness, or impartiality. The “impartial” group was shown a neutral screensaver while the “cheerful” group watched a stand-up comedy routine. Participants in the “sad” group were shown the scene from Disney’s The Lion King in which Mufasa is killed and Simba tearfully tries to wake him. The scene has been scientifically proven in numerous psychological studies to induce feelings of sadness (Kaplan, 2015).

After viewing their respective clips each group was shown color swatches that were so washed out, they appeared nearly grey. Neither the “neutral” nor “cheerful” groups had any issues discerning different colors in the swatches. The “sad” group, however, had difficulty distinguishing colors on the blue-yellow axis. (The eye’s color encoding matrix has two axes: red-green and blue-yellow. The eye ranks light and sorts it into what we perceive as colors.) The significance, according to Kaplan, is that “only blue-yellow perception was affected, and only among the sad group”(2015). Thornstenson cites the belief of many psychologists that the blue-yellow axis is linked to dopamine, “a neurotransmitter that helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure centers” (Psychology Today, n.d.). Thus, findings of his study suggest that sadness affects dopamine’s ability to transmit visual information about blue and yellow light (Kaplan, 2015).

Participants in North Dakota State University’s study were given personality tests to determine where they ranked for hostility. They were then given a test similar to Thornstenson’s where they needed to identify colors on washed-out swatches or images that were neither fully blue nor red. Those with hostile personalities were much more likely to see the color red and, of those who saw red, were more likely to inflict harm on others when presented with imaginary situations. Researchers for the study attribute the connection to an evolutionary need to identify danger – an association they say is shared across all cultures. From facial flushing to wounds and blood, the color red signals hostility and potential danger. Scientists in the study conclude that, “colour can convey psychological meaning and, therefore, is not merely a matter of aesthetics” (Dobson, 2014).

The idea of top-down processing is still under debate. In a recent study from Yale, authors Firestone and Scholl (2015) assert that, “none of these hundreds of studies – either individually or collectively – provide compelling evidence for true top-down effects on perception”. Thornstenson, however, remains convinced, saying, “Our results show that mood and emotion can affect how we see the world around us” (Kaplan, 2015). In any case, these studies showcase the complex and perhaps subjective ways in which we experience our world.





Dobson, R. (2014, March 16). Seeing red: It’s not just an expression for angry people, but also scientific fact. The Independent. Retrieved from         expression-for-angry-people-but-also-scientific-fact-9194815.html

Firestone, C., & Scholl, B. J. (accepted target article for peer commentary). Cognition does not affect perception: Evaluating the evidence for ‘top-down’ effects. Behavioral and Brain Sciences. Yale University. Retrieved from

Goldstein, E. B. (2011). Cognitive Psychology: Connecting Mind, Research, and Everyday Experience. (3rd ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Kaplan, S. (2015, September 12). Blue moods may be connected to our perception of the colour. The Guardian. Retrieved from      blue-perception

Psychology Today. (n.d.) What is Dopamine? Retrieved from