Academic journal article Law and Psychology Review

Intuitions about Arousal and Eyewitness Memory: Effects on Mock Jurors' Judgments

Academic journal article Law and Psychology Review

Intuitions about Arousal and Eyewitness Memory: Effects on Mock Jurors' Judgments

Article excerpt


On her way home from work, Barbara stops at a convenience store to pick up some milk and bread. While she is behind the bread rack, a man walks up to the cash register, pulls out a gun, and demands all the money. Barbara hides behind the bread rack, but she can still see what is happening. The cashier gives the thief the money, but the robber is displeased with the amount and shoots the cashier before leaving, without having seen Barbara. Barbara then runs over to check on the cashier and calls 911.

Most people would agree that Barbara just went through an emotionally arousing event. (1) When the police question her, will Barbara's account of the event be more or less accurate than if she had witnessed a less emotionally arousing event? This question could have serious ramifications, not only for police officers basing their search for the culprit on eyewitness accounts, but also for jurors determining the credibility of an eyewitness at trial because jurors place great emphasis on eyewitness testimony. (2) The influence of arousal on memory is of particular relevance to the inquiry of how jurors perceive eyewitnesses in view of the obvious stress involved in witnessing a crime and the complex nature of arousal's effects on memory. There are two central issues concerning jurors' reactions to eyewitness arousal: first, whether emotional arousal aids or hinders eyewitness memory; and second, what lay people (i.e., potential jurors) believe affects eyewitness performance, especially with respect to emotional arousal.

The purpose of this Article is to present experimental data on mock jurors' intuitions about eyewitness arousal and the relationship between those intuitions and their judgments in a simulated trial. Part I reviews prior literature about arousal's effects on eyewitness memory and people's intuitions regarding eyewitness performance. Parts II and III present the results of two jury simulation studies in which mock jurors evaluated the credibility of witnesses and the defendant's culpability in a robbery-murder case, where the key eyewitness was described as highly aroused or relatively unaroused. Part IV concludes with a discussion of the results' implications for the role of expert testimony on eyewitness reliability at trial.


There are two areas of research that are especially relevant to the present topic: facial identification literature findings on how arousal actually does affect eyewitness performance, (3) and findings from jury literature on jurors' naive expectations regarding eyewitness behavior and the relationship between those expectations and their trial-related judgments. (4)

A. Arousal's Effects on Eyewitness Performance

Considerable research has addressed the effects of witnessing an emotional event on memory. (5) Despite widespread belief in the veracity of memories for emotionally significant events, (6) most experts agree that arousal has a detrimental effect on eyewitness memory. (7) Indeed, stress-inducing stimuli have been found to impair eyewitnesses' ability to retrieve details of both an immediately preceding (8) and an immediately following event. (9)

Empirical data yields a picture that is quite complex, indicating that emotional arousal can either aid or hinder memory depending on a variety of factors, (10) Studies of eyewitnesses to real crimes have found that their memories of highly traumatic events may actually be highly accurate in many respects, (11) For example, Christianson and Hubinette interviewed 58 witnesses to actual bank robberies. (12) The results showed a high level of accuracy for details about the robbery itself, such as the robber's actions, clothing, and weapon. (13) On details about other aspects of the robber's appearance, such as footwear, hair, and eye color, as well as information about the specific circumstances of the robbery (e. …

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