Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Speaking Is Silver, Writing Is Golden? the Role of Cognitive and Social Factors in Written versus Spoken Witness Accounts

Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Speaking Is Silver, Writing Is Golden? the Role of Cognitive and Social Factors in Written versus Spoken Witness Accounts

Article excerpt

Published online: 7 March 2014

# Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2014

Abstract Contradictory empirical findings and theoretical accounts exist that are in favor of either a written or a spoken superiority effect. In this article, we present two experiments that put the recall modality effect in the context of eyewitness reports to another test. More specifically, we investigated the role of cognitive and social factors in the effect. In both experiments, participants watched a videotaped staged crime and then gave spoken or written accounts of the event and the people involved. In Experiment 1, 135 participants were assigned to written, spoken-videotaped, spoken-distracted, or spoken-voice recorded conditions to test for the impact of cognitive demand and social factors in the form of interviewer presence. Experiment 2 (N = 124) tested the idea that instruction comprehensiveness differentially impacts recall performance in written versus spoken accounts. While there was no evidence for a spoken superiority effect, we found some support for a written superiority effect for description quantity, but not accuracy. Furthermore, any differences found in description quantity as a function of recall modality could be traced back to participants' free reports. Following up with cued open-ended questions compensated for this effect, although at the expense of description accuracy. This suggests that current police practice of arbitrarily obtaining written or spoken accounts is mostly unproblematic.

Keywords Eyewitness testimony . Recall modality . Recall instructions . Interviewer presence . Cognitive load

While silence is certainly not golden when it comes to obtaining eyewitness evidence, the question of whether a witness should preferably speak or write when testifying is a more difficult one. When the police obtain information from eyewitnesses, they can ask for a written description of the course of events and the perpetrators, or they can conduct a personal investigative interview. It appears that the modality of an eyewitness report depends on the seriousness of the crime and the importance of a witness for the case, with proceedings in civil cases often requiring written accounts and more serious crimes predominantly involving oral police interviews (Sauerland & Sporer, 2011). The literature on modality effects in various fields suggests, however, that whether an eyewitness report is given in writing or orally may have a significant effect on the amount and accuracy of the information obtained.

In an early study on the impact of modality on speech production, participants had to discuss one of two topics either in writing or orally (Horowitz & Newman, 1964). The results showed that spoken expression was more productive than written expression in terms of expressed ideas and expansion of previously stated ideas, but also in terms of irrelevant ideas, indicating that speaking was more productive but somewhat less efficient than writing. Similarly, Kellogg (2007)found that spoken renarration of a story was more complete and more accurate (proportion correct) but elicited more distor- tions than did written renarration. In a survey of medical history, Bergmann, Jacobs, Hoffmann, and Boeing (2004) found that participants underreported some diseases in a writ- ten questionnaire they had previously reported in a personal interview.

In the eyewitness field, only two studies have addressed the modality issue so far.1 The first one (Bekerian & Dennett, 1990) presented participants with 16 color slides that depicted a visual narrative of a car accident. Consistent with the literature discussed above, spoken reports were more detailed and more accurate than written reports. More recently, Sauerland and Sporer (2011)testedpar- ticipants' memory of a staged theft presented to them in a video fragment. Analyses of participants' crime and thief descriptions revealed a clear advantage of spoken descriptions, in terms of both description quantity and accuracy. …

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