Racial Bias/Stereotypes On Eyewitness Memory Literature Review


Sam Stone! And guess what he did this time? He asked to borrow my Barbie and when he was carrying her down the stairs, he accidentally tripped and fell and broke her arm" (570)) Following Sam's actual visit, an interview conducted in an informal style by eliciting a free narrative form each of the four different groups who had seen Sam Stone revealed that the stereotype- fed group resulted in a modest number of false reports towards the stranger (10% insisted in maintaining that they saw him do something that he had never done) (although the suggestion-fed group resulted in a dramatically higher number of false reports). "As demonstrated by our control group," concluded the authors, "when the context of a child's reporting of an event is free of the strong stereotypes and repeated leading questions that may be introduced by adults, the odds are tilted in favor of factual reporting" (576). But if stereotypes are ingrained and habitual to society, the odds may be low that factual reporting may be an eventuality with racial bias existent. In the book "Adult eyewitness testimony" (1994), two separate chapters delineate how stereotypes can affect accuracy of eyewitness memory in two separate ways. Yarmey (1994) shows how earwitness memory, or the ability to identity a perpetrator's voice is impacted by stereotyping (bias can, for instance, expect one to hear a different voice than was actually heard), whilst Macleod, Frowley, and Shephard (1994) show how a priori bias effect identification of whole body elements such as weight, shape, gait, and movement. Social stereotypes about body characteristics (for instance, belief about people who are over-or under-weight and who are short and tall and the types of clothes they wear) impact memory reliability of height and weight judgments, as well as the role of clothing having a parallel effect on the way that witnesses remember perpetrators. In all, eyewitness account can be markedly influenced and distorted by jaundiced perceptions, howsoever unintentional these may be.

Interventions Posited to Reduce / Ameliorate Unintended Eyewitness Bias

McCleland and Chappel (1998) have proposed a model of recognition memory that attempts to correctly internalize the face of an individual belonging to another race by focusing on and differentiating the facial features of the target. They propose that individuals store features of a given stimulus in memory and that each time that they again perceive these features in reality, they reinforce their mental structure resulting in an increase in the psychological sense of familiarity. This, consequently, causes a declension in perceiving the examplar of another race as novel, Thus, as

McClelland and Chappell conclude, "familiarity breeds differentiation" (p. 726). Several other models, such as that by Shifrin and Styevers have studied and come to similar conclusions and proposed associated interventions.

Safeguards have been implemented to ascertain that, as far as possible, bias is excluded in conclusions that are based on eyewitness evidence. There is cross-examination by defense counsel, expert testimony regarding eyewitness testimony, and cautionary instructions to juror. Nonetheless, Meissner & Brigham (2001) assert that these preventives are insufficient and that more is needed. These preventives may particularly be insufficient since as Giner-Sorrolla, Chaiken, and Lutz (2002) demonstrated jurors' prior ideological beliefs about the plaintiffs may influence their decision making process, having a more pervasive effect on their judgment than coolly processing the case would have had. Innocent people have been, and still are, convicted on the basis of prejudice.

Meissner & Brigham (2001) do suggest various palliative and preventative strategies including suggesting that the judge could point out that an expressed certainty for a perpetrator's identification may not indicate accuracy.

'the United States vs. Telfaire" (1972) instructions state that:

The juror should evaluate whether the witness "had the capacity and an adequate opportunity to observe the defendant," and whether the witness's identification "was the product of his [sic] own recollection." Jurors are told that they may also take into account "the strength of the identification [certainty]," whether the identification "may have been influenced by the circumstances under which the defendant was presented to him [sic] for identification," and the "length of time that lapsed between the occurrence of the crime and the next opportunity of the witness to see the defendant" (Meissner & Brigham, 2001, 23).

Critics still however fail to perceive how the Trefail instructions address all the elements that may evoke faulty bias.

Cognitive Interventions to Impede Prejudice

When bias plays a role, it is advocated that reversing the bias by techniques such as perspective-taking (Dovidio et al., 2004), awareness of one's moral hypocrisy, and training in complex thinking and in statistical logic (e.g., Nisbett, 1993; Sternberg, 2003) may reverse or alter prejudice. However, such findings claim only "modest...


Exposure to examplars have shown some measure of success (Devine et al., 2009). Considerable research, however, has demonstrated that people tend to perceive these individuals as atypical of their group. Bias remains and unduly effects eyewitness percept.

Closely identical to McCleland and Chappel's (1998) model of recognition memory that differentiating the facial features of the target may consequent in more correctly identifying features, Bower (1998) and Fiske & Neuberg (1990) suggest that individuating rather than categorizing the other can make his face not only more familiar but also more palatable. This is done by focusing on and reducing the other to elements other than his or her externals. Unfortunately, most social interactions are too brief to enable one to aggregate a fuller picture.

Contact Hypothesis

Perhaps the most popular and seemingly most effective idea, Allport's theory of encountering and becoming acquainted with members of other races and cultures has been often used to mixed results. On the one hand, in an intra- in extra- laboratory situation (Paluck & Green, 2009), it seems to provide compelling evidence of reduced prejudice (e.g., Pettigtrew & Trop, 2006). Whilst cases have found reduction in bias to outsiders, other studies have found little if reverse effects. Much may ultimately depend on the strength of the individual's perspective, on his or her readiness to work on prejudice, on his or her acknowledgment of existence of bias towards outsider and on other conditions such as the makeup of the group. More so, disappointing group situations reinforce the threat (Stangor et al. 1996), whilst former subjective experience may skew perception (Bodenhausen, 2009).

Either way, bias towards outsiders or others exists, is very much a part of American society, and affects the eyewitness account.


That eyewitness accounts are influenced by prejudice seems to be an undeniable indication. Children as young as three years old have been found to be influenced by stereotypical erroneous reports of another, to the extent that they report seeing incidents that have not existed. It has also been found that individuals evidence a greater proclivity for remembering faces and features of their own race than that of others. Stereotyping is instinctive, hasty, and almost impossible -- if not totally impossible to control. This is specially so since it has become so internalized and may be evolutionary in origin. The best one can do is to warn jurors and eyewitnesses of the possibility of the inaccuracy of their reports. Interventions try to promote accuracy and staunch bias with different results. Since prejudice (i.e. negative stereotyping) is a result of both cognition and affect, each being involved to varying extent, it seems to be a permanent part of us. The utmost we can achieve is to realize the extent to which prejudice drives our lives, to take more care in affirming certainty in our conclusions of others, and to be wary in accepting reports from others that affirm their certainty about identifications or happenings of events.


Allport, G. (1954). The nature of prejudice. Cambridge, Mass.: Addison-Wesley Pub. Co.

Bargh, J.A. (1994). The four horsemen of automaticity: Awareness, intention, efficiency, and control in social cognition. In Robert S. Wyer, Jr. (Ed.), Handbook of social cognition (pp 675-694). Hillsdale, N.J.: L. Erlbaum Associates.

Duckitt, R. (1992). Psychology and prejudice: A historical analysis and integrative framework. American Psychologist, 11, 1183-1193.

Fiske, S.T. (2002). What we know now about bias and intergroup conflict, the problem of the century. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 11, 123-128.

Fiske, S.T., & Neuberg, S.L. (1990). A continuum of impression formation, from category-based to individuating processes: Influences of information and motivation on attention and interpretation, Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 23, 1-74.

Giner-Sorolla, R. (2004). Is affective material in attitudes more accessible than cognitive material? The moderating role of attitude basis. European Journal of Social Psychology, 34, 761 -- 780.

Leichtman, M.D., & Ceci, S.J (1995) the effects of stereotypes and suggestions on preschooler's reports. Developmental Psychology, 31, 568-578

Macrae, C.N., & Bodenhausen, G.V. (2000). Social cognition: Categorical person perception British Journal of Psychology, 92, 239 -- 255.

McClelland, J.L. & Chappell, M. (1998). Familiarity breeds differentiation: A subjective likelihood approach to the effects of experience in recognition memory. Psychological Review, 105, 724-760.

Macleod, M.D., Frowley,…

Sources Used in Documents:


Allport, G. (1954). The nature of prejudice. Cambridge, Mass.: Addison-Wesley Pub. Co.

Bargh, J.A. (1994). The four horsemen of automaticity: Awareness, intention, efficiency, and control in social cognition. In Robert S. Wyer, Jr. (Ed.), Handbook of social cognition (pp 675-694). Hillsdale, N.J.: L. Erlbaum Associates.

Duckitt, R. (1992). Psychology and prejudice: A historical analysis and integrative framework. American Psychologist, 11, 1183-1193.

Fiske, S.T. (2002). What we know now about bias and intergroup conflict, the problem of the century. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 11, 123-128.

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