Matching Faces to Photographs: Poor Performance in Eyewitness Memory (Without the Memory)

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Abstract

Eyewitness memory is known to be fallible. We describe 3 experiments that aim to establish baseline performance for recognition of unfamiliar faces. In Experiment 1, viewers were shown live actors or photos (targets), and then immediately presented with arrays of 10 faces (test items). Asked whether the target was present among the test items, and if so to identify the person, participants showed poor performance levels (roughly 70% accurate). Furthermore, there was no difference between immediate memory for a live person and photograph. In Experiment 2, the same targets and test items were presented simultaneously, and participants were asked to perform a matching task. Again, performance was poor (roughly 68% accurate), with no difference between matching photos and live people. In the final experiment, viewers were asked to match a live person to a single photograph. Even under these conditions, performance was poor (c. 85%), with no advantage over matching 2 photographs. We suggest that problems of eyewitness identification may involve difficulties in initial encoding of unfamiliar faces, in addition to problems of memory for an event.

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