The Effects of Verbal Descriptions on Performance in Lineups and Showups

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Verbally describing a face has been found to impair subsequent recognition of that face from a photo lineup, a phenomenon known as the verbal overshadowing effect (Schooler & Engstler-Schooler, 1990). Recently, a large direct replication study successfully reproduced that original finding (Alogna et al., 2014). However, in both the original study and the replication studies, memory was tested using only target-present lineups (i.e., lineups containing the previously seen target face), making it possible to compute the correct identification rate (correct ID rate; i.e., the hit rate) but not the false identification rate (false ID rate; i.e., the false alarm rate). Thus, the lower correct ID rate for the verbal condition could reflect either reduced discriminability or a conservative criterion shift relative to the control condition. In four verbal overshadowing experiments reported here, we measured both correct ID rates and false ID rates using photo lineups (Experiments 1 and 2) or single-photo showups (Experiments 3 and 4). The experimental manipulation (verbally describing the face or not) occurred either immediately after encoding (Experiments 1 and 3) or 20-min after encoding (Experiments 2 and 4). In the immediate condition, discriminability did not differ between groups, but in the delayed condition, discriminability was lower in the verbal description group (i.e., a verbal overshadowing effect was observed). A fifth experiment found that the effect of the immediate-versus-delayed manipulation may be attributable to a change in the content of verbal descriptions, with the ratio of diagnostic to generic facial features in the descriptions decreasing as delay increases.

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