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Who Started The Fight?

Recent studies showed that eyewitness accounts can be tainted by discussions with other eyewitnesses.

Eyewitness testimony is under increasing scrutiny.

There’s nothing more reliable than seeing something with your own eyes, right? For example, in a court of law, eyewitness testimony can be given a lot of weight. Having a person, or several people, describe what they saw in real time is a very powerful way to convince a jury or judge that something happened the way the witnesses describe it

But, scientists have found eyewitness recollections can be, and often are, tainted when witnesses discuss what they’ve seen with other eyewitnesses. Especially, if the eyewitnesses know each other which is often the case.

The Study

Researchers at the University of Huddersfield in England, tested this idea by showing footage of a violent fight to volunteers. Some participants discussed it with each other after the viewing. Other participants were asked to report what they watched without discussing the events.

Now, some of the participants were planted there specifically to suggest the wrong person had started the fight, despite what the footage showed. Volunteers who’d discussed the incident and been exposed to these misleading suggestions were more likely to report a distorted version of the event to the experimenters, compared to volunteers who did not discuss the event.

Conversations Among Friends

In a follow‑up study, the researchers found this effect was even stronger when the eyewitnesses were related or at least had some prior relationship.

This matters because other research has shown that nearly 90% of eyewitnesses in a given instance know each other. And so, when it comes to relying on eyewitness testimony, there’s at least some chance that it may not be as accurate as it seems.

Thank you to Dara Mojtahedi of the University of Huddersfield for reviewing this episode’s script.

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