Spotlight TEDx Talk: Should we trust eyewitness testimony?

(Photo: Gwen Ewart)

Elizabeth Brimacombe at TEDxVictoria (Photo: Gwen Ewart)

Elizabeth Brimacombe studies memory. Specifically, the malleability and persuadability of memory, and how someone’s perception of a memory can change under the influence of others.

In a talk at TEDxVictoria, the researcher explores how social influence affects eyewitness testimony, from the projected confidence or distrust of a questioner to the specific wording of a question. “Although [memory] can feel very stable and reliable to us, there can actually be quite a lot of instability in what we record in our mind’s eye,” Brimacombe says. “Despite, a witness’s best effort to bring forward [an] accurate picture … there are distorting influences that can creep in and bias what a witness brings to mind. Those profound changes can be quite incredible, and sometimes the most subtle influences can be the most powerful.”

In her talk, she shares several studies in which social influence in testimony was tested, including the effect of vocabulary choice (when the word “smashed” rather than “hit” was used in questioning witnesses of a traffic collision, Brimacombe says, “witnesses [generated] a memory of a faster-paced, more destructive impact,” and even reported seeing broken glass when there was none at the site) as well as projected agreement (when witnesses to a crime were shown a photo line-up that did not contain a photo of the crime’s perpetrator, those who were told by an experimenter that the photo they chose had also been chosen by other witnesses were more likely to report that they were very confident that they had identified the right suspect.)

Want to learn more? Watch Brimacombe’s whole talk below:

Insights from the TEDx office: Why we like this talk
Brimacombe looks at a complex issue through the lens of extensive research, using data pulled from this research to present a compelling narrative exploring issues surrounding eyewitness testing. She uses metaphor, story and concrete examples to help the audience connect with the concepts explored, all while being engaging and accessible.


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