Here Comes a Regular: Effects of Prior Familiarity on Eyewitness Identification

Project: Research project

Project Details


Eyewitness identification plays a crucial role in approximately 80,000 criminal cases per year in the United States. Yet, eyewitness errors sometimes occur, leading to the misidentification of innocent suspects. In many cases, the suspect is unknown to the witness. In other cases, the witness may have some level of prior familiarity with the suspect. It is often assumed that when a witness has prior familiarity with a suspect, that their identification will invariably be accurate. However, recent research has shown that errors can occur even when the witness has prior familiarity with the suspect. The current research seeks to understand when eyewitness identification of familiar suspects is likely to be accurate, and when it may be subject to error. The research tests theory-based hypotheses in both laboratory and field settings to provide results that are likely to be highly generalizable. Both graduate students and undergraduate students will receive training in scientific methodologies and statistics as part of this research. A key part of the research involves collection of data from a diverse participant pool via multiple institutions with greater student diversity. This will also allow training of a diverse group of student research assistants. A series of laboratory and field experiments are proposed to study the impact of prior familiarity on eyewitness identification. The research provides a theoretically motivated framework for understanding familiar face recognition in eyewitness identification settings by specifying factors that occur prior to the witnessed event, as the face is becoming familiar, during the witnessed event, and during the identification task and then systematically undertakes to address these issues. A novel part of the approach is to use the categorization / individuation model to make that case that qualitative aspects of the interaction between the witness and the other individual are likely to be crucial during the familiarization phase. The research also extends basic research from perception to the applied domain of eyewitness identification. An innovative series of field experiments taking place during summer camps for rising university freshmen will provide an opportunity to examine the ecological validity of the results. Findings from this research will provide a clearer picture of when familiar face identification is likely to be reliable and when it is likely to be less reliable and will inform criminal justice practice.This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.
Effective start/end date5/15/244/30/27


  • National Science Foundation: $700,000.00


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