Drunk eyewitnesses are just as good as sober ones

February 16, 2013

So, here's a fun science experiment that was recently conducted in Sweden: Researchers got some research subjects drunk, showed them a five-minute video of a crime being committed and called back a week later to see if they could identify the culprit.

Turns out, those who were drunk did just as well as those who saw the same crime scene while sober -- which mostly reflects the fact that almost everyone, regardless of level of intoxication, is really bad at picking the right face in a criminal line-up.

More via the British Psychological Society's Research Digest blog:

Although better than chance, overall performance was poor, consistent with a great deal of past research showing the limited accuracy of eyewitness memory. Crucially, for both the culprit-present and culprit-absent conditions, there was no difference in accuracy across the different participant groups. This result held even after excluding participants who answered that they could not remember.

Does this research have any real world applications? The authors, from the University of Gothenberg, argue that it does: One recent survey found that the majority of American law enforcement officers said they had to work with intoxicated eyewitnesses relatively frequently.

Alcohol related crimes are common in western society, meaning that the offender, victim or eyewitness is intoxicated at the time of the crime. For instance, in one survey, more than 70% of American law enforcement officers reported that it was common or very common to be in contact with intoxicated eyewitnesses, and approximately 20% had conducted a lineup with a witness who had been intoxicated at the time of the crime  Considering that the alcohol consumption in many western countries has increased during recent years, it is likely that alcohol related crimes will continue to rise. Despite the prevalence of alcohol related crimes, there is a considerable lack of research on the specific effects of alcohol on eyewitness memory. Therefore, the present study examined how alcohol affects eyewitness ability to identify the culprit in a lineup.

Read the full study here.

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