The relationship between psychology and law

As Wells (2002) suggested the criminal justice system would do well to acknowledge the psychologists involved in investigating eyewitness testimony; as they can do for the justice system what the justice system cannot, namely conduct scientific experiments that isolate cause-effect relationships. Head figures in the criminal justice system have already acknowledged the problems and the power of eyewitness testimony:

"The vagaries of eyewitness identification are well known, the annals of criminal law are rife with instances of mistaken identification" (Justice William Brennan, writing for the majority in U. S. v Wade, 196716). Psychology and law now need to work together in bringing a higher degree of scrutiny into the court (when examining the testimony of an eyewitness), and make modifications to procedures used during the investigatory process.

Changes such as the mandatory use of sequential line up and cognitive interviewing techniques would undoubtedly provide a remarkable recovery from the present 45% wrongful convictions rate displayed within many studies. 1. The majority of crimes that come before the courts are still being resolved by judge and jury balancing the credibility of one witness's account against the assertions of another17. However recent advances in forensic DNA testing have provided additional evidence and have found numerous cases where erroneous eyewitness testimony appears to be the main factor in a false conviction.

From research over the past thirty years that has concentrated on the eyewitness area, contrasting viewpoints have emerged with the general public perceived to overestimate the ability of the human memory and some psychologists overly criticising. 2. The most prominent work on eyewitness accuracy was conducted by Loftus19; the main focus placed on the need to dismiss the camera analogy that plagued the Cognitive area: That humans do not simply record chunks of data, which they encounter but rather sift it, interpret it subjectively, and then record that interpretation.

Using experimental re-enactment many errors that were routinely made by memory were identified. These psychologists were criticised heavily for condemning eyewitnesses as inherently unreliable, however using their research other psychologists were able to modify procedures that had been found to decrease the accuracy of the eyewitness: Such as the Sequential Line-up Procedure20 and the Cognitive Interview21.

Regardless of the substantial body of research, the criminal justice system has largely ignored the evidence mainly due to its experimental basis, continuing the difficult relationship between psychology and law. However, recent research addressing the same errors as Loftus has concentrated on improving the ecological validity by constructing field-reports: Which have displayed a general improvement in eyewitness accuracy when placed in real-life circumstance.


Ainsworth, P. (1998). Psychology, law and eyewitness testimony. West Sussex, England: Wiley.

Cohen, A-L., Dixon, R. A., Lindsay, D. S., & Masson, M. E. J. (2003). The effect of perceptual distinctiveness on the prospective and retrospective components of prospective memory in young and old adults. Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology, 57, 274-289. 

Cutler, B.L., & Penrod, S.D. (1995) Mistaken Identification: The eyewitness, psychology, and the law. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Fisher, R. P., & Geiselman, R. E.. (1992) Memory-enhancing techniques for investigating interviewing: The cognitive interview. Springfield, IL: Charles C Thomas.

Gross, R. ( 1996). Psychology: The Science of mind and behaviour (3rd edition). Kent: Hodder & Stoughton. 

Huff, C., Rattner, A. & Sagarin, E. (1996). Convicted But Innocent. Thousand Oaks, CA: SagePublications

Kohnken, G., Milne, R., Memon, A., and Bull, R. (1999). The cognitive interview: A meta-analysis. Psychology, Crime, and Law, 5, 3-27.

Lindsay, R. C. L., Wells, G. L., & O'Connor, F. (1989). Mock juror belief of accurate and inaccurate eyewitnesses: A replication. Law and Human Behavior, 13, 333-340.