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Last updated 22 Mar 2021
Loftus (1979) [not to be confused with Loftus & Palmer (1974)] reported the findings of Johnson and Scott (1976) who conducted an experiment to see if anxiety affects the accuracy of eyewitness testimony and facial recognition.
Johnson and Scott invited participants to a laboratory where they were told to wait in the reception area. A receptionist who was seated nearby excused herself to run an errand, leaving the participant alone. The experiment used an independent groups design, as participants were then exposed to one of two conditions:
1) In the ‘no-weapon’ condition, participants overheard a conversation in the laboratory about equipment failure. Thereafter an individual (the target) left the laboratory and walk passed the participant holding a pen, with his hands covered in grease.
2) In the ‘weapon’ condition, participants overheard a heated exchange and the sound of breaking glass and crashing chairs. This was followed by an individual (the target) running into the reception area, holding a bloodied letter opener.
Both groups were then shown 50 photographs and ask to identify the person who had left the laboratory. The participants were informed that the suspect may, or may not be present in the photographs.
Those who had witness the man holding a pen correctly identified the target 49% of the time, compared to those who had witness the man holding a knife, who correctly identified the target 33% of the time. Loftus claimed that the participants who were exposed to the knife had higher levels of anxiety and were more likely to focus their attention on the weapon and not the face of the target, a phenomenon known as the weapon focus effect. Therefore, the anxiety associated with seeing a knife reduces the accuracy of eyewitness testimony.
A real life case study by Yuille and Cutshall (1986) contradicts the results of Loftus (1979) and the weapon focus effect.
Yuille and Cutshall investigated the effect of anxiety in a real life shooting, in which one person was killed and another person seriously wounded. 21 witnesses were originally interviewed by investigating police and 13 witnesses, aged between 15 and 32, agreed to take part in Yuille and Cutshall’s follow-up research interview, 4-5 months later. Yuille and Cutshall found that the 13 witnesses who took part in the follow-up interview were accurate in their eyewitness accounts 5 month later and little change found in their testimonies. All of the major details of their reports remained the same and only minor details, including estimates of age, height and weight changed. Furthermore, the witnesses avoided leading questions and the anxiety experienced at the time of the event had little or no effect on their subsequent memory for the event. These results refute the weapon focus effect and results of Loftus (1979) and show that in real life cases of extreme anxiety, the accuracy of eyewitness testimony is not affected.
Loftus’s (Johnson and Scott’s) research has been criticised for lacking ecological validity. Although the participants were waiting in the reception area outside the laboratory, they may have anticipated that something was going to happen, which could have affected the accuracy of their judgements. Furthermore, the results from real life case studies (see above) refute the findings of Loftus and suggest that her results do not represent real-life cases of extreme anxiety.
A final criticism of Loftus (Johnson and Scott) is that numerous ethical guidelines were broken. The participants were deceived about the nature of the experiment and not protected from harm. Loftus (John and Scott) exposed some of the participants to a man holding a bloodied knife, which could have cause extreme feelings of anxiety. This is an issue as these participants may have left the experiment feeling exceptionally stressed and anxious, especially if they, or someone they knew, had been involved in knife crime.