Seeing and Believing: Common Courtroom Myths in Eyewitness Memory

Myth # 5: All of This Is Just Common Sense 

Psychology is often thought of as a science of common sense. In fact, in cases when judges bar eyewitness memory experts from testifying, they often rule that the psychologist cannot offer information outside of general common sense (e.g., State v. Coley, 2000). If media reports and court rulings are any indication, then the concept that eyewitnesses are unreliable appears to be generally considered “common sense”. However, surveys suggest that people don’t understand why they distrust memory or what factors can influence the reliability of memory. For example, only 41% of surveyed jury-eligible Americans believe that lineup instructions can impact the accuracy of an identification and only 50% know that eyewitness confidence in that identification is highly susceptible to outside influences (compared to 98% and 95% of memory experts, respectively; Benton, Ross, Bradshaw, Thomas, & Bradshaw, 2006). We find similar disagreements between lay people and experts regarding how the presence of a weapon impacts encoding and how race plays a role in identification (Houston, Hope, Memon, & Read, 2013). A commonsense distrust of memory is not useful if it fails to distinguish between accurate and inaccurate memories or identify the contextual factors that affect memory reliability. As renowned memory researcher, Endel Tulving, once wrote, “Much of science begins as an exploration of common sense, and much of science, if successful, ends if not rejecting it then at least going far beyond it,” (2003, p. 1,505). Common sense is convenient, but it is not sufficiently or consistently well-informed to guide legal judgments with life-altering consequences. 


Whatever media accounts or TV series seem to propose- eyewitness evidence is here to stay. Furthermore, science does not argue that we should exclude eyewitness evidence in court. The science does argue, however, that eyewitness evidence always exists at the center of a web of a number of influential factors - all of which deserve scrutiny throughout all phases of an investigation and trial. In light of the misconceptions regarding memory, experts seek to increase sensitization among legal professionals to variables that impact eyewitness memory, allowing them to obtain more accurate evidence on the one hand, and appropriately evaluate the credibility of the eyewitness and the reliability of the evidence on the other. Failure to do this guarantees more regrettable cases like Anderson’s, where innocent suspects are left vulnerable to wrongful conviction and actual perpetrators are free to continue offending. Of any aspect of the intersection of the justice system and memory, seeking and considering scientific opinion in a realm outside of our expertise is simply an exercise in common sense


Benton, T. R., Ross, D. F., Bradshaw, E., Thomas, W. N., & Bradshaw, G. S. (2006). Eyewitness memory is still not common sense: Comparing jurors, judges and law enforcement to eyewitness experts. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 20, 115-129. doi:10.1002/acp.1171 

Brackmann, N., Otgaar, H., Sauerland, M., & Jelicic, M. (2015). When children are the least vulnerable to false memories: A true report or a case of autosuggestion? Journal of Forensic Sciences. Advance online publication. doi:10.1111/1556-4029.12926 

Davis, R. C., Jensen, C. J., Burgette, L., & Burnett, K. (2014). Working smarter on cold cases: Identifying factors associated with successful cold case investigations. Journal of Forensic Sciences, 59, 375-382. doi:10.1111/1556-4029.12384 

Doob, A. N., & Kirshenbaum, H. M. Bias in police lineups — Partial remembering. Journal of Police Science and Administration, 1973, 1, 287-293. 

Epifanio v. Madrid, Spain. Supreme Court (Criminal Division, Section1). [electronic version- database Consejo General del Poder Judicial]. Sentence no: 3687/2009 03 of June [accessed 23 June 2015]. 

Erdelyi, M. H., & Becker, J. 1974. Hypermnesia for picture: Incremental memory for pictures but not for words in multiple recall trials. Cognitive Psychology. 6, 159-171. doi:10.1016/0010-0285(74)90008-5 

Eyewitness Identification Research Laboratory (n.d.). Lineups and evaluations. Retrieved from 

article author(s)