With reference to relevant research studies, to what extent is one cognitive process reliable?


  • Introduce topic 
    • One cognitive process that involves questioning of reliability is memory, more specifically, its significance towards eye-witness testimony (EWT). 
  • Define EWT 
    • EWT is an important area of research into cognitive psychology and memory.
    • EWT is a legal term. It refers to an account given by people of an event they have witnessed. 
  • Give an example (optional) 
    • For example, they may be required to give a description at a trial of a robbery or a road accident they have witnessed. 
  • Where is EWT used? 
    • EWT is vital and used in legal systems as evidence in criminal trials in countries all over the world, which relies on the accuracy of human memory/EWT to decide whether a person is guilty or not.
    • Therefore, the reliability of the testimonies is important as it determines ones precious future. 
  • State connection between memory and EWT 
    • Memory is very important and plays a significant role in EWT. 
  • Talk about reliability of memory in EWT 
    • Beforehand, EWT was generally seen as very trustworthy and convincing; Judges, jurors, police and parts of the law enforcement saw and treated EWT as very reliable.
    • However research from various sources now shows that memory can be subjected to distortion and reconstruction. 
    • Researchers have demonstrated that memory may not be as reliable as we think through the use of DNA technology; psychologists have demonstrated that eyewitnesses can be wrong.
    • Memories may be influenced by other factors than what was recorded in the first place, due to the reconstructive nature of memory.
      • The term “reconstructive” refers to the brain’s active processing of information to make sense of the world.
  • State what you are doing in the essay (in terms of factor & cognitive process):
    • Therefore, the reliability of memory in EWT will be investigated, considering the merits from both sides of the arguments regarding its reliability, *however with a focus on how EWT (in laboratory situations?) can be disturbingly inaccurate. This argument will be discussed in relation to appropriate evidence in the form of research studies and experiments.
    • *(or)... by firstly demonstrating the inaccuracy/unreliability of EWT, then presenting a counterargument by introducing a study which refutes this idea, therefore coming to a conclusion (to an extent) of the reliability of memory in EWT.


  • Introduce significant researcher intEWT, Elizabeth Loftus and her arguments
    • One of the leading researchers in the field of EWT research, Elizabeth Loftus, supports Bartlett’s idea of memory as reconstructive.
      • The idea that memory is a reconstructive process is crucial to an understanding of the reliability of EWT, is the idea that eyewitnesses do not reproduce what they witness, but rather, reconstruct their memories on the basis of relevant schematic information (personal interpretation dependent on our learnt or cultural norms and values – the way we make sense of the world) thus illustrating how memory is unreliable, as our schemas can be misled or influenced (by culture, social and environment factors) and are not always correct.
    • She expressed concern at the over-reliance on EWT’s in court, with her research showing: 
      • That our memories can reconstruct information.
    • Therefore Loftus has argued that EWT can be highly unreliable, because of the ability of our memories to reconstruct events.
  • Give an example (optional)
    • Many people believe that memory works something like a videotape. Where:
      • Storing information is like recording and remembering is like playing back what was recorded, with information being retrieved in much the same form as it was encoded. 
    • However, memory does not work in this way. It is a feature of human memory that we do not store information exactly as it is presented to us. Rather, people extract from information the gist, or underlying meaning.
    • In other words, people store information in the way that makes the most sense to them. We make sense of information by trying to fit it into schemas, which are a way of organising information.
    • Schemas are mental 'units' of knowledge that correspond to frequently encountered people, objects or situations. They allow us to make sense of what we encounter in order that we can predict what is going to happen and what we should do in any given situation. These schemas may, in part, be determined by social values and therefore prejudice.
    • Schemas are therefore capable of distorting unfamiliar or unconsciously ‘unacceptable’ information in order to ‘fit in’ with our existing knowledge or schemas. This can, therefore, result in unreliable eyewitness testimony.
  • State relevance of example given --> link to question
    • Bartlett tested this theory using a variety of stories to illustrate that memory is an active process and subject to individual interpretation or construction. In his famous study 'War of the Ghosts', Bartlett (1932) showed that memory is not just a factual recording of what has occurred, but that we make “effort after meaning”. By this, Bartlett meant that we try to fir what we remember with what we really know and understand about the world. As a result, we quite often change our memories so they become more sensible to us.
Main Study: Loftus & Palmer (1974) – Automobile Reconstruction

Introduce Study:
  • The idea that memory is a reconstructive process, is what forms the vast work/research on EWT by Loftus and her colleagues. 
  • Loftus has performed and demonstrated a vast majority of research intEWT, but the work with her fellow colleague, Palmer, proved to be one of her most significant research studies intEWT. The idea that memory is a reconstructive process, is what forms the work on EWT by Loftus and her colleagues. Link to question: 
  • Loftus claims that the nature (wording) of questions can influence witnesses’ memory of an experience. 
  • Leading questions – that is, questions that are suggestive in some way (hints) – and post-event information facilitate schema processing which may influence accuracy of recall. 
    • Our memories can be affected (interfered) with by post-event information such as misleading questions.


  • To investigate the effect of leading questions on eye witness testimony of an event


  • Participants (p’s) were shown 7 films of car accidents (5-30 seconds) 
  • After each clip, p’s were given a questionnaire asking: 
    • To give an account of the accident 
    • Number of questions, including the critical question “How fast were the cars going when they?” 
    • Verb in the critical question was changed to smashed/collided/hit/bumped/contacted 
  • Experimental conditions: Participants were split in 5 groups of 9 – each group were asked the question with a different verb 
  • Results showed that that the speed estimates were influenced by the wording (verb) used. 

  • The more severe-sounding verb produced higher speed estimates 
  • For example, ‘smashed’ gave an estimated 9m/h higher than ‘contacted’ 
  • L & P concluded that the wording of the question did have an effect on the speed estimates given. 
  • Suggested it may be because: 
    • People are poor judges of speed 
    • People are affected by the wording of a question 
  • Findings can be explained by Bartlett’s view of memory as an active reconstructive process. 
    • The verbs used in the various conditions activated slightly different schemas which influenced the
    • speed estimates.
    • In this study, information was received after witnessing the accident researchers used a leading question.
    • Thus after the accident was reconstructed in the participant’s mind, the schema that were influenced by the leading question relating to the different verbs associated with speech explains how reconstructive memory works.
  • This study also supports the idea that when people witness complex events, they tend to report inaccurate and numeric details like time, distance and speed. 
Supporting Study: Loftus et al. (1987)

Introduce Study --> link to question: 
  • A further study by Loftus et al. (1987) demonstrating how another factor, ‘repression’ may influence recovered memories, thus leading to unreliable answers from eyewitnesses, investigated on... 

  •  ....the weapon-focus effect. 
  • Participants heard a discussion going on in the room next door. 
  • There were 2 conditions: 
    • No weapon condition (man with greasy hands emerging from another room holding a pen) 
    • And weapon condition (a man coming from another room with a bloody paperknife). 
  • Participants were asked to identify the man from a selection of 50 people. 
  • Results showed that participants from the no-weapon condition were more accurate in recall. 
  • Loftus concluded that the weapon drew more attention than the pen, so their attention was allocated to the weapon than the face. 
Connection of study to question 
  • This study relates to the unreliability of memory in EWT because it was found that the more dangerous situation affected their recalling of the people’s face. 
  • This can be explained by repression, as the knife may have provoked their memory and emotion thus creating false memories, which is very unreliable in EWT. 
Evaluation of research (both studies) on EWT: 
  • Loftus’ research indicates that it is possible to create a false memory using post-event information. These results indicate that memory is not reliable but like all research studies, there are some limitations that need to be considered relating to its validity/ecological validity (EV). 

Connection of study to question

  • Although Loftus’ research is still valid to some extent (especially the Automobile Reconstruction) as it relates to the unreliability of memory in EWT because it was found that the leading question asked to eye-witnesses caused a distortion of memory as the result of the reconstructive processes of memory. 
    • 'smashed' lead participants to remember the accident as more severe than 'contacted 
  • Therefore it is clear that leading questions can change/influence previously stored information in memory – (make us reconstruct memories). 
  • But, due to demand characteristics, it cannot be concluded that the verb in the leading question completely influenced participants' speed estimates, but played a part in its influence. 
  • Present Counter-Argument 
    • However, other studies have also shown that EWT can be reliable, acquiring more EV. 
Supporting Study 2: Yuille & Cutshall (1986) 

Introduce Study --> link to question: 
  • Yuille & Cutshall [Y&C] (1986) argues and criticizes against Loftus and Palmer’s viewpoint on the accuracy of EWT in real-life settings as their research lacked ecological validity (EV). 
  • Y & C investigated the accuracy/effectiveness in recall EWT using real eyewitnesses from a real crime. 
  • Background (details of the crime): 
    • In this study, the crime was a real theft and gun shooting crime scene. 
    • Incident took place in Vancouver. 
  • There were 21 witnesses interviewed by the police originally who had witnessed the event from different viewpoints: (passing by in the car, walking on the street or within buildings). 
    • Twenty of those eyewitnesses were contacted by the researchers four-to-five months after the event, asking them to take part in a scientific study.
    • Of those 20, thirteen agreed to participate in the study.
    • All aged between 15-32; only three female, and ten males 
    • The victim was not asked to participate as he did not wish to relive the trauma. 
  • The researchers interviewed the participants at this four or five month period after the incident. 
    • The interviews were recorded and transcribed.
    • They used the same interviewing procedure as the police had used with them allowing them to give their account first and then asking questions. 
  • Of course, one of the aims was to look into the effects of leading questions, and so following Loftus' procedures, two leading questions were used. 
    • Half the group were asked if they saw a broken headlight, and the other half if they saw the broken headlight, when in fact there was no broken headlight in the thief's car.
    • Similarly, half of the participants were asked about a yellow panel on the car, and the others about the yellow panel, whereas the quarter panel was really blue. 
  • A scoring procedure was introduced to turn the qualitative data collected into quantitative data. 
    • This was carefully devised, as the researchers needed to know not only the true details of the event, but also be able to compare the results to those of the police interviews.
    • The researchers decided to use systems of 'action details' and 'description details' (split further into ‘object descriptions’ and ‘people descriptions’ to collate information from the interviews. 
  • The researchers ended up obtaining more details than the police had. 
  • The police found 392 action details against the researchers' 552 action details. 
  • What was found is that the misleading questions had very little effect on their recall. 
  • Ten of the eyewitnesses said that there was no broken headlight and no yellow quarter panel at all on the thief's car which was correct to identify. 
  • This was the first case study of EWT, which was a field study and a study therefore of a real case that had not been manipulated by the researchers. 
  • It was useful to compare the findings of this, therefore valid, study against other studies (such as Loftus and Palmer), which were laboratory experiments, and so tended not to be valid. 
    • This enabled the researchers to see the extent to which the conclusions of such previous studies were reliable. 
  • It was found that eyewitnesses were actually very reliable. 
  • There were several factors which made this true, including correctly recalling large numbers of accurate details; almost always arguing the misleading questions and a healthy comparison between the police and research interviews. 
  • However, they agreed it would be hard to generalise the findings of this study, as the case (as with any other case study) is unique, and it is difficult to find a similar one naturally occurring again. 
    • Even more so, as there were only thirteen participants to this study eight of the original witnesses either moved or did not want to take part. 
  • Yuille and Cutshall concluded that eyewitnesses were in fact not inaccurate, contrary to the findings of the vast majority of previous research into eyewitness testimony, which had all been from laboratory experiments. The misleading questions had had little effect on the eyewitness, which again disagreed with a Loftus' theory of misleading questions. 


Answer the question! 

  • To what extent is memory reliable? State either to a great extent or to a less extent and include supporting reasons why.
    • Because the findings of Loftus & Palmer's experiment are considered invalid, and the experiment lacked ecological validity in comparison tYuille & Cutshall's study, which was a QUASI (natural) experiment, it can be concluded that memory in eyewitness testimony is still reliable, to some extent. 
    • Thus, the unreliability of reconstructive memory (that can be influenced by incorrect/distortive schemas) and research by Loftus shows that memory is reliable to a small extent. However, due to the limitations and artificial nature of Loftus’ work, including that it lacks ecological validity (EV) and demand characteristics were present, which is overcome by Yuille & Cutshall’s real EWT study. This suggests that memory is reliable to a great extent. Overall, it can be considered that memory is reliable to some extent. 
  • Example 
    • CP5: With reference to relevant research studies, to what extent is one cognitive process reliable. We examined this learning outcome in the context of reconstructive memory, firstly with schema theory, and then in the applied field of eyewitness memory and testimony. Write a 22mk response tCP5. Remember that you are developing an argument. If your argument is, “memory is unreliable” then you need to present studies that support this, present studies that refute this, and then explain why you discount the refuting evidence. E.g. present research by Loftus and colleagues supporting memory is unreliable; present research by Yuille for example that criticises the research for ecological validity. An example of a counter-claim to Yuille’s criticisms might be a statement about improvements in ecological validity since Yuille’s criticisms, but you would need evidence of this.