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FAU Researcher Investigates Memory Recall During Eyewitness Testimony to Criminal Events

JUPITER, FL (June 2, 2010) – Julie Earles, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at Florida Atlantic University’s Harriet L. Wilkes Honors College, is conducting a study on how people successfully form, store, and retrieve memories, and the circumstances in which their memory systems fail.

“Memory failure during eyewitness testimony regarding criminal events can be extremely problematic because court systems often place a great deal of weight on the testimony of confident eyewitnesses,” said Earles.

Earles and her students are focused on ascertaining why eyewitnesses make errors. They are conducting lab work to find answers to this important question. In the lab, they ask participants to watch movies with actors performing various actions. First, they ask the participants to try to remember which actor performed the specific action in the film clips they watch. Following this exercise, Earles and her students then test the memory of the participants. Participants are shown three basic types of events, including: “old events” in which they see an actor doing the same thing as before; “new events “in which they see a new actor and action; and “conjunction events" in which they see a familiar actor perform a familiar action that had actually been performed by someone else.  

“There are many examples of people who have been wrongly convicted of crimes based on false eyewitness testimony,” said Earles. Eyewitnesses often make errors that resemble the false recognition of conjunction events. The eyewitness remembers the crime and the accused person, but incorrectly binds the accused person with a crime that was actually performed by someone else. Earles refers to this scenario as a “binding” error in memory.

“In the lab, we manipulate conditions to determine when and how these binding errors occur,” said Earles. “We have found, for example, that if people are distracted or are under time constraints or pressure when making a response, they tend to make eyewitness errors.”

The implications of this research are significant, and Earles has expanded her studies by including a number of FAU undergraduate students as her research partners. They have jointly co-authored journal articles on this subject, and presented their research at conferences and symposiums.

 “We value important, peer-reviewed research that allows our undergraduate students to work closely with an accomplished faculty mentor and researcher,” said Jeffrey Buller, Ph.D., dean of FAU’s Wilkes Honors College. “The results from this study have the potential for significant impact on and benefit to both law enforcement and our judicial system.”

- FAU -

The Harriet L. Wilkes Honors College, located on FAU’s John D. MacArthur Campus, is a four-year residential liberal arts & science college for high achieving undergraduates.

About Florida Atlantic University:

Florida Atlantic University opened its doors in 1964 as the fifth public university in Florida. Today, the University serves more than 28,000 undergraduate and graduate students on seven campuses and sites. Building on its rich tradition as a teaching university, with a world-class faculty, FAU hosts 10 colleges: Dorothy F. Schmidt College of Arts & Letters, the Charles E. Schmidt College of Biomedical Science, the College of Business, the College for Design and Social Inquiry, the College of  Education, the College of  Engineering & Computer Science, the Harriet L. Wilkes Honors College, the Graduate College, the Christine E. Lynn College of Nursing and the Charles E. Schmidt College of Science. For more information, visit .

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