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Protecting the Innocent: The Cognitive Context of Guilt

In the identification of a criminal suspect, the context can be critical.

Key points

  • The elicitation of eyewitness evidence is a crucial psychological issue.
  • The context of an eyewitness identification can be determinative in accurate or wrongful identification.
  • Contextual issues are especially important in field identification procedures, or "showups."
Matthew Sharps
Matthew Sharps

In our last post, we discussed the field identification procedure or showup, in which a single suspect is shown to witnesses, and those witnesses are asked if this suspect actually committed the crime. The showup has been subjected to a great deal of criticism; even a committee created by Attorney General Janet Reno, over 20 years ago, found the showup to be inherently biased against the suspects. Yet why is this the case?

Criminal identification focuses primarily on the physical attributes of the given suspect; how tall, how heavy, how dressed, and the difficult issue of description of the features of the face. But how does this process operate in a typical showup?

Suppose that a victim was attacked by a medium-sized man, with a medium complexion. The hair was not visible, as the suspect was wearing a baseball cap. He was also wearing dark trousers, a dark T-shirt, and dark sneakers. In other words, our suspect was cleverly disguised as an American man. He was in many ways typical of the average male you might encounter on an American street at any time.

Now, if the crime occurred under conditions of relative darkness, as is frequently the case in violent crime, and if the victim/witness had a very limited exposure time, as is also often the case, the given witness would probably be able to create a mental image of only relatively Gestalt features; relative height, relative darkness of clothing and cap (recall that under darkened conditions, human beings typically cannot distinguish colors). A more feature-intensive image (e.g., Sharps, 2022), which might enable the witness to distinguish the suspect based on idiosyncratic detail, would simply not be visually available under the circumstances of the crime scene.

However, if the witness reported that his or her assailant was a medium-sized man in dark trousers, a dark T-shirt, dark sneakers, and a dark baseball cap, it is very unlikely that the police would have arrested either a small woman in a cream-colored blouse or a very tall man wearing a clown suit. In other words, the suspect presented at a showup is likely to resemble the given suspect in certain key ways.

There is a fascinating psychological phenomenon called satisficing, in which respondents, faced with decision situations, tend to make decisions that are not necessarily ideal, but which are sufficiently close to the ideal that they satisfy minimum requirements. In our hypothetical case, our witness/victim did not have sufficient opportunity to make a solid, feature-intensive analysis of the image of his or her assailant; the image in memory was a relatively Gestalt one, in which major features, not specific details, were those most available to memory.

Given that these relatively non-specific cues to identity were all that were available in the witness's memory, the availability heuristic (e.g., Tversky and Kahneman, 1974) suggests that these nearly-useless, non-specific cues would have had an inordinate influence on the witness's memory; and the principle of satisficing indicates that if these broad, non-specific cues were close enough to those of the witness's memory (see Sharps, 2022), the suspect, including an innocent suspect, would have been more likely to be pronounced guilty.

This tendency may be further exacerbated by the context frequently surrounding a showup in the field. The suspect may be crouched on a curb in handcuffs. Having dealt with a reasonably large number of criminal cases myself, I am unable to recall one in which a suspect looked innocent in handcuffs, especially when crouched on an alley curb.

Several officers, strong, stern, and armed, may surround the suspect. They're just waiting to get back to work, but they look so official—wow, he must be dangerous for them to be guarding him that way.

If a night identification is made under a streetlight, there will be a color shift in the suspect's clothing and complexion that may further confuse issues, and if the police car in which the victim arrives is used to shine its spotlight on him, there will be a single-light effect which may change his features, visually, to a virtually unrecognizable degree.

So, the victim/witness sees a person who almost fits, in terms of physique and clothing, the appearance of an assailant; the context of the observation may include handcuffs and powerful, vigilant armed officers on guard; and if the identification is at night, the lighting context may be such that any idiosyncratic detail which might exonerate an innocent suspect is flooded out by color alterations from street lights, and flattening or shading effects from a single-light source from a squad car.

Also, if our victim/witness had the opportunity to be influenced by other potential witnesses, all bets are off, even under these tenuous circumstances; social influences can bias witnesses in extraordinary ways. This is why it is so crucial for law enforcement officers to keep victims and witnesses of crime completely separate until identifications are properly made. Without such isolation, social factors can bias identifications to an amazing degree (Sharps, 2022).

These considerations are not only important to the falsely accused suspect. They are also crucially important to law enforcement officers, and to the criminal justice system as a whole. Hollywood nonsense notwithstanding, law enforcement officers generally want to make arrests that are legitimate, and which will stand up in court.

The problem is that any arrest based on a showup will likely be subjected to all of the criticisms suggested above; and although showups may be justified under exceptional emergency circumstances, as we saw in our last Forensic View, showup procedures in any given courtroom are likely to be viewed poorly, possibly undermining an otherwise legitimate case.

This is why, whenever possible, eyewitness identification should be supported by a properly conducted lineup. Yet even the lineup is fraught with some hazards for the innocent, and for criminal justice itself. We will take up this topic in our next Forensic View.


Sharps, M.J. (2022). Processing Under Pressure: Stress, Memory, and Decision-Making in Law Enforcement. Park City, Utah: Blue 360 Media.

Tversky, A., & Kahneman, D. (1974). Judgement Under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases. Science, 125, 1124-1131.

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