Using Cognitive Psychology To Fight Crime

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Witnesses to crime are much more likely to remember the details of who did what if they record what happened using a new timeline-based approach, according to new research reported on the website of the University of Portsmouth in the UK:

“The research, lead by applied cognitive psychologist Lorraine Hope, is published in the Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition.

Hope and colleagues tested the memories of witnesses to a mock filmed crime using various interview and recall methods.

Those given the freedom to provide their report on a timeline from when the crime started to when it ended, using notes stuck to the timeline to indicate who did what and what happened, performed significantly better, remembering nearly 50 per cent more information, than those asked to recall facts in the ‘start at the beginning and tell me what you saw’ traditional interview approach.

Mock witnesses asked to recall on a timeline what they saw even two weeks after the ‘crime’ also outperformed other witnesses.

Recalling detailed information about a witnessed event, such as a robbery, assault or other crime, has been shown to be a cognitively demanding task.

The researchers’ timeline approach fixes the time during which the crime or incident took place but allows people to move around the ‘who’ and the ‘what’ of a crime they’ve witnessed until they are satisfied with the accuracy of the account of what they have witnessed.

Hope said: ‘Traditional interviews often require that witnesses start at the beginning and keep going until the end, but this may not be the best way of helping people remember complex events with multiple perpetrators.’

Hope continues: ‘It is likely the timeline technique reduces the constraints associated with linear “start-at-the-beginning” approaches. The timeline technique reduces the cognitive load on the brain, people no longer have to hold details or rehearse them in their memory. Instead they can record things immediately and put them into sequence later.'” (Read more here.)

I found this so interesting—it makes so much sense to use what we know about human memory to improve its functioning in all sorts of settings, instead of simply using the techniques we’ve always used for tradition’s sake.

I wonder if the timeline technique could be used in other settings to help people remember—for example, helping history students remember a long and complicated series of historical events. Lots of possibilities here.

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