Research on eyewitness identification often involves exposing participants to a simulated crime and later testing memory using a lineup. We conducted a systematic review showing that pre-event instructions, instructions given before event exposure, are rarely reported and those that are reported vary in the extent to which they warn participants about the nature of the event or tasks. At odds with the experience of actual witnesses, some studies use pre-event instructions explicitly warning participants of the upcoming crime and lineup task. Both the basic and applied literature provide reason to believe that pre-event instructions may affect eyewitness identification performance. In the current experiment, we tested the impact of pre-event instructions on lineup identification decisions and confidence. Participants received non-specific pre-event instructions (i.e., “watch this video”) or eyewitness pre-event instructions (i.e., “watch this crime video, you’ll complete a lineup later”) and completed a culprit-absent or -present lineup. We found no support for the hypothesis that participants who receive eyewitness pre-event instructions have higher discriminability than participants who receive non-specific pre-event instructions. Additionally, confidence-accuracy calibration was not significantly different between conditions. However, participants in the eyewitness condition were more likely to see the event as a crime and to make an identification than participants in the non-specific condition. Implications for conducting and interpreting eyewitness identification research and the basic research on instructions and attention are discussed.



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Cognitive Research: Principles and Implications



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School of Psychology