Psychology Department publishes work on adolescent memory, legal system

October 7, 2011 | Research, UToday
By Christian Stewart

Research from The University of Toledo’s Psychology Department has been published in a top academic journal on memory.

Doctoral student Kathy McGuire, right, talked with Dr. Kamala London about their work that analyzes the effects of peer influence on adolescents’ memory after witnessing a crime.

The Developmental Psychology Lab explores the effects of peer influence on adolescents’ memory after witnessing a crime, focusing on that age group because they are an important part of the criminal justice process, often called upon to be key eyewitnesses in trials.

“There have been studies on adults and studies on children, but little research has been looked at on adolescents, even though adolescents are the most common age for victims and perpetrators of crime,” said Dr. Kamala London, UT associate professor of psychology, in whose lab the research was conducted. “We think this age group is very important when you look at the hundreds of thousands of youth involved in the courtroom.”

She added, “All of the work in my lab focuses on how to optimize young people’s courtroom testimony. We are trying to figure out: ‘What are the best interview methods we can use?’”

The Developmental Psychology Lab’s findings showed that adolescents’ memory is susceptible to peer influence. After witnessing a video-recorded simulated crime, the adolescents viewed a peer’s account of the event. They were then questioned separately. When peer reports were accurate, then eyewitness reports were enhanced. Likewise if peer reports were inaccurate, then eyewitness reports reflected those inaccuracies.

“Most often when adolescents witness a crime, there are other people present. If we have more than one witness reporting the same thing, it is very convincing for a jury. However, the witnesses may not have reported the same thing if they were interviewed separately,” London said. “Our memories do not work like videotapes; they can be surprisingly influenced by things that occur after a crime.”

The department’s research appears in issue 19 of Memory, a leading journal presenting on topics of memory and legal implications.

“Memory is one of the top journals in the field that publishes both basic and applied research on memory,” said Kathy McGuire, a doctoral student who is the first author of the research. “Through the articles published here, you can see how research and theory is applied.”

This research is valuable because memory is so imperfect, yet so important, McGuire said, adding that sometimes it is the only evidence for a crime scene investigation.

“We seek to find ways to reduce faulty eyewitness testimony. Our research can have a big impact in how we carry out courtroom proceedings,” London said.

Aside from improving the way legal proceedings are handled, London and McGuire believe their research will help to bring recognition to The University of Toledo and the Psychology Department.

“We are bringing national and international attention to UT,” London said. “I have been invited to give talks in England, New Zealand and throughout the country.”

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