Study finds alcohol makes witnesses of crime less suggestible to misinformation

08 March 2017

Study finds alcohol makes witnesses of crime less suggestible to misinformation

Researchers from Glasgow Caledonian University (GCU) and London South Bank University have found that alcohol consumed after observing a crime can actually make a person’s eyewitness account more reliable.

Dr Julie Gawrylowicz, who recently joined GCU’s Department of Psychology, Social Work and Allied Health Sciences from London South Bank University, led a study into how alcohol affected the memories of witnesses of crime, which is published in the journal Psychopharmacology

Dr Gawrylowicz’s research team asked participants to watch a simulated crime video, in which a man and a woman entered a house and conducted a survey with the homeowner in the living room. The visitors then stole some jewellery, money and a laptop. The homeowner ran after the thieves realising he has been robbed.

After watching the film, the participants were split into three groups: one third expected and received alcohol; a third of the group did not think they were drinking but did receive alcohol (reverse placebo group); and a third received no alcohol.

While most research would suggest that alcohol can have detrimental effects on an individual’s memory, this study examined whether alcohol consumed after witnessing a crime could make one less vulnerable to misleading post-event information (misinformation).

All 83 study participants, some of whom had consumed alcohol, were exposed to misinformation - such as the colour of the victim’s jumper - embedded in a written narrative about the crime. The following day, participants completed a questionnaire about the event.

Those who did not drink alcohol were found to be more likely to report misinformation compared to the alcohol and reverse placebo group.

According to the British Crime Survey (data from 2012/13 and 2013/14 combined), 70% of public-space violent incidents were alcohol related and 93% of those occurred in pubs, bars, and clubs where alcohol is sold and consumed (Office for National Statistics 2015). Given these numbers, many studies have explored the effects of alcohol on various aspects of eyewitness memory with generally detrimental or null effects of alcohol consumption on memory.

Dr Gawrylowicz said: “We do tend to think that alcohol has a bad effect on memory. We also know there is a strong relationship between alcohol and crime. These new findings suggest that we may oversimplify the effect alcohol has on suggestibility and that sometimes alcohol can have beneficial effects on eyewitness memory by protecting against misleading post-event information. “This might be because alcohol blocks any new incoming information or misinformation from entering the mind, so it is less likely to influence already existing memory. However, this explanation is at the moment speculative and further research is needed. A particularly worrying finding in the current study is that the sober participants were also more likely to be prepared to testify a misled response in a court of law.”

Dr Gawrylowicz has now received a fully-funded PhD-studentship at GCU to explore how alcohol and trauma affects memory. 

 

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