WSU Professor Conducts Eyewitness Eye-Tracking Research With Important Implications

OGDEN, Utah – Race can play a critical role in how eyewitnesses identify criminal suspects, according to a Weber State University professor who has 25 years experience conducting eye-tracking research.

WSU professor of communication Sheree Josephson recently conducted a study examining how an eyewitness visually tracks photographs used in criminal lineups. Her findings were published in an national research journal.

In the past, Josephson’s eye-tracking research mostly consisted of usability testing in seeing how a person’s eyes track websites, advertisements, software applications, etc., but recently she chose to tackle much heavier subject matter.

“I became interested in applying eye-tracking to eyewitness identification after my experience with a murder trial of a Woods Cross motel clerk,” Josephson said. “We did eye tracking to try to show that the photo array may have been unfair. This wasn't admitted as evidence into the trial, but that's how I became interested in this topic.”

Josephson then came across the work of The Innocence Project, a national organization dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted individuals. The Innocence Project states that since 1991, 244 people in the United States have been exonerated of a previous conviction through DNA testing. More than 75 percent of those cases involved mistaken eyewitness identification — and of those, nearly half involved a person wrongfully identifying a person of a different race.

Cross-race recognition deficit (CRRD), also known as own-race bias, is a well-documented issue that explores the difficulty of recognizing the faces of people of a different race. Generally, people are much better at identifying faces of those of their own race than faces of another race. Josephson explored this in her study.

Josephson traveled to North Carolina to conduct the research, so that she could work in a more diverse community, better acquainted with a mix of races. She worked with WSU Multimedia Services to create a video of a hypothetical crime being committed. The participants in the study watched the video, waited 24 hours, then came back to identify the suspect in the video.

“The findings were interesting,” Josephson said. “The study confirmed the high rate which people make mistakes in identifying suspects in cross-racial eyewitness identification situations. The eye tracking showed differences between how whites and how blacks viewed the photo lineups. Whites tended to make a quick decision with few comparisons being made to the other photos, while blacks tended to be very cautious, making lots of comparisons. Maybe this is indicative of what has been happening in society. A number of blacks have been wrongly incarcerated for crimes against whites. The black community may realize these issues.”

Eyewitness identification has been a hot topic in the news lately, with a number of high-profile cases nationally dealing with wrongful identification. It’s also a topic that generates a lot of interest from the entertainment industry, as evidenced by the number of TV shows that have tackled the subject.

Josephson hopes that her research can make a difference in how law enforcement agents use and understand eyewitness identification. She’ll be working on another study this summer, this time in Utah, comparing sequential lineups to photo arrays. She believes she could be the first to study the comparison using eye tracking.

Josephson’s study, “Selecting the Suspect: An Eye-Tracking Comparison of Viewing of Same-Race vs. Cross-Race Photographs in Eyewitness Identification” appeared in the October-December 2011 issue of Visual Communication Quarterly.

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Sheree Josephson, communication professor
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Jon McBride, office of Media Relations
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