The impact of irrelevant auditory facial descriptions on memory for target faces: implications for eyewitness memory

DOIhttps://doi.org/10.1108/JFP-08-2014-0029
Pages271-280
Publication Date09 November 2015
Date09 November 2015
AuthorJohn E. Marsh,Jack Demaine,Raoul Bell,Faye C. Skelton,Charlie D. Frowd,Jan P. Röer,Axel Buchner
SubjectHealth & social care,Criminology & forensic psychology,Forensic practice
The impact of irrelevant auditory facial
descriptions on memory for target faces:
implications for eyewitness memory
John E. Marsh, Jack Demaine, Raoul Bell, Faye C. Skelton, Charlie D. Frowd, Jan P. Röer and
Axel Buchner
Dr John E. Marsh is Research
Fellow at the Department of
Psychology, University of
Central Lancashire,
Preston, UK.
Jack Demaine is based at the
Department of Psychology,
University of Central
Lancashire, Preston, UK.
Dr Raoul Bell is based at the
Department of Experimental
Psychology, Heinrich-Heine-
Universität, Dusseldorf,
Germany.
Dr Faye C. Skelton is
Lecturer at the Life, Sport and
Social Sciences, Edinburgh
Napier University,
Edinburgh, UK.
Dr Charlie D. Frowd is based at
the Department of Psychology,
University of Winchester,
Winchester, UK.
Dr Jan P. Röer and Professor
Axel Buchner both are based at
the Department of
Experimental Psychology,
Heinrich-Heine-Universität,
Dusseldorf, Germany.
Abstract
Purpose The purpose of this paper is to investigate the potential susceptibility of eyewitness memory to the
presence of extraneous background speech that comprises a description consistent with, or at odds with,
a target face.
Design/methodology/approach A between-participants design was deployed whereby participants
viewed an unfamiliar target face in the presence of quiet, or extraneous to-be-ignored speech comprising a
verbal description that was either congruent or incongruent with the target face. After a short distractor task,
participants were asked to describe the target face and construct a composite of the face using PRO-fit
software. Further participants rated the likeness of the composites to the target.
Findings Recall of correct facial descriptors was facilitated by congruent to-be-ignored speech and
inhibited by incongruent to-be-ignored speech compared to quiet. Moreover, incorrect facial descriptors
were reported more often in the incongruent speech condition compared with the congruent speech
and quiet conditions. Composites constructed after exposure to incongruent speech were rated as worse
likenesses to the target than those created after exposure to congruent speech and quiet. Whether
congruent speech facilitated or impaired composite construction was found to depend on the distinctiveness
of the target face.
Practical implications The results suggest that the nature of to-be-ignored background speech has
powerful effects on the accuracy of information verbally reported from having witnessed a face. Incongruent
speech appears to disrupt the recognition processes that underpin face construction while congruent
speech may have facilitative or detrimental effects on this process, depending on the distinctiveness of the
target face.
Originality/value This is one of the first studies to demonstrate that extraneous speech can produce
adverse effects on the recall and recognition of complex visual information: in this case, the appearance
of a human face.
Keywords Face recognition, Composites, Auditory distraction, Eyewitness memory, Face recall,
Misinformation
Paper type Research paper
To simply avoid processing sensory information within the visual modality, eyes can be closed or
gaze averted. Within the auditory modality, this feat cannot be achieved easily: even though,
one may not be attending to the auditory world around us, extraneous background sound is
processed obligatorily (Hughes and Jones, 2001). Therefore, despite ones best efforts to ignore
it, background sound will sometimes inevitably disrupt cognitive processes even when it
is irrelevant to the task at hand. Although much is known about the impact of background
sound on visual-verbal serial short-term memory (Hughes and Jones, 2001), little is known
about whether, and how, background sound impairs memory for complex visual information
Received 31 August 2014
Revised 8 December 2014
12 February 2015
19 August 2015
Accepted 19 August 2015
DOI 10.1108/JFP-08-2014-0029 VOL. 17 NO. 4 2015, pp. 271-280, © Emerald Group Publishing Limited, ISSN 2050-8794
j
JOURNAL OF FORENSIC PRACTICE
j
PAG E 27 1

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