Chatting in the Face of the Eyewitness: The Impact of Extraneous Cell-Phone Conversation on Memory for a Perpetrator

Marsh, John. E orcid iconORCID: 0000-0002-9494-1287, Patel, Krupali, Labonte, Katherine, Threadgold, Emma orcid iconORCID: 0000-0002-9073-0669, Skelton, Faye, Fodarella, Cristina orcid iconORCID: 0000-0001-5551-3450, Thorley, Rachel, Battersby, Kirsty, Frowd, Charlie orcid iconORCID: 0000-0002-5082-1259 et al (2017) Chatting in the Face of the Eyewitness: The Impact of Extraneous Cell-Phone Conversation on Memory for a Perpetrator. Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology [Revue canadienne de psychologie expérimentale], 71 (3). pp. 183-190. ISSN 1196-1961

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Cell-phone conversation is ubiquitous within public spaces. The current study investigates whether ignored cell-phone conversation impairs eyewitness memory for a perpetrator. Participants viewed a video of a staged-crime in the presence of one side of a comprehensible cell-phone conversation (meaningful halfalogue), two sides of a comprehensible cell-phone conversation (meaningful dialogue), one side of an incomprehensible cell-phone conversation (meaningless halfalogue) or quiet. Between 24 and 28 hours later participants freely described the perpetrator’s face, constructed a single composite image of the perpetrator from memory, and attempted to identify the perpetrator from a sequential lineup. Further participants rated the likeness of the composites to the perpetrator. Face recall and lineup identification were impaired when participants witnessed the staged-crime in the presence of a meaningful halfalogue compared to a meaningless halfalogue, meaningful dialogue or quiet. Moreover, likeness ratings showed that the composites constructed after ignoring the meaningful halfalogue resembled the perpetrator less than those constructed after experiencing quiet, or ignoring a meaningfulness halfalogue or a meaningful dialogue. The unpredictability of the meaningful content of the halfalogue, rather than its acoustic unexpectedness, produces distraction. The results are novel in that they suggest that an everyday distraction, even when presented in a different modality to target information, can impair the long-term memory of an eyewitness.

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