The impact of physical and mental reinstatement of context on the identifiability of facial composites

Fodarella, Cristina (2020) The impact of physical and mental reinstatement of context on the identifiability of facial composites. Doctoral thesis, University of Central Lancashire.

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Numerous studies demonstrate that memory recall is improved by reflecting upon, or revisiting, the environment in which information to-be-recalled was encoded. The current thesis sought to apply these ‘context reinstatement’ (CR) techniques in an attempt to improve the effectiveness of facial composites—likenesses of perpetrators constructed by witnesses and victims of crime. Participant-constructors were shown an unfamiliar target face in an unfamiliar environment (e.g., an unknown café). The following day, participants either revisited the environment (physical context reinstatement) or recalled the environmental context in detail along with their psychological state at the time (mental context reinstatement, Detailed CR); they then freely recalled the face and constructed a facial composite using a holistic (EvoFIT) or a feature system (PRO-fit). Over the course of five experiments and meta-analyses, Detailed CR of the environmental context was effective at increasing correct naming and likeness ratings of ensuing composites. The size of the advantage for Detailed CR was dependent on the extent to which the environment had been encoded: the advantage was (i) variable for incidental encoding (Experiments 1-3) with an overall small effect size (ES) (assessed by meta-analysis), (ii) best (very large ES) under intentional encoding (Experiment 3) and (iii) intermediate (large ES) for incidental encoding when participants were encouraged to engage naturally with the environment (Experiment 4). Detailed CR was also found to be effective when combined with a specific interviewing technique (Holistic-Cognitive Interview) where constructors focused on the target’s character; it was no more effective when constructors were prompted to recall the environment in greater detail. Further analyses (Meta-analyses) and additional data (Experiment 5) indicate that the advantage of Detailed CR was mediated by an increase in constructor’s total face recall. Results are interpreted in terms of the encoding specificity principle and can be applied by forensic practitioners who use feature and recognition systems.. This thesis is the first to reveal that context cues can be implemented effectively during forensic face construction using modern composite systems.

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