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Forensic Psychology: Eyewitness Testimonies’ Unreliability Essay

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Updated: Aug 26th, 2020

Munsterberg examined the reliability of the eyewitness testimonies. He was interested in illusionary effects related to witness recall and their role in curbing crime. He conducted a series of scientific demonstrations that formed the basis of his inferences. His work was criticized fiercely for his unconventional research approach and the lack of fundamental explanations for his deductions. However, his groundbreaking experiments helped to inform current practices in handling witness tesmonies.

One reason why he distrusted the eyewitness testimonies was the tendency of the sound mind to make unintentional mistakes. That is so because people do not perceive, arrange, and interpret the same things around them in a similar manner. Munsterberg recounted how he manipulated his testimony related to an earlier encounter with robbers at his home. He found that his own interests, experiences, and prejudices influenced his recollection of events (Prieto, 2012).

To test this hypothesis, Munsterberg did an experiment involving male and female students drawn from two institutions, Harvard and Radcliffe (Porfeli, 2009). The subjects were required to observe some images comprised of dots and report their discovery (Porfeli, 2009). He found that the students gave different results. The inability of the Radcliffe students to make a change in their initial judgment – after the subjects observed the pictures again and discussed among themselves – made Munsterberg to make a provocative supposition that the female temperament is not appropriate for judicial service. He concluded that witness testimonies related to a past crime may not be a reliable source of evidence for use in court due to possible memory distortions and outright manipulation.

Munsterberg also assessed the eyewitnesses’ recall of a past crime or robbery. He presented them with a farmhouse and tested their memory through a series of questions. He found that misleading questions can distort the witnesses and that young people are less resistant to suggestions than adults (Turtle, Read, Lindsay, & Brimacombe, 2008).

In another experiment, Munsterberg evaluated the subjects’ attention through simultaneous hand movements. He found that the subjects could not tell the actions done with the left hand (Turtle et al., 2008). He also showed that the accuracy of a witness’s account is not related to what he or she sees. This showed the existence of complex relationships among attention, recollection, and the feeling of confidence (Memon, Serena, & Fraser, 2008). Generally, these studies have improved our understanding of the “influence of post-event information on memory and the cognitive, social and neurobiological mechanisms underlying memory distortions” (Memon et al., 2008, p. 842). Thus, despite best intentions, good memory, and calm mood, an entire sequence of confusions, forgetting, incorrect conclusions, and concession to suggestions intermingle with what an eyewitness has to report under oath. Eyewitnesses confirm by oath to a blend of truths and lies, a combination of memory and illusions, knowledge and suggestions, and experience and wrong conclusions (Munsterberg, 1908).

Munsterberg’s negative opinion on the eyewitness testimonies led to further research into the credibility of this evidence and today’s perception of the subject has changed significantly (Porfeli, 2009). Thanks to this research, it is now known that factors such as “own race bias, stress and weapon focus, exposure duration and retention interval, lack of correlation between eyewitness confidence and accurate identifications, and problematic post-event information, and suggestive identification procedures” contribute to the unreliability of eyewitness identifications and testimonies (Vallas, 2011, p. 102).

Experimental psychology has experienced prolific growth in the last decades, especially in addressing the problems involved in the witness stand. One of the achievements has been a breakthrough in convincing the jurisprudence of the irregularities rife in eyewitness testimonies. The utilization of psychological and behavioral science specialists during trials helps to reduce these anomalies to some degree. Although courts have reluctantly allowed the use of eyewitness experts to evaluate the validity of eyewitness testimonies, the standards of applicability vary between any two states, federal jurisdictions, or countries.

It is difficult to suggest whether Munsterberg’s views on women inspired his conclusions. The inferences he made about the witness stand and the role of women in the courts were purely influenced by research findings from his experiments. He made remarks against endeavors to empower women and suggested that such efforts would have a negative impact on America’s intellectual work, but his actions were in support of women’s liberation (Prieto, 2012). Despite his own chauvinistic views, he had an amicable and productive relationship with his students, some of whom were feminists. In fact, the early psychology classes he conducted in Freiberg, Germany are hailed for admitting numerous female students, something unusual at that time.

In summary, Munsterberg’s scientific demonstrations aided to support his perception that eyewitness testimonies were unreliable. While his work was ignored by his colleagues because of his abrasive personality, his view of women, and unpopular politics, the next generation of psychologists came to acknowledge his contributions. Subsequently, they improved his witness assessment protocol and campaigned for its implementation in the judicial system. Therefore, modern assessment and treatment of eyewitness evidence have their origins in Munsterberg’s scientific experiments.


Memon, A., Serena, M., & Fraser, J. (2008). Munsterberg’s legacy: What does eyewitness research tell us about the reliability of eyewitness testimony? Applied Cognitive Psychology, 22(7), 841–851.

Munsterberg, H. (1908). On the witness stand: Essays on psychology and crime. New York, NY: DoubleDay, Page & Co.

Porfeli, J. (2009). Hugo Münsterberg and the origins of vocational guidance. The Career Development Quarterly, 57(3), 225-236.

Prieto, L. C. (2012). Women issues to wonder woman: Contributions made by the students of Hugo Munsterberg. Journal of Management History, 18(2), 166- 177.

Turtle, J., Read, J. D., Lindsay, D. S., & Brimacombe, C. A. E. (2008). Toward a more informative psychological science of eyewitness evidence. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 22(5), 769–778.

Vallas, G. (2011). A survey of federal and state standards for the sdmission of expert testimony on the reliability of eyewitnesses. American Journal of Criminal Law, 31(1), 98-135.

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