A crime drama case study

The following task is a small case study which I give to students as a formative assessment.  The goal is to see if they can apply their understandings of both flashbulb memory and memory distortion to a "real life" situation.  I am attaching a Word document for this activity.  When I do these types of assessments, I like to personalize them; you will notice that there the students are from our school, the location of the crime is in the centre of our city of Prague and the names of the students are students in my class.  The PDF file that I have below shows that I even put a photo of the students on the page. You may want to personalize the Word file attached to make the assessment more focused on your own students and potentially make them feel more invested in solving the crime....

The task

A group of ISP Psychology students are standing on Wenceslaus Square enjoying the bright spring sunshine when all of a sudden they hear a woman screaming for help.  She screamed, " Help! A foreigner is attacking me!"  When the students turn they see a man whose back is to them, pointing a gun at the woman.  When Alex yells “HEY!”, the assailant snatches the woman’s purse and runs away.  Matej runs up to the woman to make sure that she is ok.  Nicole and Caroline go running after the thief, but they quickly lose track of him. 

When the police arrive, they ask all of the witnesses to fill out a new checklist that they are trying out.  The check-list included questions about the attacker like:

  • How tall was he?
  • Could you hear an accent when he spoke?
  • What colour were his eyes?
  • Did he limp when he ran away from the scene of the crime?

The students filled out the form and told the police all that they had seen. Before they left, they gave the police their names and numbers to be witnesses at any future time.

That night Matej, Caroline, Alex and Nicole watch the news together.  The main story is about the high number of immigrants in Prague and the fear that crime is increasing in the city. Even though there is no real evidence of crime rates rising, there are several discussions with politicians about the fear that this new wave of immigrants will lead to an increase in crime in the city. 

Another similar crime is committed later in the week on Wenceslaus Square. This time the attacker held a knife to the throat of the woman before he stole her purse.  That night, there is a composite photo of the alleged attacker on all the Czech news networks.   

A week later, the police contact the students to let them know that they have a suspect, whose identity has been confirmed by the woman who was attacked on Wenceslaus Square.  The police would like the students to come in for more questioning.  When they arrive, they are told that the police have taken a young Turk into custody, but that they need the testimony of the ISP students to confirm that he is actually the attacker. They show the students a photo of the man and say, “Is this the man you saw on Wenceslaus Square that day?”

At that point, Nicole says, “You know what? Based on all that Mr Crane has taught us about memory, I am really uncomfortable with this.”  The others agree and decide to tell the police why they fear that this situation is highly likely to lead to a false identification.

Please write the ending of this story. 

  • What did Nicole and the others say to the police?  What are your concerns about how the police have carried out the investigation so far?
  • How reliable do you think that the student witnesses would be?
  • What advice would you give the police for improving the way that they carry out such investigations?
  • Be sure to use the terms “schema”, “confirmation bias” and “reconstructive memory” when answering the question.

Student copy - my original

Student copy - editable Word version

Potential responses

Students may write a range of responses, but here are some common comments about problems with identifying the attacker:

  • The fact that the woman yelled that it was a "foreigner" would serve to create a schema of the attacker.  The view of the attacker was poor for the students.  They saw his back and may have seen his face when chasing him - but not an optimal view.
  • The wording of the questionnaire could have distorted memories.  For example, "Did you hear his accent..."  This could lead to a memory of an accent which did not exist - similar to the Loftus & Zanni study on broken glass.
  • Just the fact that the students were friends and hung out together would mean that they were likely to discuss this incident, creating a schema of what actually happened.
  • The news program on crime and the composite image on the news all serve to distort the memories of the incident.
  • The fact that the police told the students that the victim had already identified the individual and they just needed them to also confirm that the suspect was, in fact, the attacker could lead to confirmation bias - seeing what you think you want or need to see.
  • It appears that a significant amount of time has passed since witnessing the event; it is highly probable that the students' memories are not highly reliable.

Advice to the police:

  • Get rid of the questionnaire.  Carry out a narrative interview in which people are asked to "tell what happened". This should happen as soon as possible and ideally before the witnesses share their stories with each other.
  • A series of photos should be shown to see if the witnesses can identify the suspect.  They should not be told that a suspect has been apprehended or that he has positively identified by the victim.

Going deeper

You may want to read the following article on why police have such out of date psychological theories.

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