Thursday, April 27, 2006

Gladwell on Eyewitness Testimony

I know I'm probably going overboard with my Malcolm Gladwell reading suggestions, but I really enjoyed his take on an aspect of the Duke Lacrosse "scandal" that I hadn't really considered. It would be nice if any news outlet actually delved into these interesting details, but it really is too much to ask, apparently.

Anyway, Gladwell cites studies that show how challenging the use of eyewitness testimony can be. Surprisingly, eyewitness testimony becomes less reliable when it crosses racial lines:

But the Duke case is an example of another, even more problematic aspect of eyewitness identifications, and that is that we aren’t particular good at making them across races. There is a huge amount of psychological research in their area, pioneered by Roy Malpass at the University of Texas at El Paso. A few years ago, John Brigham and Christian Meissner did a big meta-analysis of all of the cross-racial identification studies and concluded that given the task of picking someone out of a lineup, the average person is something like 1.4 times more likely to correctly identify an own-race face than a different-race face, and 1.6 times more likely to incorrectly identify a different race face. These are not trivial error rates. Clearly we need to treat cross-racial identifications with a special level of caution.

Read the rest. And while you're there, read his insightful post on Barry Bonds, and how statistical analysis alone can help us figure out who's cheating in the future.