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See what you remember

by on 2015/01/20

Difficulties remembering? Just close your eyes and it will all come flooding back. This is not actually a particularly new finding, with several studies showing that eye closure can improve witness recall in the context of forensic psychology.

What did the Researchers Say?

The study, led by Robert Nash and colleagues, actually investigated whether the well-established effect of limiting visual feedback during a memory test was affected by the witness’s familiarity with, and level of comfort around, the person interviewing them. This, of course, would have implications for eyewitness testimony – if a witness is unwilling to close their eyes in front of a scary police officer, they may not be remembering to their full potential. To this end, half of the participants took part in a rapport-building exercise with an interviewer, before being asked a series of questions about a film clip they just watched. Half of the participants in each group undertook this memory task with their eyes closed. Although the authors found that closing eyes did improve memory performance (a fairly substantial amount), and that having a good rapport with the interviewer also led to better memory recall, these effects did not interact with one another. In other words, you still get the same memory benefit from closing your eyes regardless of how comfortable you feel with the interviewer.

What did the Media Say?

This study received fairly wide news coverage, appearing in the usual outlets (Daily Mail, Telegraph), as well as an article on the BBC website. All of the articles focussed strongly on the effect of closing one’s eyes on memory performance. The Daily Mail goes for brain-based take on the findings (“It is thought that blocking out distractions frees up the necessary brainpower to remember things.”), whereas the Telegraph opted to overemphasise the findings (“Closing your eyes is the best way to recall memories and is likely to help find lost items, like car keys, researchers believe”). None of the outlets included a link to the study itself, although the BBC did provide a link to the journal.

The Daily Mail article went a step further by misreporting the findings from the paper, implying that the effects of eye closure did indeed interact with rapport (“Those whose eyes were open got just 48 per cent of the answers right on average – a score much lower than the 71 per cent achieved by those who had shut their eyes. Having built up a rapport with the questioner boosted scores further.”). Such blatant misreporting is, mercifully, pretty rare in the reporting of science. I suspect this error was a consequence of the article being so heavily focused on the replication of the eye closure effect – having not read the scientific article itself, it probably seemed like an unimportant aspect of the study. I suspect the authors of the research article, itself entitled “Does rapport-building boost the eyewitness eyeclosure effect in closed questioning?”, wouldn’t be terribly happy with this misrepresentation of the findings.

It’s not all doom and gloom though. Much better coverage comes from the Huffington Post, who provide a detailed write-up (presumably with details garnered from an interview with the lead author), and even a link to other work highlighting how averting the eyes can improve remembering. The headline from this piece is also a, presumably ironic, take on clickbait headlines (“This Simple Psychological Trick Could Vastly Improve Witness Testimony”), which win it extra brownie points as far as I’m concerned.

Nash, R. A. et al. (2015). Does rapport-building boost the eyewitness eyeclosure effect in closed questioning? Legal and Criminological Psychology. DOI:10.1111/lcrp.12073

One Comment
  1. I’m grateful to Dr Buckingham for scrutinising the recent coverage of my research. Receiving such broad media interest is rewarding, and for me has prompted interesting conversations with people inside and outside of academia. As Gavin notes, most coverage focused solely on the ‘eyeclosure’ benefit to memory (a quite well-established finding) rather than on its relationship with rapport (our novel focus). Consequently, in some of this coverage we have been credited with a ‘discovery’ that has in fact been made many times before – researchers such as Annelies Vredeveldt, Tim Hollins, Graham Wagstaff and others have elucidated far more about the mnemonic effects of eyeclosure than have we thus far. I’m taking this as one opportunity to pass the credit on!

    In a few cases our methods and findings have certainly been misrepresented, but more frequent has been an overgenerous application of our findings to novel domains. I’ve spoken with more than one interviewer in the past week whose main goal was for me to help them find their car keys! The promise of using eyeclosure to find lost objects is plausible, but was not made in the paper, press release, or interviews. Indeed, research suggests that the eyeclosure benefit doesn’t always replicate in every memory task, so although it might be worthwhile giving it a try (unless you’re driving, as others have noted!), it’s important to recognise the limits of the research evidence.

    As Gavin points out, Anna Almendrala of the Huffington Post represented our findings—in particular the relevance of rapport—especially well. As scientists we sometimes struggle with communicating our research to the public, partly because of a reluctance to skim over nuances and caveats that can cloud the ‘headline’ findings. Although not perfect, Almendrala’s article shows that it is possible to do nuance without excluding non-specialist audiences.

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