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Attribution of crime motives biases eyewitnesses’ memory and sentencing decisions

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In court, the basic expectation is that eyewitness accounts are solely based on what the witness saw. Research on post-event influences has shown that this is not always the case and memory distortions are quite common. However, potential effects of an eyewitness’ attributions regarding a perpetrator’s crime motives have been widely neglected in this domain. In this paper, we present two experiments (N = 209) in which eyewitnesses were led to conclude that a perpetrator’s motives for a crime were either dispositional or situational. As expected, misinformation consistent with an eyewitness’ attribution of crime motives was typically falsely recognised as true whereas inconsistent misinformation was correctly rejected. Furthermore, a dispositional vs. situational attribution of crime motives resulted in more severe (mock) sentencing supporting previous research. The findings are discussed in the context of schema-consistent biases and the effect of attributions about character in a legal setting.
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Keywords: Misinformation effect; attribution; crime motives; eyewitness memory; mock-jurors; sentencing

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: 1: Institute for Psychology, University of Osnabrück, Osnabrück, Germany 2: Department of Psychology, Royal Holloway University of London, London, UK

Publication date: November 25, 2016

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