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Could Sober Eyewitnesses Be Less Reliable Than Intoxicated Ones?

A new study out of Sweden throws doubt on the alcohol myopia theory.
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Members of the jury: Surely you can’t believe that witness who says he saw my client fleeing the scene of the crime. After all, he admits he was intoxicated!

A recently published study from Sweden suggests that defense-attorney argument may be less valid than it sounds.

A research team led by University of Gothenburg psychologist Angelica Hagsand had 123 people watch a film depicting a staged kidnapping. One-third had just consumed a strong drink of Absolut vodka and pulp-free orange juice. Another third had consumed a weaker version of the same concoction, while the remainder stayed sober.

One week later, all were asked to identify the bad guy in a lineup. Overall, "the identification rate of the culprit was poor," the researchers write in the European Journal of Psychology Applied to Legal Context. But "the intoxicated eyewitnesses performed on the same level as their sober counterparts."

Specifically, in a lineup, 40 percent of those who had consumed the higher dose of alcohol were able to single out the actual perpetrator. This means they did better than members of the sober group, only 25 percent of whom correctly identified the bad guy.

In a second lineup, where the perpetrator was not present, 45 percent of the heavily-intoxicated eyewitnesses accurately rejected all the suspects. Again, they did better than the sober group: only about 24 percent of those participants correctly stated that the perpetrator was not in the lineup.

In that same lineup, the rate of falsely selecting someone else for the crime was roughly equal for the heavily-intoxicated and sober groups (and less for the only slightly-intoxicated group). That result throws doubt on the “alcohol myopia theory,” which suggests that intoxicated eyewitnesses are more likely to falsely identify a suspect who looks similar to the perpetrator.

The researchers concede that these healthy college students, none of whom were problem drinkers, may not be representative of the average eyewitness to a crime. So they shy away from drawing any definitive conclusions. But if nothing else, this research provides a reminder that eyewitness identification is never Absolut-ely reliable.