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Racial Stereotypes Shape Eyewitnesses’ Memories

When crime victims are white, eyewitnesses often describe black suspects in stereotypical terms.

By Tom Jacobs


(Photo: Clyde Robinson/Flickr)

Anyone who has ever watched a television crime drama is familiar with the police line-up. An eyewitness to a crime is asked to pick out the perpetrator from a group of suspects; a positive I.D. can ultimately lead to a conviction.

It’s a deeply flawed system for a number of reasons, and new research presents evidence of yet another serious issue: Under certain specific but common circumstances, witnesses tend to remember a black suspect as having stereotypically African-American facial features.

“Past research has assumed that there is no systematic pattern to who is mistakenly identified by eyewitnesses,” writes a research team led by University of British Columbia psychologist Paul Davies. The researchers’ study suggests such patterns do, in fact, exist — and recognizing them is essential to determining a suspect’s actual guilt or innocence.

Davies and his colleagues provide evidence of this dynamic in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science. They describe two studies created to determine if people accused of “stereotypically black crimes” are seen as stereotypically black.

The first featured 136 University of British Columbia undergraduates who “were told that they were about to watch a surveillance video of a criminal suspect leaving a building.” Specifically, they were led to believe that the perpetrator was suspected of committing a drive-by shooting.

Given the right combination of crime and victim, people “see” suspects in ways that align with their deep-seated prejudices.

After watching the video, which “showed a moderately stereotypical black male exiting an ambiguous building carrying nothing in his hands,” participants were given information about his three alleged victims. One-third were told they were white men; another third were told they were black men; and the final third were simply told they were men, with no race specified.

Following a 10-minute break, all participants watched a video that “morphs the suspect’s face” over the course of 100 frames, from not at all racially stereotypical to extremely stereotypical (with a “broad nose, full lips, and dark complexion”).

Participants “were asked to stop the morph at the exact moment when the morphed face matched the suspect’s face.” In actuality, the man seen in the video was portrayed accurately at the 50th frame.

The results: “Eyewitnesses who believed the victims of the drive-by shooter were black accurately identified” the suspect. In contrast, those who were told the victims were white, or might have been white, “falsely identified the suspect as being more stereotypically black than he is in reality.”

The second study, conducted online with 340 participants, was similarly structured, except that the black man seen in the surveillance video was described as a suspect in either a crime associated with blacks (a drive-by shooting) or one that has no racial overtones (being a serial killer). His victims were variously described as white men, white women, black men, or black women.

Participants erroneously saw him as more stereotypically blackif he was accused of a drive-by shooting, and his victims were white men, or black or white women. They did not make that error if his victims were other black men.

Those who were told he may be a serial killer remembered him more or less accurately. The bias of seeing a black suspect as having stereotypically black features was only activated when he was accused of a crime often associated with black men.

So, given the right combination of crime and victim, people “see” suspects in ways that align with their deep-seated prejudices. This can lead to misidentifications and wrongful arrests; it can also make it more difficult to convict actual criminals.

Previous research has found jurors tend to find eyewitness testimony persuasive. This study adds to the evidence that they should not.