Criminal Law

By Rachael Scott


Not guilty? How direct eye contact can influence face recognition

A recent study conducted by the University of Sydney claims to help reduce the number of people incorrectly identified by witnesses as perpetrators of crime, one of the leading causes of wrongful conviction.

Witness identification, the process of police asking a victim or a witness to pick a suspect out of a photographic line-up or identification parade, is a crucial part of an investigation process. The researchers of this study found that a single factor could influence who was chosen, and that was direct eye contact.

The lead author of the study, Dr Jessica Taubert, said that “in line-up recognition tasks, the face looking directly at you is more likely to look familiar than faces looking away from you” and as a consequence, “leads to more misidentification errors.”

The study aims to asses suspected cases of wrongful convictions, as well as topics such as eye witness memory, reliability and false memories. Dr Van Golde, one of the researchers involved in the project, said that mistaken identification was the main reason innocent people were wrongly convicted, stating that “Eye gaze, or direct eye contact, has a very prominent role in recognition,” Dr Van Golde said. “It’s a very strong social cue. If there’s someone looking directly at you, or it feels like they’re looking directly at you, that might have a sense of familiarity to you. It can cause this bias, in giving you this sense of familiarity that’s not there.”

Dr Van Golde said police could minimise the risk of mistaken identification by ensuring all subjects were looking at exactly the same place when photographing them for a line-up. “It doesn’t matter where they look, as long as they are all looking at the same spot,” she said.

The problem of mistaken identification is complex and not easily overcome, she said, but she believes that by taking necessary precautions, police are able to remove one of the factors that might influence wrongful identification.