Health, Sports & Psychology
  • Video
  • 5 mins
  • Level 1: Introductory

Misidentification: can you identify the criminal?

Updated Friday 9th April 2010

Professor Graham Pike from the Open University guides us through the eyewitness experience by viewing a crime and identity parade.


Copyright The Open University


Copyright The Open University


Graham Pike: You’re about to see video footage of a staged crime. Please watch it carefully.

Do you think you would make a good witness if you were now interviewed by the police? Would you be able to remember everything about the crime? Can you remember what the person was wearing? Can you remember what the person took? Can you remember how many computers were in the office? Did the person have to unlock the door before entering the office? Although details such as these are important, perhaps the most important information the witness can provide relates to the identity of the perpetrator. As well as describing the appearance of the perpetrator, witnesses are also often asked to identify the perpetrator from an identification parade. Of course, the police first have to find and arrest a suspect before they ask the witness to make an identification, which usually means a gap of four to six weeks between the crime and the identity parade.

So let’s see how good a witness you would be. In a moment, we’re going to show you a photo line up. There will be a letter next to each of the photos in the line up. All you have to do is work out who the perpetrator is and remember their letter. Like most witnesses, you probably didn’t find it that easy to remember what the perpetrator looked like, so let’s work out how you did. Did you pick one of the letters? I’m afraid that if you picked any one from the identity parade you made a misidentification. The perpetrator of the crime you saw previously wasn’t in the parade. So if you picked out anyone, you picked out an innocent suspect. So if you did identify an innocent suspect, why was that? Psychological research has pointed to a number of reasons that could explain this.

Amongst these are the fact that our memory for unfamiliar faces is very inaccurate. The person you saw commit the crime was unfamiliar to you; you only saw them for a few seconds. It’s therefore very hard for you later to identify them, to recognise them. Secondly, you saw all the faces in the identity parade at the same time, that is they were presented simultaneously. When you see faces in the identity parade at the same time what you tend to do is try to pick the best match for the perpetrator, even if that person isn’t the perpetrator, so you look amongst all the faces and you pick the one that most resembles the perpetrator, even if it’s not them. Thirdly, it’s possible that you pick someone out from the line up because I told you to. At the beginning of the identity parade, the instruction that was used was a leading question, it suggested to you that the perpetrator was going to be in the parade because I said pick out who it is and remember their number, so maybe the reason you picked someone out was because you were told to.

Psychologists and the police have worked hard in the UK to overcome these problems, so suggestive questions are not used and the faces are shown one at a time to avoid witnesses simply picking the best match. However, it is very hard to overcome the fact that our memories tend to be very inaccurate. Misidentifications can lead to someone being prosecuted for a crime they did not commit. In 2007, DNA evidence finally exonerated Jerry Miller, who had spent 24 years in a prison for a rape he did not commit. His conviction was based on evidence from two eyewitnesses. Their misidentification led to an innocent person being imprisoned for most of their adult life whilst the real perpetrator walked free. Jerry Miller’s case was the 200th case the US Innocence Project successfully appealed using DNA evidence. Eye witness identifications played a role in 77% of these wrongful convictions.



For further information, take a look at our frequently asked questions which may give you the support you need.

Have a question?

Other content you may like

Starting with psychology Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission free course icon Level 1 icon

Health, Sports & Psychology 

Starting with psychology

The most 'important and greatest puzzle' we face as humans is ourselves (Boring, 1950, p. 56). Humans are a puzzle, one that is complex, subtle and multi-layered, and it gets even more complicated as we evolve over time and change within different contexts. When answering the question 'what makes us who we are?' psychologists put forward a range of explanations about why people feel, think and behave the way they do. Just when psychologists seem to understand one bit of 'who we are' up pops some new evidence to show a different side! It is not easy to pin down all the many influences. This free course, Starting with psychology, makes a start.

Free course
5 hrs
Do books need trigger warnings for distressing content? Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: BBC audio icon

Health, Sports & Psychology 

Do books need trigger warnings for distressing content?

At Lancaster University English literature students have requested that trigger warnings be added to texts that include distressing passages. Claudia Hammond examines.

5 mins
Brainstretcher Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Ifocus | activity icon

Health, Sports & Psychology 


Keep your brain fit and active with our Brainstretcher workout

Oliver Sacks: Creative commons image Icon Steve Jurvetson under CC-BY licence under Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0 license article icon

Health, Sports & Psychology 

Oliver Sacks: "You are in the hands of a master storyteller"

The writer Josh Bernoff hails Oliver Sacks' ability to engage readers from the start.

Psychological drama: Writing fictional crime drama for a forensic psychology course Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Micha Klootwijk | article icon

Health, Sports & Psychology 

Psychological drama: Writing fictional crime drama for a forensic psychology course

For Graham Pike, writing psychology courses is part of the job. But what happened when he found himself having to create a crime drama?

Working mothers and guilt Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Production team article icon

Health, Sports & Psychology 

Working mothers and guilt

Studying animals too closely may have mislead psychologists to overwhelm working parents with guilt.

Does Inside Out accurately capture the mind of an 11-year-old girl? A child psychologist weighs in Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Tanyaru | - White Eggs With Different Emotions In Tray Horizontal Photo article icon

Health, Sports & Psychology 

Does Inside Out accurately capture the mind of an 11-year-old girl? A child psychologist weighs in

Is it enough to use Joy, Sadness, Fear, Disgust and Anger to portray a pre-pubescent child's behaviour?

The psychology of conspiracy theories Creative commons image Icon under CC-BY licence under Creative-Commons license article icon

Health, Sports & Psychology 

The psychology of conspiracy theories

 Why do people believe sometimes outlandish conspiracy theories? You need to look beyond the individual to start to understand, explains Jovan Byford.

Falling hard: Why do Americans love pumpkin so much? Creative commons image Icon Jackie under a CC-BY under Creative-Commons license article icon

Health, Sports & Psychology 

Falling hard: Why do Americans love pumpkin so much?

When leaves start to turn colour, it's a signal for Americans to add pumpkin spice to almost everything. Why do they do that? Is it something in their brains?