Source of article The Jury Room - Keene Trial Consulting.

We hear a lot about the inaccuracy of eyewitness recall but here’s another strategy to increase eye-witness recall. An Australian researcher wanted to compare the common police interview strategy of “free recall” with a more structured interview technique that places story elements in a specific order (i.e., the Category Cluster Recall Technique). He wondered which strategy would be of more benefit in increasing accuracy and detailed information. So he showed 200 volunteers a video of a woman being mugged and then tested their memory and recall using these two different strategies.

In the standard “free recall” technique, witnesses are asked to tell the story of what they witnessed (in whatever order and style they choose). Conversely, in the Category Cluster Recall strategy, eyewitnesses are asked to tell their story in a specific order:

First, eyewitnesses are prompted to recall what the people involved in the crime looked like.

Second, eyewitnesses are asked to recall what those people did during the crime.

Third, they are asked to describe the environment in which the crime took place.

You might think of this strategy as providing structure for the testimony rather than using the “standard police tactic of free recall” where people are allowed to tell the story in whatever order they choose. The study found that when contrasted with the “free recall” technique, people remembered more correct information using the Category Cluster Recall Technique and they also remembered more additional and different details than they did when allowed to “freely recall” details.

The researcher (Craig Thorley) doesn’t really know why this strategy works better but says it is likely that asking for a focus on one category at a time helps to focus memory on that category and eyewitnesses thus give more detail than they would otherwise. When there are so many issues with eye-witness recall accuracy, using this easy (and free) strategy as well as the other (easy and free) strategies researchers have found to increase witness accuracy in recall just makes sense. In case you missed them, here are some strategies we’ve written about earlier.

Thorley, C. (2018). Enhancing individual and collaborative eyewitness memory with category clustering recall. Memory, January, 1-12.