We Humans Are Terrible Eyewitnesses

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Today’s lesson is about misguided headline writing. A friend just sent me a news article with the following headline:

Drunk eyewitnesses are more reliable than expected

Here’s the story: Some researchers in Sweden rounded up three groups of people. One group was left sober, one got a little tipsy, and the third got a little tipsier still. Then they all watched a video of a kidnapping, and a week later they were asked to ID the kidnapper. The tipsiest group did the best.

So what’s wrong with the headline? It’s backward. Here’s how it should read:

Study says sober eyewitnesses no more reliable than drunkards

The real story here is that eyewitnesses pretty much suck all the time. Ply them with a few drinks and….they’re still terrible. It’s possible that they’re slightly less terrible, though the Swedish study is actually inconclusive on that point thanks to its small sample size. But the main takeaway, as mountains of research have already demonstrated, is that we humans are just no good as eyewitnesses. A little bit of alcohol hardly makes a difference.

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