Virtual Cops Could Be Better at Interviewing Eyewitnesses Than Real Ones, Study Suggests

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This virtual avatar might not be a looker, but a recent study suggests he’s better than a human interviewer at getting accurate information about a crime from a witness.
Screenshot: Taylor, et al (Frontiers in Psychology)

As many a crime documentary has made clear, eyewitness testimony is often much less accurate than you might think. But a new study published recently in Frontiers in Psychology suggests there could be a relatively simple way to improve witness recollections: Have a virtual avatar do the interviewing instead of a cop.

Researchers at the University of Westminster, London recruited 38 adult volunteers, 26 of whom were women, for their study.

The subjects watched a video of a (staged) car theft, then were asked to return two days later. On the second visit, they were interviewed about the incident in one of two ways. They either had a face-to-face interview with a research assistant in an nondescript room, or wore a virtual reality headset (the Oculus Rift) that placed them in a stimulation of that same room, where they were interviewed by an humanoid avatar. Both groups were asked the same series of questions used by UK law enforcement when investigating a crime.

The first part of the interview had the volunteers detail whatever they remembered about the crime, known as a free-recall task. Both groups were about as accurate as the other in this phase. But the virtual group was about 60 percent better at the second part of the interview, when they were asked specific questions about the crime. The virtual group got an average of 37 details correct (such as what color jacket the thief was wearing), while the face-to-face group got an average of 30 details correct. The virtual group also provided fewer inaccurate details, as well as less conflated information (e.g., a false memory of something that never happened).

“These novel findings, and our pattern of retrieval results indicates the potential of avatar-to-avatar communication in virtual environments,” the authors wrote.

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