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Study: Virtual cops could be better at interviewing eyewitnesses than real ones

In the study, the subjects watched a video of a staged car theft and were later interviewed either face-to-face by a research assistant, or by a humanoid avatar

By Police1 Staff

LONDON — A new study suggests that virtual police officers could help improve witness recollections.

In a study conducted by the University of Westminster, London, researchers recruited 38 adults and had them watch a video of a staged car theft before asking them to return two days later. When the subjects returned, they were either interviewed face-to-face with a research assistant, or wore a virtual reality helmet in order to be interviewed by a humanoid avatar.

Both groups were asked the same series of questions used by law enforcement investigators. The first part of the interview asked the subjects to detail what they remembered about the crime, which is known as a free-recall task.

While both groups were about as accurate as the other during this phase, there were some differences noted during the second phase. The subjects were asked specific questions about the crime, such as what color jacket the thief was wearing.

The virtual group was about 60 percent better at the second part of the interview, and got an average of 37 details correct. The face-to-face group got an average of 30 details correct. The virtual group also provided fewer inaccurate details and less conflated information.

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

In surveys taken after the experiment, the subjects interviewed by the avatar reported having an easier time talking and were more comfortable admitting they didn’t remember something. The study did note that the group was less confident that their memories were correct than the face-to-face group.

While the study is meant to be a proof-of-concept experiment, Julia Shaw, a psychologist at the University College London who specializes in memory, told Gizmodo the findings make perfect sense. Shaw, who wasn’t involved with the study, said that when humans interact with each other, “we constantly manage the impression we are making—controlling how we move, speak, what we say.”

“This has two effects. First, it takes a lot of effort, effort that could otherwise be used for remembering what happened,” Shaw said. “Second, the nature of a social interaction can affect how and what we remember. A particularly attractive or friendly interviewer may encourage you to mention more details than you are sure you remember, while a judgmental or distracted interviewer may make you keep your responses too short.”

The researchers said they plan to conduct more trials of this interviewing technique.

“Virtual environments allow interviews to be conducted quickly and remotely—and, our research suggests, more effectively,” study author Coral Dando said in a statement. “It would be nice if our research program starts a conversation about the real possibilities for remote, yet effective, witness interviewing.”