Let’s say that you’re watching a taped television show in which someone is being interviewed about an alleged theft she may or may not have committed. She offers a detailed explanation as to why she’s innocent, and you as one viewer among many are left to decide if she’s telling the truth.
Now let’s say that instead of watching her on broadcast television, you’re watching her live on closed circuit television. Only you can see her being interviewed about the alleged crime – it’s just you, a TV monitor and a woman in a room telling her story.
Finally, imagine that instead of watching her on any sort of television, you are sitting across the table from her, listening to her explain why she’s innocent.
Under which of those three conditions do you think you’d find the woman more believable?
The answer may have much to do with a dynamic called the “vividness effect,” which suggests that vivid testimony—that which is perceived as emotionally interesting, concrete and proximate—will be paid more attention, perceived as more credible, and better remembered than “non-vivid” testimony. By this argument, if you are listening to someone tell a compelling story of their innocence in person—the condition that offers the greatest proximity and opportunity for emotional engagement—you are more likely to find her credible than you would if watching her on a TV screen (assuming, that is, that the televised presentation hasn’t been edited and enhanced to artificially inflate its vividness).
A new study in the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology tested this theory by having adult observers watch children testify about an experience in specific detail. One group of children testified about a real event (an encounter with a stranger that the researchers had staged); another group testified about an imagined event (an imagined encounter with a stranger).
Adults observed the children in three conditions: (1) a live interview (2) a live closed circuit TV interview (3) a videotaped interview. The adults were asked to evaluate the testimony across several criteria, including how plausible and convincing it was, how confident they believed the child to be, and whether the child’s testimonial style was defensive, straightforward, natural, or nervous.
The results: Across the board, children testifying in the live interview, whether they were describing the real or imagined event, were perceived in more positive terms than children in the closed circuit TV and videotaped conditions. In turn, children in the closed circuit condition were perceived more positively than those in the videotaped condition. By far, the most significant gap was found between the live and videotaped conditions, suggesting that the displacement of proximity inherent in videotaping drastically reduces vividness, and along with it, believability.
The most obvious implication of this finding is how courtroom testimony is perceived. In some countries, witnesses are allowed to testify via closed circuit TV rather than having to face the defendant and a courtroom full of observers in court (an arrangement offered particularly to children who have experienced trauma). This study suggests that witness credibility could be handicapped if anything but live testimony is presented.
One interesting twist – after the study, children were asked to rate how nervous they felt in person versus being videotaped. As might be expected, they generally reported being less nervous when videotaped and found the non-live interviews easier than the live interviews. Yet, adults perceived the videotaped children as more nervous and less confident than those in the live interviews, which suggests a predisposition to perceiving the videotaped interviews as less credible – the believability bar was higher for non-live interviews from the start.
In other words, we’re conditioned to perceive things that are videotaped with more skepticism, and convincing us otherwise isn’t easy by any stretch.
Landström, S., & Granhag, P. (2009). In-court versus out-of-court testimonies: Children’s experiences and adults’ assessments Applied Cognitive Psychology DOI: 10.1002/acp.1606
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Wanted to let you know that I’ve started a new blog on the True/Slant network called Brainspin. I’ll be focusing there on what technology is, or isn’t, doing to our heads. Neuronarrative will continue with regular programming here as usual — no changes — I’ll just be writing a few more posts each week at True/Slant as well. Please visit when you can, we’re going to have some serious fun over there. Thanks!