Facilitating descriptions for unattended persons
: the quality of person descriptions from recall memory following inattentive encoding and facilitation of inattentive memory

  • Ashleigh McGregor

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


Psychological research has provided valuable insight into the reliability of eyewitness memory, advising how best to elicit target information and predicting when errors are most likely. However, most research-based recommendations are based on the performance of ’attentive’ witnesses, who were aware that the stimuli held some level of importance, or who have paid deliberate attention during encoding. In contrast, comparisons of ‘attentive’ and ‘inattentive’ witnesses are less frequent. Inattentive witnesses; those who are unaware they had experienced anything of significance, may not have paid any deliberate attention during encoding. The current thesis aims to examine the amount and accuracy of information reported from witnesses following ‘attentive’ and ‘inattentive’ encoding. Furthermore, it will examine the extent to which techniques that facilitate retrieval can support witnessesin their retrieval attempts following inattentive encoding.

Experiment 1 makes use of a dual task paradigm to examine recall of perpetrator descriptions following the viewing of a mock crime under divided or full attention conditions. A word generation was used to represent a passer-by witness engaging in internal thought unrelated to the incident of interest during the encoding experience. A bag theft scenario was used in the stimulus video while a word generation task was used to divide attention in half of participants. Following a 2-week delay phase, participant recollections were obtained using either a Free Recall (FR) or Mental Reinstatement of Context task (MRC). There were no significant differences in amount of target descriptors recalled or their accuracy, with a floor effect observed in the amount of details provided, suggesting that inattentive and attentive memories are equally incomplete over a delay. However, manipulation checks suggest experimental limitations in relation to the delay phase resulting in floor level recall across conditions. In addition, a manipulation check revealed no correlation between distractor task performance and recall task performance. These issues were addressed through changes to the paradigm used in follow up experiments. However, it remains possible that with an immediate test the divided attention paradigm may be useful in future research.

In Experiment 2 participants were either aware that they were witnessing an incident they would be asked to recall (attentive condition) or unaware of the situation (inattentive condition). A paradigm similar to that used in incidental learning research was used to manipulate attentional focus to investigate the resulting recall of mock witness participants Attentive participants were made aware that they were witnessing an incident of importance being asked to attend to and remember the target (perpetrator) said to be using a stolen bank card, while inattentive participants were unaware of the relevance of the target. In this way attentional focus was manipulated in both a within and between-subjects manner. After viewing the ambiguous video clip of a queue at a bank teller’s window participants were then asked to report their memories for both the attended target character and a non-target bystander by completing either a FR task or a Self-Administered Interview (SAI). Findings show that attentive participants recalled more information about the perpetrator and bystander overall and that the SAI was found to be more effective in facilitating memory than FR. In addition, inattentive participants were able to provide more details about the non-target bystander than attentive participants who were asked to focus their attention on the target participant. No differences in accuracy of person descriptors recalled were found.

Experiment 3, using a within-subjects paradigm similar to that used in Experiment 2, examined memories for attended and non-attended targets following short live interactions with two confederates. Attentional focus was manipulated via instructions delivered during the interaction with an attended target confederate. Participants then reported memories for both the attended target and unattended non-target confederate who participants were exposed to without interaction using a FR task (FR), Disaster Victim information form (DVI) or a novel technique developed for this experiment, the Form for Individualised Descriptions (FIND). Results show a significant main effect of attention instruction with target recall being higher than non-target recall. Accuracy was found to significantly differ with the attended target being recalled more accurately than the non-attended target while no significant accuracy differences were evident between retrieval conditions. In addition, the quantity of information gained was highest in the DVI condition followed by the FIND condition while the FR obtained the lowest number of details. Accuracy was found to be highest in the FR condition, followed by the FIND with lower accuracy levels being observed in the DVI condition. It was therefore concluded that the FIND was the optimum method of the three examined for use with both attentive and inattentive participants.

Finally, Experiment 4 made use of a similar paradigm to experiments 1 and 2 regarding stimuli presentation. Participants viewed an ambiguous video with a scene inserted to manipulate attentional focus and were then asked to report their memories of the target person using a FR initially followed by an MRC task, which aimed to elicit additional information above the baseline obtained in the FR. It was found that more coarse than fine grain information was recalled overall, but the patterns did not vary significantly across encoding conditions (attentive and inattentive). Attentive and inattentive participants’ ability to provide person descriptions in both an initial FR as well as the ability to provide additional details in a follow up MRC was also examined with additional coding examining participants’ ability to provide fine and coarse grain details. It was found that more coarse grain than fine grain information was recalled overall, but the patterns did not vary significantly across encoding conditions (attentive and inattentive).

Collectively these studies indicate that witnesses can produce useful information when retrieval is facilitated appropriately. The implications of these findings for the criminal justice system as well as theoretical cognitive explanations are discussed.
Date of AwardOct 2019
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Abertay University
SupervisorKenneth Scott-Brown (Supervisor) & Sheila Cunningham (Supervisor)


  • Inattentive memory
  • Attentional focus
  • Episodic buffer
  • Spreading activation
  • Encoding specificity
  • Levels of processing
  • Memory facilitation

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