Home > Memory > Are you sure about that? How different lineup presentations affect eyewitness testimony

Are you sure about that? How different lineup presentations affect eyewitness testimony

Jennifer Thompson’s life was picture perfect. She was set to graduate college with a perfect GPA and she was well-liked amongst her peers. Nothing could possibly go wrong. Until the night of July 28th, 1984. An attacker broke into her apartment, held her at knife-point, and raped her. Determined not to die that night and for justice to be served, Thompson burned the face of her attacker into her memory so that she could recognize him later. Thompson chose Ronald Cotton as her attacker in two different lineups. Cotton was then sent to prison based primarily on Thompson’s eyewitness identification. Thompson celebrated that night when Cotton was taken away, because justice served that night. The man who committed a heinous crime against her, was in prison, and she had won. However, when DNA evidence was tested 11 years later, Thompson found out that Cotton was innocent and that she was responsible for sending an innocent man to prison. Her attacker was actually a man named Bobby Poole. Later, when Thompson saw Bobby Poole’s face, she did not even recognize him as her attacker.

Cotton (left) and Poole (right). Would you be able to tell the difference?

This is a familiar story of approximately 300 individuals who were sent to jail based primarily on eyewitness identification, only to be exonerated years later with DNA evidence. The Innocence Project works at helping individuals stuck in this situation. In addition to the Innocence Project’s work, we should also be working towards reforming the aspects of the criminal justice system that involves eyewitness testimony processes. 

Eyewitness testimony relies on our ability to recognize faces. We think we’re very good at this task, but being good at recognizing faces actually only applies to familiar faces. When it comes to unfamiliar faces, it’s more like trying to take a stab at something in the dark. Recognizing unfamiliar faces is much more difficult and results in more errors for us (Young & Burton, 2017). The reason why we’re so bad at recognizing unfamiliar faces is because we haven’t seen them in several different settings. For example, think of the many times you have seen your parents or siblings in several different settings, such as various lighting or different moods/facial expressions. It’s safe to say that you would probably be able to recognize them when presented in a novel setting because that setting might be similar to another setting where you’ve recognized them before. For someone who’s unfamiliar, you do not have as many contexts to compare to, making it more difficult to identify a person (Young & Burton, 2017). 

The real-life implications of the fact that we are bad at recognizing unfamiliar faces is huge. It throws a massive wrench into eyewitness testimonies because victims might only have a few seconds to look at their attackers face. This means that trying to recognize them from a lineup is seemingly impossible. Additionally if we perceive that we are in a dangerous situation, if weapons are involved, or if the assailant is a different race from you, our ability to remember the specifics and faces is negatively impacted. This is because we are typically paying more attention to surviving rather than memorizing the details of someone’s face. Furthermore, we are also worse at recognizing differences in facial features of people from other races than of our own. While we cannot control when we are going to get attacked, if a weapon is present at an attack, or the race of our attacker, we can try to reduce steps in the process of eyewitness testimony that result in mistakes in our memory. One of these steps could be the way in which lineups are set up.

There are two types of lineups used in the criminal justice system. Simultaneous lineups or sequential lineups. In a simultaneous lineup, the witness views everyone at the same time. In a sequential lineup each face is shown one at a time. Typically, a suspect is placed among four or five other foils. Foils are innocent people who are chosen to be in a lineup. Foils typically bear a similar resemblance to the suspect.

A simultaneous lineup of peeps and a chick.

A cognitive pitfall of the simultaneous lineup procedure is that the eyewitness is making a relative decision. A relative decision means that they are choosing a member of the lineup who best resembles their memory of the culprit relative to others in the lineup (Lindsay & Wells, 1985). In comparison, those who use a sequential method would be using an absolute decision making strategy. The simultaneous/relative decision method is argued to be at a major disadvantage because it can produce a confident response, even if the true culprit is not present. This can be seen in the Jennifer Thompson and Ronald Cotton case. After witnessing a staged crime, Lindsey and Wells (1985) had witnesses view a simultaneous lineup or a sequential lineup. Then, they compared the number of accurate identifications and misidentifications. What they found was that simultaneous lineup procedures resulted in more false identifications than sequential lineup procedures. Both methods had similar rates of accurate identifications as well. Because the sequential/absolute decision making strategy produced less misidentifications than the simultaneous/relative decision, it was argued that the sequential/absolute decision making process was superior. The logic behind this is that instead of comparing faces against each other, the witness is comparing the faces against a pure mental image they have of the culprit in their head. 


Cotton stands in a simultaneous lineup holding the number “5”. Bobby Poole was not present in the lineup.

For the reasons described above, the sequential procedure has been garnering attention from both cognitive psychologists and criminal justice experts. In order to solidify their position that the sequential method was the superior method, researchers conducted a field study in Hennepin County, MN. Field studies are valuable to researchers because they give real-life evidence of theories working or not working. Hennepin County shifted from a simultaneous lineup procedure to a sequential lineup procedure and found that in real-life situations, eyewitnesses made fewer misidentifications with the sequential method.  

Why hasn’t there been a major shift to the sequential lineup procedure? Well, things aren’t as straightforward as they seem. Recent research has been going back and reevaluating the simultaneous method and the study conducted by Lindsay and Wells (1985) that influenced the use of the sequential lineup method. In particular, a new theory called the Diagnostic Feature-Detection (DFD) theory proposes that we are better able to detect those distinguishable features (that aid in making an accurate decision) in a simultaneous lineup than a sequential lineup (Wixted & Mickes, 2014).

Support for the DFD theory comes from a recent study conducted in 2019, where participants watched a staged crime and then were either shown a simultaneous or sequential lineup of the suspects afterwards (Seale-Carlisle et al., 2019). Receiver operating characteristic (ROC) data was used. ROC data examines the accuracy of things requiring a true/false decision. In this context, is used to compare the rate of accurate identifications and misidentifications. What researchers found was that the simultaneous method had a lower false identification rate than the sequential method (Seale-Carlisle et al., 2019). Researchers attributed this to the fact that eyewitnesses could differentiate and discriminate between facial features that were shared and not-shared (Seale-Carlisle et al., 2019). Witnesses used the facial features that were the most different between the members of the lineup to make their decision. For example, shared features might be the description “White male in his early 20’s with brown eyes”, and police will subsequently search for people who match this description. However, when witnessing the crime occur, one might pick up on distinguishable features such as the shape of his face and the size of his eyes.

So is one method truly better than the other? Well the jury’s still out on this one. Are we going to switch to sequential lineup procedure because they lead to less misidentifications based on absolute decision making? Or stick to simultaneous lineup procedures because they allow the eyewitness to distinguish better between suspects? While the answers to these questions might be resolved sometime in the future, what we do know right now is that no matter what lineup procedure you use, your eyewitness identification might not be the most reliable piece of evidence available. 



Lindsay, R. C., & Wells, G. L. (1985). Improving eyewitness identifications from lineups: Simultaneous versus sequential lineup presentation. Journal of Applied Psychology, 70(3), 556-564. doi:10.1037/0021-9010.70.3.556

Seale-Carlisle, T. M., Wetmore, S. A., Flowe, H. D., & Mickes, L. (2019). Designing police lineups to maximize memory performance. Journal of Environmental Psychology: Applied, 25(3), 410-430. doi:10.31234/osf.io/59vef

Wixted, J. T., & Mickes, L. (2014). A signal-detection-based diagnostic-feature-detection model of eyewitness identification. Psychological Review, 121(2), 262-276. doi:10.1037/a0035940

Young, A. W. (2017). Recognizing faces. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 26(3), 212-217. doi:10.1177/0963721416688114

Picture Credits





  1. No comments yet.
You must be logged in to post a comment.