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An Experiment Investigating the Effect of Leading Questions

An Experiment Investigating the Effect of Leading Questions

Abstract

The aim of this experiment was to investigate the influence of leading questions on the recall of an event, in this case recall is measured by perceived speed of a car accident. The investigation is a replication of an experiment on the interaction between language and memory done by Loftus and Palmer (1974). The research hypothesis states that participants who are asked leading questions concerning the speed of a car before an accident will answer in accordance with the severity of the verb used to describe the accident. This experiment makes use of an independent measures design, and the participants were selected via an opportunity sampling. The results indicated that verbal connotations (schema) could influence the retrieval of memory and result in false reconstructive memory. Additionally, the results showed a clear linkage between the wording of a question and the speed (mph) recalled by the participant, which is in the line with the original study by Loftus and Palmer. The conclusion was that there is a direct link between the severity of the adverb used to describe a traffic accident and the speed of the car before the accident recalled by the participant.

Introduction

Recall is defined as the retrieval of memory. Although the recall of information if often though to be a static and passive process, on the contrary it is an active process where metacognitive processes like schemata can influence the memories themselves. In years past despite the inaccuracies’ eyewitness testimony was taken as concrete evidence by the legal system. However eyewitness testimony can be unreliable due to flaws in recollection. These flaws are not mere forgetfulness, but are reconstruction of memory. Reconstruction of memories rather than recall suggests that memory can be altered, which undermines the reliability of eyewitness testimony in court. The concept of reconstructive memory was first investigated in 1926 by Jean Piaget, who formed the concept of schemata, which are “cognitive structures that represent a person’s knowledge about objects, people or situations based on prior experiences.”Additionally F.C Bartlett conducted an experiment to investigate how schemata may influence reconstruction and found that subjects distorted original information to suit schemata in recollection (1932). Reconstruction is the process of creating whole memories out of partial information. It follows that memory may be distorted by the context in which reconstruction takes place which includes the wording used in questioning eyewitnesses. Recently Elizabeth Loftus, has dealt directly with reconstructive memory and the reliability of eyewitness testimonies. A study by Loftus and Palmer (1974) found that the reliability of eyewitness testimonies is greatly influenced by the wording of the question. In addition the wording of the question can even change the individual’s perception of the events that transpired. The researchers tested whether the effect of changing a single word in critical questions concerning the speed of the vehicle solicit different results. They found their hypothesis to be correct: when the verb “contacted” was used the average speed estimated 31.8, but when the verb smashed was used the average speed was 40.8 mph. Thus it would seem that the wording of a question would affect the individual’s perception of the event, and thus support Loft’s theory of reconstructive memory. The aim of this study is to investigate whether or not leading questions can create false memories through a replication of Loftus and Palmer’s experiment. However I am limiting the number of verbs used to describe the accident to 2 in order to better isolate the independent variable.

Method

Design

In order to test this hypothesis a laboratory style experimental method was employed in an effort to eliminate extraneous variables. Additionally the use of single blind testing, where participants were not allowed to interact with each other during the experiment, helped to isolate the independent variable. The method of comparison used was independent measures. This involved the manipulation of one variable, but the measurement of two other variables. In order to address ethical considerations participants were informed of their rights to withdraw at any time, and were presented with briefing and debriefing notes (see appendix). At all times the experiment aimed at causing no harm to the participants. All participants consented to the experiment by signing the consent form.(see appendix) The independent variable (IV) was the verb used describe the traffic accident (contact or smash) and the dependent variable (DV) was the speed estimated by the 24 participants. Some controlled variables are: the six extra questions used as a single blind measure of testing (see appendix), the ages of the participants and the prohibition of communication between the participants.

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Participants

The target population was International Baccalaureate anticipated candidates ages 15-17. The participants then received the two kinds of questionnaires in an alternating pattern by row (see appendix). Those who received questionnaire 1 (see appendix) made up experimental condition A, and those who received questionnaire 2 made up experimental group b. The participants were selected through opportunity sampling for convenience purposes. The subjects self-reported their own age, gender, and race/ethnicity. Out of 25 subjects only 2 were 17 years old. The remaining 22 were 16. The sample consisted of sample there were 14 females and 11 males. The racial composition of the sample included 15 Caucasian, 5 African-American, 3 Hispanic, and 2 Indian.

Materials

Consent Form (see appendix)

Briefing Note/ Standardized Instructions (see appendix)

Debriefing script (see appendix)

Video of car crash (see appendix)

Questionnaire 1 (see appendix)

Questionnaire 2 (see appendix)

Stopwatch (see appendix)

Debriefing Note (see appendix)

Procedure

The experiment took place in a classroom where noise and other disturbing factors were minimized. In an effort to address the issue of ethics the participants signed a consent form and instructions concerning the focus of the experiment were read out loud. At the same time made clear that individual answers were required and that talking should be avoided. The participants were then shown a video clip of a car crash, after the impact the video was paused and car ‘a’ and ‘b’ were specified. (see appendix) The mixed questionnaires were then given to the participants in an alternating fashion by row. The questionnaire directed the participants to estimate the speed of the car before it impacted the other. The verb varied from “contact” to “smash” in the questionnaires (see appendix). The questionnaires were then collected after 7 minutes; also the students were debriefed on the experiment and concerning their right to withdraw from the experimental group. Then a week later the participants were debriefed.

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Results

Graph 1

Table 1:Processed Data On Average Speed Recall Estimation for Conditions A and B

Mean

Median

Mode

Smashed (A)

34.63

32.79

30

Contacted (B)

26.8

28

15/ 35

Description of Results

For the first questionnaire, where the verb used was ‘smashed’, the arithmetic mean was 34.632 mph. For the second questionnaire where the verb used was ‘contacted’, the arithmetic mean was 26.8 mph. The median for ‘contacted’ was 28 mph, while the median for ‘smashed’ was 32.786 mph. The mode for “contacted” was 15 mph and 35 mph, while the mode for “smashed” was 30 mph.

Analysis of Results

From the data is evident that the data reinforces Loftus’ findings, that confirmed “the phrasing of the question…can elicit speed judgment.” This is because the mean speeds varied according to the verb used to frame the question. The participants who received the first survey, where the leading question included the verb smash recalled a greater severity, due to reconstruction of memory. This is because the verb smash is regarded as a rather serious description of a car accident; whereas in the second survey the verb contacted was used to describe the accident, ‘contacted’ has a significantly less severe connotation. This less sever connotation was reflected in the results, where it’s mean speed estimation was only 26.8 mph whereas the verb smash had a mean speed estimation of 34.631 mph. This difference is significant because the disparity of 7.83 mph is quite close to the 9 mph disparity in recalled speed estimation found by Loftus.

Discussion

The results of our experiment are similar to the study orignal study by Loftus and Palmer, suggesting that the connotations of a word (it’s schema) can influence the response given by the participant. The participants who were introduced to a misleading question behaved as expected. The mean estimated speed was significantly higher when the word with dramatic connotations, “smash”, was used than when the less dramatic word “contact” was the verb, which suggests that people process information according to their existing mental representations of knowledge, and these schemas can affect the retieval of memories and perception of an event, this is shown by the differing results in the two experimental conditions. So, it seems that the wording does affect the retrieval of memory, which Loftus and Palmer proposed in 1974 after having obtained similar findings. The effect of language on memory is very relevant in eyewitness testimonies because it can lead to erroneous recalling of witnessed events. This was clearly demonstrated in our experiment as well as original study conducted by Loftus and Palmer. The primary strength of our experiment is the ability to control the experimental variables as all extraneous variables are avoided because we used a close experimental environment. The independent variable (the verb) was easily manipulated and created differing dependent variables in the two experimental conditions. However, there also seems to be limitations to our experiment; the convenience sample clearly resulted in sample bias as not every layer of the population is represented. Also, a few people could not resist the urge to talk during the experiment, this might have resulted in conformity. Another limitation is the lack of ecological validity. This was also one of the main points that Loftus was criticized for. The experiment is performed in an artificial environment, in real life the participants would witness the event in a more dramatic manner, and might have some involvement in the situation or the people involved, which could make them pay more attention. Culture might also be a factor, all of these studies are conducted in Western countries, and research of memory within other cultures might prove cultural differences in recalling specific events. For future experiments a more representative sample could be suggested, i.e. the sample should represent the population as whole and not only IB students. To avoid the unwanted communication between participants during the experiment they could be placed in separate rooms. If the issue of culture should be addressed the experiment could be conducted in a country whose culture differs from the Western one as to compare the results between cultures. Ecological validity could be improved by examining the results from a naturally occurring experiment.

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(needs work)

Appendix

1http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nfK3mBMkZWU&safety_mode=true&persist_safety_mode=1

Aim of Study: The aim of the study is to investigate whether or not the framing of a question (leading questions) can create false memories.

10Results: (Loftus 1974) Participants’ speed estimate (average) to the following verb conditions:

Smashed: 40.8 mph

Collided: 39.3 mph

Bumped: 38.1 mph

Hit: 34.0 mph

Contacted: 31.8 mph

2Script:

(arrange desks accordingly, set up the video)

Sarina (experimenter 1): Hi, we’re IB psych students and today you will be partaking in our IA. We ask that you do not talk to your classmates during this experiment and that you please pay attention. You will be watching one video clip for a couple minutes, and then in four days we will return with a questionnaire. All you need to do for this segment is watch, no writing or discussing. Does anyone have any questions?

(Watch video)

Nick (experimenter 2): I would like to note that this is car A and this is car B.

Matt (experimenter 3): This A and this B. This is A and this is B. A hit B.

(four days later)

Sarina (experimenter 1): We are handing to you follow up questions for the video that you watched on Thursday. Please do not talk while you are answering the questions. When you are done, turn your sheet over.

*teacher spoke some during process, students weren’t entirely quiet

(debriefing)

Sarina (experimenter 1): Our experiment is modeled after a study was done in 1975 by Dr. Elizabeth Loftus whose aim was to investigate whether or not the framing of the question (leading questions) can prompt a response bias or create false memories.

3 Questionnaire 1

Please state the following personal information below as it pertains to you

Age: __________

Gender: _______________

Race/Ethnicity: ________________

Employed: Yes or no? ___________

If yes; is your job part-time or full-time? Where: _____________________________

To the best of your ability answer the following questions with regards to the video your class viewed Thursday:

1.  What color was Car A _____________

2.  What color was Car B _____________

3.  What was the make and model of Car A ________________________

4.  What was the make and model of Car B ________________________

5.  Estimate the speed of Car A at the time it contacted with Car B (miles per hour) _____________

6.  Estimate the speed of Car B at the time Car A contacted it (miles per hour) _____________

7.  Were there police present at any time in the video; yes or no? _____________

4 Questionnaire 2

Please state the following personal information below as it pertains to you

Age: __________

Gender: _______________

Race/Ethnicity: ________________

Employed: Yes or no? ___________

If yes; is your job part-time or full-time? Where: _____________________________

To the best of your ability answer the following questions with regards to the video your class viewed Thursday:

1.  What color was Car A _____________

2.  What color was Car B _____________

3.  What was the make and model of Car A ________________________

4.  What was the make and model of Car B ________________________

5.  Estimate the speed of Car A at the time it smashed into Car B (miles per hour) _____________

6. Estimate the speed of Car B at the time Car A smashed into it (miles per hour) _____________

7. Were there police present at any time in the video; yes or no? _____________

6The debriefing would be read as follows.

“Hello, we are the same IB psychology students that performed an experiment on you a few weeks ago. We have returned to explain to you all just how you were important to the experiment we have performed. You were part of an experiment mimicking a study done by Elizabeth Loftus in 1975. The study tested how well you could remember certain details. More specifically, this study tested how your perception of events changed given different questions. You all watched the same video of a car accident. About half of you were given a questionnaire that asked you to “estimate the speed of Car A at the time it contacted with Car B (miles per hour).” The other half was given a questionnaire that asked you to “estimate the speed of Car A at the time it smashed into Car B (miles per hour).” According to Loftus’ study the word contacted or smashed would carry a specific connotation that, when read by you, would alter the memory of the incident. According to the data from this test group, she was absolutely correct. Although you all saw the same event, when you read the word smashed you remembered the accident as more violent and therefore reported that Car A must have been moving faster than you originally thought. If anyone has any questions about your participation in this experiment you may ask them now.”

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Raw Data

Perceived Speed of Car A (Smashed)

Perceived Speed of Car A (Contacted)

1

25

15

2

30

28

3

33.572

35

4

40

15

5

30

15

6

35

7

30

40

8

40

9

32

30

10

35

35

11

30

35

12

55

20

Avrg. MPH

34.631



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