During the interview, Professor Dando explained how difficult it can be for witnesses to remember exact events. During face-to-face interviews, eyewitnesses tend to guess answers to be helpful, or to avoid embarrassment, even when they are not completely sure. An interviewers’ body language can also have an impact on interviewees and can unconsciously encourage them to fill in holes in their recollections.
As part of her new research, Professor Dando and colleagues recruited participants to watch a one-minute film of a volume crime before going back to their normal lives for two days. They were then invited back to the university where they were randomly assigned, to either a face-to-face interview, or an interview conducted by an avatar in an immersive virtual environment. After analysing all the interviewees’ memory performance and compared data across the two groups, Professor Dando found some very exciting results:
“We initially asked the interviewees to give us a free account to what they remembered which was uninterrupted by the interviewer. We then used the information that we got from that free account to probe and ask more detailed questions. We found that the free account memory performance was similar both in the face to face and in the virtual environment. However, when moving to the probing questions, we found that participants in the virtual environment recalled 60 per cent more correct information than those in the face-to-face environment and that came without an increase in errors.”
Talking about her findings, Professor Dando explained: “During face-to-face interviews, participants tend to make errors in their questioning phase because interviewers can push them for more detailed information. There are two things that can be done – we can say either ‘I don’t remember or I don’t know’ or we can guess. We think that being interviewed in a virtual environment and not seeing a real person may help interviewees say that they do not know or cannot remember. When we asked participants for feedback, they said they found it easier to say ‘I don’t know’ to the avatar."