Unconscious transference is a memory error that occurs when an eyewitness to a crime misidentifies a familiar but innocent person from a police lineup. Historically, the use of the term unconscious refers to the idea that the witness who misidentifies the familiar foil (an innocent person in a police lineup) has no conscious recollection of the previous encounter with the person. A classic real world example involved a case where a ticket agent at a train station was robbed and misidentified a former customer from a lineup. While the customer had an ironclad alibi, the ticket agent maintained that the person appeared all too familiar to him. Failing to recollect that he was a former customer, the ticket agent apparently based his identification on a sense of familiarity alone and incorrectly associated that with the crime. There is evidence that foils who are familiar to an eyewitness are at risk of being misidentified, but the literature suggests that the process through which it happens is not “unconscious,” but, rather, involves a conscious recollection of the previous exposure to the familiar foil.
Studies on unconscious transference typically involve asking witnesses to a mock crime to make an identification from a lineup that contains a foil who is familiar or unfamiliar to the witnesses. Using this design, some studies report that a familiar foil is more likely to be misidentified than an unfamiliar foil. Other studies report null results—that prior exposure to a foil does not increase the probability of a misidentification. A reverse unconscious transference effect has also been reported where a familiar foil is less likely to be misidentified than an unfamiliar foil. In the latter studies, witnesses remember the foil as familiar but innocent and quickly dismiss that person as a potential lineup choice.
So why is there such variability across studies? Two critical moderator variables, physical similarity and conscious inferencing, influence the presence or absence of the unconscious transference error. First, unconscious transference is most likely to occur when the familiar foil and the perpetrator are “moderately” similar in appearance. If they look very different from one another, then they are not likely to be confused, regardless of the level of familiarity. Conversely, if their appearance is so similar that they are indistinguishable from one another, then the foil is at risk of being misidentified regardless of familiarity. Therefore, a moderate level of similarity between the foil and the criminal is needed so that when a familiarity component is added, it increases the likelihood of a misidentification, but only for witnesses previously exposed to the foil. Unfortunately, in many studies on this topic, the level of physical similarity between the familiar foil and the criminal was not controlled or measured, making their results difficult to interpret.
Second, unconscious transference occurs when witnesses incorrectly infer that the familiar foil and the criminal are the same person, a process referred to as conscious inferencing. Conscious inferencing allows the witness to accurately recall the previous encounter with the foil, but not dismiss the person as familiar but innocent. Because the witness thinks the familiar foil and the criminal are the same person seen in two different places (at the crime scene and the place where they saw the familiar foil), recollecting the previous encounter with the familiar foil only reinforces the misidentification. Several studies have demonstrated that unconscious transference effects can be eliminated by preventing conscious inferencing. This can be done by telling witnesses just prior to making a lineup identification that the familiar foil and the criminal are not the same person, or by presenting a lineup that contains the familiar foil and the criminal. These procedures allow witnesses to distinguish between the familiar foil and the criminal, to realize that they are not the same person, and the result is often a correct, positive identification of the criminal.
The importance of conscious inferencing was also seen in a study with children, where 11- to 12-year-olds were found to be as susceptible as adults to unconscious transference, whereas 5- to 10-year-olds did not make the unconscious transference error. The study reported that the older children engaged in conscious inferencing and thought the familiar foil and the criminal were the same person seen in two different places. The younger children did not exhibit conscious inferencing, nor did they make the unconscious transference error. Therefore, the older children were susceptible to making the unconscious transference error because they had the cognitive ability to engage in conscious inferencing. The younger children were not susceptible to making the unconscious transference error because they lacked the cognitive skill to engage in conscious inferencing.
The discovery of the role of conscious inferencing has affected how the concept of unconscious transference is viewed. There does not appear to be support for the traditional definition of unconscious transference whereby a familiar foil is misidentified and the witness has no “conscious” recollection of the previous exposure to the foil. The misidentification of a familiar foil appears to depend on the ability of the witness to recall where the familiar foil was encountered, followed by an error in inferential processing whereby the foil and the criminal are thought to be the same person. Therefore, recalling the context where the familiar foil was seen appears to be a prerequisite for the misidentification. This process results in the formation of what has been referred to in the literature as a composite memory that is formed by using old information that was previously stored in memory (exposure to the foil) and new information (exposure to the criminal). The composite memory can be thought of as two separate memories that are held together by a contextual tag, which is the inference that the familiar foil and the criminal are the same person. If the contextual tag is broken, then the unconscious transference effect is eliminated. However, if the contextual tag is not broken and the witness misidentifies the familiar foil, then the composite memory may become solidified and very difficult to correct due to commitment effects and the destructive updating of the original memory for the crime. While the unconscious transference concept has enjoyed widespread acceptance in the field, perhaps it is time to give the general idea a more accurate title or description, such as “misidentifying a familiar bystander effect,” given that such errors are driven by the conscious recollection of a previous exposure to the familiar foil.
- Deffenbacher, K., Bornstein, B, & Penrod, S. (2006). Mugshot exposure effects: Retroactive interference, mugshot commitment, source confusion, and unconscious transference. Law and Human Behavior, 30, 287-307.
- Lindsay, R. C. L., Ross, D. F., Read, J. D., & Toglia, M. P. (2007). The handbook of eyewitness psychology: Vol. 2. Memory for events. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
- Ross, D. F., Marsil, D. F., Rapus-Benton, T., Hoffman, R., Warren, A. R., Lindsay, R. C. L., et al. (2006). Children’s susceptibility to misidentifying a familiar bystander from a lineup: When younger is better. Law and Human Behavior, 30, 249-257.
Return to the overview of Eyewitness Memory in Forensic Psychology.