Elderly Eyewitnesses

As the potential pool of elder witnesses continues to expand with the aging U.S. population, the age group referred to in the literature as older adults or seniors has become of greater interest to researchers. The group typically comprises healthy, active members of the community falling into the 60- to 80-year age band. Older eyewitnesses tend to provide less detailed and less accurate descriptions of actions and persons than younger witnesses when their processing resources are depleted, but they can provide as much information as younger witnesses under some conditions. With regard to face recognition, a number of recent studies suggest that older adults are more prone to what are referred to as false recognitions.

Recall of Persons, Actions, and Events

Where comparisons have been made between different age groups, young adults have been found to be superior to older adults in some eyewitness skills. For example, Dan Yarmey in his studies reports that young adults are more accurate in their recall of perpetrator characteristics, environmental details, and details of actions than older adults. This applies to both free recall (where the witness provides a narrative account from his or her own perspective) and cued recall (where the witness responds to interviewer questions). Older adult witnesses tend to provide fewer descriptions of the perpetrator (physical and clothing characteristics) than younger witnesses. Differences between young and older adults in the amount and accuracy of recall may be even greater over long retention intervals (such as a month) and when conditions at the time of witnessing are poor, reducing the resources that are available to attend to what is happening. This may mean that there are fewer cues available at the time a witness tries to retrieve the information. Fergus Craik’s classic work on memory processes indicates that older adults benefit from “environmental support” during questioning (the retrieval phase). This could take the form of an interview that provides the witness with some instruction on how to recreate, during retrieval, the personal, physical, and emotional context at the time of witnessing. For example, when older adults are questioned with a Cognitive Interview, a procedure that can aid memory search and retrieval, they can recall as much and sometimes even more information than younger adults. One qualification should be borne in mind, however. The educational level and verbal intelligence of the adult (young and old) appear to be important factors in boosting his or her recall performance, as compared with younger adults. While further research is needed on this issue, police officers and jurors should note that although verbal recall can be reduced in old age, a verbally skilled and well-educated senior can be just as reliable a witness as a young adult.

Susceptibility to Misinformation

Several recent studies have shown that older adults may experience difficulty in distinguishing between what they have witnessed themselves as opposed to what they may have heard from someone else (i.e., a problem identifying the precise source of the information). A typical consequence is that any misleading information that may be encountered subsequent to witnessing an event is erroneously reported as if it were part of the original event. However, older adults are not always more susceptible to misinformation. The contradictory findings are likely due to the fact that older adults are remembering less information overall, and this may also mean that they may pay less attention to misleading details. Additionally, there are differential rates of memory declines in older adults depending on educational level, verbal intelligence, intellectual pursuits, expertise in different skill domains, and level of physical activity. Finally, the conditions under which older adults are tested in laboratory studies (e.g., video presentation of event, short retention interval, and single interview) may obscure differences in performance that might arise under more realistic test conditions.

Recognition and Identification

The typical finding in laboratory studies of unfamiliar face recognition (the recognition of faces seen only once before) is that older adults are more likely to “false alarm” to new faces. In other words, they are more likely to falsely “recognize” a face they had not seen previously. Of particular concern are the higher rates of false identifications when seniors view lineups that do not contain the culprit. As indicated earlier, aging is typically associated with a reduction in cognitive resources and an increased reliance on non-analytic strategies such as familiarity. It is the recollection of contextual information that is critical in an eyewitness situation that older adults might have particular difficulty with.

Field studies of actual eyewitnesses also provide us with some information on the identification ability of older adult witnesses. Tim Valentine collected data from 640 witnesses who attempted to identify suspects in 314 lineups; data were obtained from four identification suites in London in September 2000. Broadly classified by age, 48% of those below 20 years of age had made a suspect identification as compared with only 28% of the older age group (aged 40 years plus). There were no differences in the rates of identifications of the stand-ins or foils (innocent persons. in a police lineup). In most cases, the suspects were young adults, and there is some evidence that older adults do less well with younger faces (as compared with older faces), at least in situations where the perpetrator is not present in the lineup. In other words, older adults might have some advantage when recognizing faces that are closer in age to themselves.

Finally, stereotypes of elderly witnesses have been examined in simulated jury studies conducted by Liz Brimacombe in Canada. Participant jurors were presented with the videotaped testimony of young and older witnesses. In one study, older seniors were less accurate in their responses to direct and cross-examination questions but were not rated as less credible than younger seniors or younger adults. A later study confirmed that senior witnesses (70-year-olds) did provide less accurate testimony than younger adults (20-year-olds). Jurors were able to spot this and hence rated the seniors as less credible. However, age stereotypes did not bias the judgments of jurors. Further analysis showed that the witnesses (young and old) who were rated as most credible had provided fewer negative qualifiers (e.g., “I think, but I am not sure …”). Thus, what a witness actually says and their confidence, rather than their age, may be more important determinants of credibility.


  1. Balota, D. A., Dolan, P., & Duchek, J. (2000). Memory changes in healthy older adults. In E. Tulving & F. I. M. Craik (Eds.), The Oxford handbook of memory (pp. 395—425). New York: Oxford University Press.
  2. Brimacombe, C. A., Quinton, N., Nance, N., & Garrioch, L. (1997). Is age irrelevant? Perceptions on young and old adult witnesses. Law and Human Behavior, 21, 619-634.
  3. Memon, A., Bartlett, J. C., Rose, R., & Gray, C. (2003). The aging eyewitness: The effects of face-age and delay upon younger and older observers. Journal of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences, 58, 338-345.

Return to the overview of Eyewitness Memory in Forensic Psychology.