Drunk Eyewitnesses to Crimes May Be More Reliable Than You Think

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It turns out alcohol may actually improve memory and even make you a better eyewitness to a crime, according to a study published in the journal Psychopharmacology. Specifically, if alcohol is consumed after witnessing a crime, it might protect memory from misleading information.

Researchers in the United Kingdom asked 83 participants to watch a video of a robbery, where a man and woman were seen entering a house and stealing money, jewelry and a laptop. The robbers left the scene of the crime quickly before the homeowners could intervene.

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After watching the video, the volunteers were split up into three groups. The first group was knowingly given alcohol. The second group was told they were given non-alcoholic beer, but in reality the beer was alcoholic. The last group did not get any alcohol to drink. Overall, the volunteers did not go over the British blood-alcohol driving limit of 80mg of alcohol per 100ml of blood.

After the participants had their alcoholic or non-alcoholic drinks, they were given false information about the video they had just watched. For instance, if one of the robber’s hair color was brown, they were told it was black.

The participants were asked to come back the next day sober; when they did, they were asked questions about the crime they had watched unfold. The participants who knowingly did not consume any alcohol were more likely to report misinformation about the robbery compared to the two other groups that did drink alcohol.

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Researchers believe these results were because alcohol blocks new information — including false information — so it’s less likely to negatively impact the memory of what a person has witnessed.

The sober participants were also more willing than the others to testify in a court of law.

“Our research challenges the intuitive view that alcohol is bad for eyewitness memory recall by showing that, in fact, it can be the timing of alcohol consumption that is important when it comes to determining how accurate and reliable inebriated witnesses are,” the study’s authors wrote in an article published in The Conversation.  “Although we still don’t know the effects of different volumes of alcohol on the reliability of eyewitness testimony.”

Further research is still needed to understand the exact reasons why alcohol, in certain situations, may protect one’s memory from misinformation and if it’s applicable in more realistic scenarios. 

Related: Women Are Closing the Alcohol Gender Gap

Danielle Tarasiuk
Danielle Tarasiuk is a multimedia journalist based in Los Angeles. Her work has been published on AllDay.com, Yahoo! Sports, KCET, and NPR-affiliate stations KPCC and KCRW. She’s a proud Sarah Lawrence College and USC Annenberg alumn.