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Study: Victims and witnesses exaggerate

Researchers at UCLA have now scientifically confirmed what street cops and investigators have long believed: Victims and witnesses tend to exaggerate their descriptions of assailants armed with deadly weapons.

Across a series of online experiments, a team from the university’s Center for Behavior, Evolution, and Culture tested hundreds of civilian volunteers of mixed genders, ages, and ethnicities. Each participant was shown profile photographs of white, adult men’s right hands gripping a variety of familiar items. In some cases, the hands held non-weapons: a power drill, a caulking gun, a handsaw, a paintbrush, or a squirt gun. In other photos, the hands clutched a .45-cal. pistol, a .357 revolver, or a large butcher knife.

The hands were “nearly identical in size and appearance” and devoid of any possibly prejudicial characteristics, such as tattoos, scars, hairiness, jewelry, or distinctive pigmentation. The viewers could not see any of the rest of any model’s body. Yet when the subjects were asked to estimate the unseen individuals’ physicality based solely on the hand photos, a telling pattern emerged.

Overwhelmingly, the researchers report, the hands holding a gun or the knife were judged to belong to men who were taller and with greater body mass and muscularity than those displaying the tools and toy. In reality, no such differences existed.

Estimation of another person’s size and strength — how “formidable” he or she appears to be as a potential or actual foe — can be influenced by that person’s “access to weaponry,” the researchers conclude. “Knowing that an individual possesses a gun or a large kitchen knife leads observers to conceptualize him as taller, and generally larger and more muscular, than individuals who possess only mundane objects.”

A leading law enforcement researcher, Dr. Bryan Vila, a criminal justice professor at Washington State University in Spokane, told PoliceOne that the UCLA study is important for officers to keep in mind when interviewing witnesses and victims. Vila was not involved in the study, but he says it “helps confirm the folk wisdom that cops have long believed” regarding exaggeration in civilian descriptions.

Not only can the findings be useful in evaluating statements regarding an armed suspect’s height and build, but they also give officers “scientific evidence they can cite to help justify probable cause for warrants and arrests when the suspect is smaller than witnesses estimate,” Vila says.

The study, “Weapons Make the Man (Larger): Formidability Is Represented as Size and Strength in Humans” by Dr. Daniel Fessler and others, can be accessed in full without charge at www.plosone.org/article/info:doi/10.1371/journal.pone.0032751.

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