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Murder, eyewitness identification and the limits of human vision

Geoffrey Loftus' latest research reads more like a murder mystery than a scientific paper.

The University of Washington psychologist's new study opens with a savage beating and murder on the streets of Fairbanks, Alaska. It features cameo appearances by Julia Roberts and other celebrities. It ends with the conviction of two men based on the eyewitness identification of the defendants from a distance of 450 feet. And, in a post-script, an appeals court orders a new trial based in part on "scientific trials" and conversations conducted by jurors outside the courthouse, without the judge's knowledge. In between, the limits of the human visual system are explored.

Loftus, who testified as an expert witness in the case, examines why it is easier to identify someone close up rather than at a distance in an upcoming issue of the journal Psychonomic Bulletin & Review.

"When you see anything at a distance the human visual system starts to lose small details. The greater the distance the coarser the detail you lose, " Loftus said.

"At 10 feet you might not be able to see individual eyelashes on a person's face. At 200 feet you would not even be able to see a person's eyes. At 500 feet you could see the person's head but just as one big blur. There is equivalence between size and blurriness. By making something smaller you lose the fine detail."

Co-author of the study is Erin Harley, who recently earned her doctorate at the UW and is now a post-doctoral researcher at the University of California at Los Angeles. The research was funded by the National Institute of Mental Health.

The researchers conducted a number of experiments to establish the relationship between blurriness and distance. First, they started with very small, unrecognizable images of famous people such as Roberts, Michael Jordan, Jennifer Lopez, Bill Gates and President George W. Bush. Next, the researchers gradually made the images larger until subjects could identif
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Contact: Joel Schwarz
joels@u.washington.edu
206-543-2580
University of Washington
14-Feb-2005


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