What If a Witness Was Acquainted with a Suspect Prior to a Crime? An Investigation of Unconscious Transference by Manipulating Prior Familiarity


Alex Wooten

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D)


Psychology and Special Education

Date of Award

Spring 2020


The purpose of this study was to gain a better understanding of how prior familiarity with a suspect influenced identification (ID) accuracy, while also exploring the phenomenon of unconscious transference where an innocent suspect is confused for a perpetrator (e.g., Loftus, 1976). Despite a large number of documented cases where the eyewitness was previously acquainted with the suspect (Flowe, Mehta, & Ebbesen, 2011), few researchers have fully explored prior suspect familiarity using a lineup paradigm (Vallano, Slapinski, Steele, Briggs, & Pozzulo, 2019). In the current study, I addressed these issues by using a face-learning paradigm where participants were familiarized with a set of previously unfamiliar faces. Two days later, participants (N = 113) were presented with a series of target faces labeled as guilty suspects in a crime and the faces were either familiar (i.e., from Day 1) or unfamiliar. Following each target face, participants received a lineup that either contained the target/guilty suspect or innocent suspect, and each was either familiar or unfamiliar. Following each lineup decision and confidence rating, participants answered a series of source and recollection questions. Prior familiarity led to a more liberal response bias, leading to more guilty and innocent suspect IDs compared to when no familiarity existed. I also successfully demonstrated unconscious transference, with the majority of these errors supporting either the poor source retrieval or memory blending theoretical account. Interestingly, the confidence-accuracy relationship was strongest for familiar suspect lineups. Future researchers should manipulate familiarity as a continuous variable (e.g., number of exposures each face is seen) and examine how familiarity interacts with other system and estimator variables such as ID procedure type and cross-race IDs.


Curt Carlson

Subject Categories

Psychology | Social and Behavioral Sciences