Weapons at a Distance: An Investigation of the Weapon Focus Effect as a Function of Distance

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D)


Psychology and Special Education

Date of Award

Summer 2021


Crimes occur naturally and are beyond the control of the criminal justice system. Research on particular aspects of these crimes, referred to as estimator variables, is paramount for assessing the reliability of eyewitness reports. The extant literature has primarily focused on individual estimator variables, but crimes are often more complex than this. Weapon presence and viewing distance are two specific examples of estimator variables that can impact memory independently, but could also interact. In this study, I investigated the influence that distance may have on the expression of the weapon focus effect (e.g., Loftus, Loftus, & Messo, 1987). Participants engaged in a multi-block eyewitness identification paradigm, including viewing a video in which a target is holding a gun, knife, toy trumpet, or nothing, watching an educational video as a distractor task, identifying someone (or rejecting) from a target-present or -absent simultaneous lineup, and assessing their confidence in their identification decision. In replication of prior research, I found enhanced discriminability when targets were viewed at a short distance compared to a long distance. However, contrary to expectations, I did not find any effect of the type of object that the target held on discriminability. I also found a strong confidence-accuracy relationship at short distances regardless of which object (or nothing) was held by the target, but this relationship was much weaker at long distances. Conclusions, implications, and future directions are discussed, but more research needs to be conducted to further elucidate how weapons are perceived at long distances and how they may or may not affect eyewitness memory.


Curt Carlson

Subject Categories

Education | Educational Psychology