Eyewitness identification: Bayesian information gain, base-rate effect equivalency curves, and reasonable suspicion

Gary L. Wells, Yueran Yang, Laura Smalarz

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

77 Scopus citations


We provide a novel Bayesian treatment of the eyewitness identification problem as it relates to various system variables, such as instruction effects, lineup presentation format, lineup-filler similarity, lineup administrator influence, and show-ups versus lineups. We describe why eyewitness identification is a natural Bayesian problem and how numerous important observations require careful consideration of base rates. Moreover, we argue that the base rate in eyewitness identification should be construed as a system variable (under the control of the justice system). We then use prior-by-posterior curves and information-gain curves to examine data obtained from a large number of published experiments. Next, we show how information-gain curves are moderated by system variables and by witness confidence and we note how information-gain curves reveal that lineups are consistently more proficient at incriminating the guilty than they are at exonerating the innocent. We then introduce a new type of analysis that we developed called base rate effect-equivalency (BREE) curves. BREE curves display how much change in the base rate is required to match the impact of any given system variable. The results indicate that even relatively modest changes to the base rate can have more impact on the reliability of eyewitness identification evidence than do the traditional system variables that have received so much attention in the literature. We note how this Bayesian analysis of eyewitness identification has implications for the question of whether there ought to be a reasonable-suspicion criterion for placing a person into the jeopardy of an identification procedure.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)99-122
Number of pages24
JournalLaw and human behavior
Issue number2
StatePublished - Apr 1 2015
Externally publishedYes


  • base rate
  • eyewitness confidence
  • eyewitness identification
  • lineup
  • system variables

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)
  • General Psychology
  • Psychiatry and Mental health
  • Law


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