Misidentification of a person as a familiar person and reliability of eyewitness identification

Prof. Yuji Itoh1, Mr. Daisuke Shimane1, Dr. Hiroshi Miura2

1Keio University, Tokyo, Japan, 2Kyorin University, Tokyo, Japan

In the psychological literature on person identification, it is emphasized that people are poor at identifying unfamiliar faces but quite good at identifying familiar ones. Therefore, psychological studies on failure of face perception and memory have been limited to the ones with unfamiliar faces. Although eyewitness researchers argue that witness’ memory for unfamiliar faces is poor and would not be reliable, their memory for familiar faces is considered to be good and reliable if the faces are observed in good physical conditions such as with appropriate brightness or distance between the eyewitness and the face. However, people sometimes have experiences in which they see a person, believe that the person is an acquaintance, and speak to the person to find that they mistook the person for someone else. Hence, we investigated person misidentification of this kind, that is, mistaking a person for a familiar person, by using a usual questionnaire and a diary method. We found that (1) most respondents experienced person misidentification several times a year; (2) the faces of the witnessed person and the familiar person misidentified as were not necessarily similar; (3) the expectation that the person misidentified as may be present in the place influences the occurrence of the phenomenon; and (4) whether the witness knows the witnessed person has little influence on the phenomenon. Although we only identified misidentifications that were noticed in this investigation and have no data on unnoticed misidentifications, we estimated that certain proportions of eyewitness identifications of familiar persons are misidentifications. In this presentation, we examine the reliability of a testimony in which an eyewitness testifies that he/she saw a familiar person, and advocate studying the person misidentification phenomenon in which a person is misidentified as a familiar person different from the witnessed person.


Yuji Itoh is a professor of Department of Psychology and a dean of Graduate School of Human Relations at Keio University, Japan. He teaches both undergraduate and graduate courses in cognitive psychology and forensic psychology. He is a member of Japanese Psychological Association, the Japanese Society for Cognitive Psychology, and Japanese Society for Law and Psychology. He has been serving as a chief editor of the Japanese Journal of Cognitive Psychology since 2009.