The core of my research interest focuses on memory error, specifically factors that facilitate false memories for events in eye-witness contexts. Research focused on false memories for events, often uses pallid stimuli while I have used complex stimuli that better translate to real-world events. This research is of applied importance as memory error in eyewitness contexts may result in misidentification. Overall my results show that heuristic perceptions and biases indigenous to face processing, fuel misidentifications of perpetrators in witnessed events. This occurs in the lab and in archival case files wherein falsely identified and incarcerated individuals were exonerated with DNA evidence. Perception-based expectations also influence police interrogations which ultimately facilitate witness memory error. Together this research informs both scientific theory and legal policy, where the focus is on improving police procedure and policy reform.
Investigating the factors that underpin and facilitate the creation of false memory is another branch of my research program. Current research suggests that the way in which information is encoded results in memory for fictitious events and some individuals are more inclined to such processing than others. At the root of false memory creation is the assumption that the vividness of a memory relates to the veracity of what is remembered. My results find that vivid imagining leads to false memory for event actions, and that individuals who score high on imagery ability, are more likely to endorse seeing stimuli that they only imagined. To delve deeper into this phenomenon, I am testing imagery ability behaviorally and in the brain. My collaborators and I are publishing papers looking at brain activation that is predictive of subsequent false memories. Moreover, this work is potentially useful in predicting which individuals are inclined to false memories and is a starting point to find interventions to attenuate these effects.
One outgrowth of my eyewitness identification work has been trying to understand how facial cues influence memory and decision making, and whether these influences underpin judgments regarding future behavior. This work ties to studies on first impressions addressing the systematic ways in which people judge others with no information other than face-type. I am the lead author on most of this work and find that across a variety of contexts, Afrocentric faces, relative to non-Afrocentric faces, are more likely to be judged as criminal, threatening, guilty of violent crime, and subsequently meted longer sentences and more severe punishment for offences. Moreover, these finding are not tied just to skin tone or whether the participant is non-Black. I have testified about this face-type bias in criminal court as an expert witness and these finding speak to whether jury instructions should include this information. Currently, I am running a series of studies to quantify what facial features compose an Afrocentric face and to predict, based on these facial features and orientation, which individuals are likely to be judged negatively. The overarching finding of this research is that when people have no previous knowledge about an individual, they feel uncertain about predicting behavior and automatically turn to stereotypes.
Decision-Making and Individual Differences:
Contextual factors, individual differences in cognitive processing ability and physiological states, all influence decision-making. Research conducted in this lab shows that how much information a person can process at once may influence weather they make a quick or controlled decision. Sometimes heightened emotion or stress can encourage heuristic decision-making and may apply to shoot-don’t-shoot decisions, jury-type decisions and whether or not someone should be blamed for an unfortunate outcome.
Cox Communications – GSU Collaboration:
Several graduate students of Drs. Heather Keldier-Offutt and David Washburn receive funding from the Cox Communications – GSU Collaboration initiative. These students work as User Experience (UX) Researchers both on and off the Cox Communications campus. User Experience (UX) research is a research process aimed at discovering customer behaviors, motivations and needs through a wide verity of methods. The methods used in this project include observation, time on task analysis, direct user feedback, eye-tracking, and psychophysiological responses. The current graduate students on this initiative are Megan Capodanno (Offutt student) and Melany Love (Washburn student).