What change blindness can teach us about skilled observation: a law enforcement and student comparison

Date of Award


Degree Name

M.A. in General Psychology


Department of Psychology


Advisor: Melissa A. Berry


Although it is often assumed that law enforcement officers possess acute observational skills due to their expertise and training, perhaps resulting in a reduction in attentional errors (e.g., change blindness), no prior research has compared officers with a lay sample on this phenomenon. In the current investigation, students and law enforcement agents participated in a change blindness task and attempted to identify the target(s) from four photo lineups. Law enforcement officers (n = 61) and college students (n = 40) viewed a videotaped, mock traffic stop in which the identity of the driver was changed. Officers and students were equally susceptible to change blindness regarding the switch in the target's identity, but students were more likely than officers to detect changes in the target's clothing. Students also performed better on the lineup task, overall, than officers. Additionally, whereas students' confidence was positively correlated with identification accuracy under some circumstances, officers' confidence was either uncorrelated or negatively correlated with accuracy. Years of experience in police work did not account for any differences in the law enforcement sample. This comparison suggests that change blindness and mistaken identity are common attentional errors, perhaps even in situations involving specialized familiarity (i.e., a traffic stop is well within the professional domain of law enforcement officers). The findings of the current study also demonstrate the importance of continued research into law enforcement training and have practical implications for examinations of eyewitness identifications.


Change blindness, Observation (Psychology), Visual perception, Police Ability testing, Psychology, Cognitive Psychology, change blindness, law enforcement, police, photo lineup identification, observation errors, attention errors, mistaken identity

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Copyright © 2014, author