The Effect of Emotional Salience and Alcohol on Women's Memories for Sexual Assault

Lead Research Organisation: University of Leicester
Department Name: Psychology

Abstract

Sexual offenses often involve alcohol use by the victim and perpetrator. Victims who were under the influence at the time of the crime are less likely to have their cases prosecuted compared to victims who were sober. A major concern the legal system has is that victims who were under influence of alcohol will not remember forensically information about the assault. To date, however, no research has systematically examined the influence of alcohol on remembering sexual offenses.

The overarching objective of the research is to predict when victims who were under the influence of alcohol will accurately remember details about a sexual offense. The results will provide essential knowledge for establishing best practice guidelines for interviewing witnesses who were intoxicated.
Currently, no such guidelines exist anywhere in the world.

Previous research suggests that alcohol intoxication narrows attention, thereby making people more responsive to the most central and emotionally salient elements of a situation. In the context of rape, the culprit's physical appearance and actions are the most emotionally salient aspects of the situation. Other aspects of the situation-such as the presence of bystanders and the physical environment, are considered peripheral because they capture less of the victim's attention.

Pilot research carried out at the University of Leicester has found the first support that salient and peripheral information about a sexual assault is remembered differently when people are under the influence of alcohol. As previous research-quite surprisingly-has not examined this phenomenon, research is needed to better understand the relationship between alcohol intoxication, information salience, and memory for sexual assault. As such, a set of 3 interrelated experiments are planned.

In all 3 experiments, female participants will read a sexual assault scenario. Participant alcohol intoxication level whist reading the scenario will be experimentally controlled. 24 hours later participants will have their recognition memory for the scenario tested.

In the first experiment, the memories of participants who were given different doses of alcohol will be examined to see if they differ in terms of their accuracy. We will test whether there is a difference in remembering the scenario perpetrator as a consequence of alcohol dose. Additionally, the qualitative characteristics of memories for the hypothetical sexual assault, such as the vividness of the memory, how much participants feel they are reliving the memory as they recall it, and so on, will be examined in relation to alcohol dose.

The second experiment will build upon the results of the first experiment by examining whether intoxicated participants provide less accurate information when they are administered the Cognitive Interview. It is important to examine the accuracy of sexual assault memories using the Cognitive Interview because it is a forensic interview technique that is used by criminal investigators.

The third experiment examines whether participants who were under the influence of alcohol whilst reading the scenario are more susceptible to memory distortion. Victims frequently delay reporting sexual assault to the police. Delayed reporting is potentially problematic because previous research has found that delayed reports increases one's susceptibility to memory distortion. Therefore, it is important to assess whether alcohol intoxication leads to memory distortion more often than when the victim is not intoxicated.

In sum, the proposed research aims to describe and predict when victims of sexual assault who are under the influence of alcohol will accurately remember forensically relevant information. This project may have far reaching implications for sexual assault victims, public safety, and public policy.

Planned Impact

A staggering number of crimes involve alcohol. Sexual assault is especially likely to involve victims and perpetrators who are under the influence. One problem the legal system faces in handling these cases is ascertaining whether victims can remember essential information. Legal officials commonly feel the following concern, which was shared by a detective:

"Intoxicated victims. Advocates and SANEs [Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners] get frustrated when we can't move forward with an investigation, but sometimes we can't because the victim doesn't remember what happened or there are inconsistencies [in her story]."

Given that alcohol is often antecedent to sexual assault--and that about only 1 in 10 cases reported to the police in the UK result in a conviction--it is important to study the relationship between alcohol intoxication and memory for sexual assault. To date, no research has examined the extent to which victims of sexual assault remember essential information about the crime, and systematic work of this kind is needed because detecting and prosecuting sex crimes is enormously costly, both to victims and society. First, a sex offender tends to commit a large number of crimes before being caught; hence, it is important to thoroughly obtain information from victims to detect and apprehend offenders as soon as possible. For example, polygraph interviews conducted with imprisoned sex offenders who had fewer than two known victims found that these offenders actually had an average of 110 victims and 318 offenses. Second, the Home Office estimates that the total cost of sexual offences is nearly £8.5 billion per year. Most of these costs relate to helping victims overcome trauma. Therefore, we need to apprehend a given offender as soon as possible reduce the number of people who are victimised. Lastly, intoxicated victims are currently a 'hot topic' because there is little to no research to guide police interview practice. Thus, the proposed research is an important first step in describing and predicting memory accuracy in victims who were under the influence at the time of the assault.

The proposed research may also contribute to reducing wrongful convictions. About 25 people every year in the UK receive between £500,000 and £1 million each because they were wrongfully convicted of crimes that they did not commit according to a 2010 UK Law Commission report (Consultation Report 190). Research in the US and in the UK has found that mistaken eyewitness evidence is the leading factor in cases of wrongful conviction. The proposed research may lead to the development of interview techniques that help prevent eyewitnesses from making preventable mistakes in their testimony. Additionally, by studying the characteristics of true and false memories (Experiment 1, using the AMQ) it may be possible to develop techniques for distinguishing between true and false memories in witnesses who were intoxicated.

The proposed research will measure memory accuracy as a function of alcohol dosage and blood alcohol level. As a result, we will be able to describe the dose dependent relationship between memory accuracy and alcohol intake. What is more, we will be able to describe how memory for the perpetrator versus memory for other aspects of the rape scenario varies in relation to alcohol dose. If memory does vary in accordance with AMT, this is important information to disseminate to police investigators. Namely, it would encourage investigators to interview victims who were intoxicated thoroughly because they may remember critical details about the perpetrator that could lead to an arrest. Thorough interviewing may also uncover information about the quality of the memory which, given the proposed research is carried out, could be used to index its reliability.
 
Description A substantial number of women are sexually victimized each year in the UK. Many of these attacks occur whilst the victim is under the influence of alcohol. Cases involving intoxicated victims are challenging to prosecute. Victim intoxication raises issues regarding the accuracy of testimony. We examined the influence of alcohol on remembering an interactive hypothetical sexual assault scenario in the laboratory using a balanced placebo design. Women's memory for the assault was 24 hours, 1 week, and 4 months later. We also considered whether central (i.e., information about the perpetrator) versus peripheral (i.e., the surrounding environment, such as bystanders) aspects of the scenario are differentially remembered depending on alcohol intoxication. Alcohol Myopia Theory (AMT) would predict that intoxicated women focus on central information at the expense of more peripheral information. Another question was whether women would be more susceptible to the influence of misleading postevent information if they were intoxicated rather than sober during scenario encoding. Finally, we were able to investigate alcohol expectancy effects on remembering, as half of the participants in the alcohol condition and half in the placebo condition were told that they received alcohol, whereas the other half were told that they received tonic.

Key findings were as follows: Participants reported less information (i.e., responded 'don't know' more often to questions) if they were under the influence of alcohol during scenario encoding. The accuracy of the information they reported, however, did not differ in comparison with sober participants, suggesting intoxicated participants can effectively monitoring the accuracy of their memory at test, as least at the dosage levels we investigated (BAC 0.04 to 0.08%). We did not find evidence in support of AMT; both sober and intoxicated women remembered more central than peripheral information about the scenario. Additionally, women who were intoxicated during scenario encoding (BAC = .06%) were just as susceptible to misleading postevent information on a recognition test as women who were sober (BAC = .00%). Women were not likely to recall misinformation regardless of intoxication state at encoding. We found that beliefs about alcohol consumption influenced memory reporting. Women who thought they had consumed alcohol were volunteered fewer correct details compared to those who thought they had consumed alcohol. There was no effect of beverage consumption or alcohol beliefs on recalling incorrect details, including misinformation. Alcohol expectancy did not affect the amount or accuracy of information remembered. However, participants who expected alcohol reported having more intrusive memories about the scenario and were more concerned about gaps in their memory.
Exploitation Route We have begun to share our results with the Police, Crowne Prosecution Service, the College of Policing, and support agencies that serve sexual assault victims/survivors (e.g., Rape Crisis, Somerset & Avon Rape & Sexual Abuse Support). We have organised a series of workshops jointly with these stakeholders about how the research that we and other investigators have done can be applied to improve police interviews with victims who were intoxicated during sexual assault. The workshops will take place during 2015 and 2016, and are funded by the police, and the British Academy/Leverhulme foundation. Leading experts on investigative interviewing are also attending these workshops, and together we hope to develop national guidelines for interviewing sexual assault victims/survivors who were intoxicated during the offense.
Sectors Aerospace, Defence and Marine,Communities and Social Services/Policy,Government, Democracy and Justice

 
Description We have been awarded a small grant from the Leverhulme/British academy to fund a series of knowledge transfer workshops with the College of Policing, the CPS, and other academics, to disseminate the results of the grant. Together with these agencies, we are currently drafting national guidelines for conducting Achieving Best Evidence interviews with sexual assault victims who were intoxicated during the crime. We have a steering group, comprised of academic, police, and CPS members, and recently we published our first article: Flowe, H., Carline, A., Takarangi, M., Humphries, J., French, S., & Prior, M. (2015). Sexual Violence and Complainant Intoxication. Criminal Law & Justice Weekly, 179, 699-690. The url for the group's website is iivsa.co.uk. The site is currently undergoing review by the project steering group.
First Year Of Impact 2015
Sector Government, Democracy and Justice
Impact Types Policy & public services

 
Description Improving witness testimony: Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Citation in other policy documents
URL https://post.parliament.uk/research-briefings/post-pn-0607/
 
Description Rape and Sexual Offences - Challenging Rape Myths and Stereotypes
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Citation in other policy documents
URL https://www.cps.gov.uk/legal-guidance/rape-and-sexual-offences-annex-challenging-rape-myths-and-ster...
 
Description British Academy/Leverhulme Small Grants
Amount £8,500 (GBP)
Organisation The British Academy 
Department BA/Leverhulme Small Research Grants
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 03/2015 
End 12/2016
 
Description National Guidelines 
Organisation Crown Prosecution Service (CPS)
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution We have obtained funding from the Leverhulme and British Academy for a series of knowledge exchange workshop for purposes of constructing guidelines for interviewing intoxicated sexual assault victims.
Collaborator Contribution Leicestershire Police has hosted a workshop for 25 participants, and both the CPS and the Police have made presentations and had staff attend the workshops.
Impact Flowe, H., Carline, A., Takarangi, M., Humphries, J., French, S., & Prior, M. (2015). Sexual Violence and Complainant Intoxication. Criminal Law & Justice Weekly, 179, 699-690, Multidisciplinary: Psychology and Law
Start Year 2013
 
Description National Guidelines 
Organisation Leicestershire Police
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution We have obtained funding from the Leverhulme and British Academy for a series of knowledge exchange workshop for purposes of constructing guidelines for interviewing intoxicated sexual assault victims.
Collaborator Contribution Leicestershire Police has hosted a workshop for 25 participants, and both the CPS and the Police have made presentations and had staff attend the workshops.
Impact Flowe, H., Carline, A., Takarangi, M., Humphries, J., French, S., & Prior, M. (2015). Sexual Violence and Complainant Intoxication. Criminal Law & Justice Weekly, 179, 699-690, Multidisciplinary: Psychology and Law
Start Year 2013
 
Description Alcohol and Women's Memory for Sexual Assault 
Form Of Engagement Activity Scientific meeting (conference/symposium etc.)
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Type Of Presentation paper presentation
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other academic audiences (collaborators, peers etc.)
Results and Impact Paper presented at the American Psychology and Law Society meeting, Portland, Oregon.

We received feedback from journal editors and reviewers, which will assist us in our publication efforts.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2013
 
Description Alcohol and Women's Memory for Sexual Assault 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Presentation given to representatives of police forces in the East Midlands

The police have partnered with us to deliver a workshop to create national guidelines for interviewing intoxicated witnesses.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014
 
Description Alcohol and Women's Memory for Sexual Assault 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other academic audiences (collaborators, peers etc.)
Results and Impact Paper presented at the American Psychology and Law Society meeting, Portland, USA.

We presented our findings with journal editors and reviewers, and their feedback will enable our dissemination efforts.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014
 
Description Alcohol and Women's Memory for Sexual Assault 
Form Of Engagement Activity Scientific meeting (conference/symposium etc.)
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact ESRC Festival of Social Science, Vulnerable Witnesses

We met a collaborator who has agreed to speak at an alcohol workshop we are putting on for the police.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2013
 
Description Alcohol and memory for sexual assault 
Form Of Engagement Activity Scientific meeting (conference/symposium etc.)
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Type Of Presentation poster presentation
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Poster presented at the West Midlands College of Policing Research Fair.

We made further contacts with practitioners to enable us to make plans for a police workshop to disseminate our research findings.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2013
 
Description BPS Alcohol and Rape Article 
Form Of Engagement Activity A magazine, newsletter or online publication
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Article on alcohol and rape intended to provide an overview of the research on alcohol and memory for sexual violence.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL https://thepsychologist.bps.org.uk/dr-ford-alcohol-and-remembering-sexual-assault-what-do-we-know
 
Description British Science Association: Intoxicated Witnesses 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Talk and press conferebce organised for the British Science Festival about alcohol and memory in the legal system
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL https://www.britishsciencefestival.org/event/drunk-witness/
 
Description ESRC Festival of Social Sciences 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Online series of talks on memory and the legal system, featuring summaries of the ESRC funded project on alcohol and memory for rape
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL https://www.birmingham.ac.uk/university/colleges/socsci/events/esrc-festival-2018/events/memory-lega...
 
Description Experimental Psychological Society meeting, talk 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Other academic audiences (collaborators, peers etc.)
Results and Impact talk sparked questions and discussion afterwards
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
 
Description Intoxicated Informants Article 
Form Of Engagement Activity A magazine, newsletter or online publication
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Article for CREST about intoxicated informants based on the research
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL https://crestresearch.ac.uk/comment/flowe-informants-under-the-influence-alcohol/
 
Description Myths Matter in the Prevention and Prosecution of Sexual Assault 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Media (as a channel to the public)
Results and Impact Somerset and Avon Rape and Sexual Abuse Support - SARSAS (formerly Bristol Rape Crisis) launched a new specialist support service for women and girls who have experienced rape or any kind of sexual assault or abuse at any time in their lives.



This was a lecture given at the official launch of services into Somerset, North Somerset, B&NES and South Gloucestershire on Friday 7th March 2014, at 9.45am at the Exchange House, Taunton.

Met the Police Crime Commissioner for Bristol, and she asked us for further information, which we provided after the event.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014
 
Description The effects of alcohol on the development of intrusive memories for sexual assault. 
Form Of Engagement Activity Scientific meeting (conference/symposium etc.)
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Type Of Presentation paper presentation
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other academic audiences (collaborators, peers etc.)
Results and Impact Paper presented at the Society for Applied Research in Memory and Cognition meeting, Rotterdam, NE.

We made contact with journal editors and reviewers, which will further our publication efforts.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2013
 
Description University of Swansea, Psychology Talk 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Other academic audiences (collaborators, peers etc.)
Results and Impact talk sparked questions and discussion afterwards
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015