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Could you ID a criminal seconds after witnessing his crime?

Could you identify a criminal seconds after you had seen him commit his criminal act just feet away from you? Sounds simple enough, but a short video from the World Science Festival will make you realize it’s actually quite difficult.

As a panel at the festival was discussing how justice is meted out, scientifically, a well-dressed man ran on stage, ripped an iPad right out of the hands of a panelist, Saul Kassin, a psychology professor at Williams College in the Berkshires, and then bolted off stage. It took seconds, but it happened in front of a packed studio audience, so surely they all saw it unfold and would easily be able to identify the “perpetrator” if given a selection of mug shots to choose from. Right?


Not even close. When the audience members were asked to vote on who did it, more of them voted for the guy who was behind a video camera in the audience filming the event than the actual guy who did it. In fact, 83 percent of the voters accused the wrong person.

“I would surmise that those of you who got it wrong are probably no less confident than those who [got it right],” said Kassin, who is also a psychologist at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and is a leading authority on false confessions. “And the worst part is, the confidence you have now will only grow by the time you get into a court room, because you will receive confirmation after confirmation. So by the time you appear in court, you are so dead sure of it that any jury who hears your testimony will believe you.”

The World Science Festival took place over the summer in New York City, but the video is only taking off now, with help from Pacific Standard and Science Like Us.