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Alcohol, memory recall and sexual assault research

Heather Flowe, a researcher from the University of Birmingham, has written this article summarising her research into the accuracy of police statements after a sexual assault where the survivor has drunk alcohol. She dispels some of the myths around the effect of alcohol on memory, and is educating professionals on her research in order to improve responses to survivors when they report sexual assaults.

Does alcohol intoxication during the rape impair the accuracy of survivors’ police statements?

Rape and sexual violence typically takes place outside of public view. Criminal investigations hinge on accounts given by the accused and the survivor. Usually, the accused and survivor know one another, and there is little physical evidence to corroborate the survivor’s account. Complicating matters further, the perpetrator and the survivor in the vast majority of rape and sexual violence cases were under the influence of alcohol during the offense. It is widely known that alcohol intoxication affects memory and attention. Thus, a key issue for legal practitioners is whether the parties involved are accurately remembering the incident.

Research on the effects of alcohol on witness memory accuracy in crime scenarios has dramatically increased in recent years. In these studies, research participants are given different doses of alcohol and afterwards are shown a mock crime, such as a theft. Participants are then questioned about what they saw, either when they are still intoxicated or after they have sobered up. A clear pattern emerges across these studies: Participants who were alcohol-intoxicated when they witnessed the mock crime give less complete accounts about the mock crime. Put differently, participants who were intoxicated are more likely to answer ‘I don’t know’ in response to the questions. However, the accuracy of the information recalled does not differ in relation to alcohol intoxication. Participants who were alcohol intoxicated during the crime provide accounts that are just as accurate as their sober counterparts. Research have also begun to investigate the effects of alcohol on memory for sexual violence. This work has also shown that participants who were under the influence of alcohol, as opposed to sober, give less complete accounts of the sexual violence, but their accounts are no more likely to have errors. Why is alcohol intoxication not associated with increased memory report errors? One possibility is that people who were under the influence of alcohol during the crime may report less information to investigators because they are concerned that alcohol may have affected their memory accuracy. Thus, they choose to report information only when they are relatively certain that it is accurate.

Our team is conducting additional research to help police and other legal practitioners improve their practice when interviewing intoxicated sexual assault survivors. This work is essential in increasing the low prosecution rates in sexual violence cases. Further, our work has shown that survivors of sexual violence who were under the influence of alcohol often do not report rape to the police because they blame themselves. Crucially, first responders and others who work with survivors need to dispel myths about alcohol and the accuracy of testimony in the furtherance of justice in rape cases.

For further reading:

Flowe, H. D., & Maltby, J. (2017). An experimental examination of alcohol consumption, alcohol expectancy and self-blame on willingness to report a hypothetical rape. Aggressive Behavior.

Flowe, H. D., Takarangi, M. K. T., *Humphries, J. E., & *Wright, D. S. (2016). Alcohol and remembering a hypothetical sexual assault: Can people who were under the influence of alcohol during the event provide accurate testimony? Memory, 24, 1042-1061. doi: 10.1080/09658211.2015.1064536

Schreiber Compo, N., Evans, J. R., Carol, R. N., Villalba, D., Ham, L. S., Garcia, T., & Rose, S. (2012). Intoxicated eyewitnesses: Better than their reputation?. Law and Human Behavior, 36, 77. doi: 10.1007/s10979-011-9273-5.

Heather D. Flowe


University of Birmingham, School of Psychology, Centre for Applied Psychology

Posted 12 July 2018

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