U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government, Department of Justice.

Does Contextual Information Affect Expert Opinions?: Recent Research

NCJ Number
Date Published
July 2006
3 pages
This article details study determining if contextual information affects expert opinions.
This study reveals that fingerprint examiners using the generally accepted method of latent print identification, ACE-V which stands for: analysis, comparison, evaluation, and verification, are vulnerable to irrelevant and misleading contextual influences. Dr. Itiel Dror of the University of Southhampton and his colleagues set out to prove that context does affect the outcomes; they concluded that their “findings of inconsistent identification decisions may reflect cognitive flaws and limitations in conducting objective and independent processing of the information,” and calls for further research to examine these issues in greater depth. Although the study was conducted with only five fingerprint examiners, it was the first conducted in the real world conditions of the criminal justice system; four out of five of the fingerprint examiners in the study changed their prior identifications. Dr. Dror’s study used the background of the fingerprint found in the Madrid train bombing to create the context. On March 11, 2004, as a pretext, Dr. Dror asked several examiners to analyze the prints from a mistaken identity case derived from a fingerprint collected at the Madrid bomb scene, the Brandon Mayfield case. The study was designed to provide empirical data on whether fingerprint experts were susceptible to extraneous contextual influences when working in normal routines and environments. Five fingerprint experts were selected from an international pool of volunteers from fingerprint bureaus, agencies, and laboratories all over the world. According to Dror’s study, emotional context and subliminal messages increased the likelihood of match judgments when fingerprints were ambiguous, thus concluding that contextual information actively biases the way gaps are filled. When fingerprints were clearly not a match, the same contextual information did not influence the participants to conclude that a match existed. The National Institute of Justice will fund six future fingerprint studies. References

Date Published: July 1, 2006