While we may strive to stand out in our everyday lives, a new study has suggested individuality could be a hindrance if we ever find ourselves in a police lineup. According to the research, police lineups in which suspects have distinctive marks and features, such as black eyes or beards, are unfair as they cause suspects to stand out more, increasing the chance they’ll be wrongly identified for a crime. Instead, the study suggests that police digitally alter photos to remove all individual markers in an effort to make these lineups as fair as possible.

Unlike your favorite crime dramas in which victims choose potential suspects out of a line-up behind a one-way mirror, most lineups are nothing more than a series of photographs on a sheet of paper. Recently, researchers from The University of Warwick in the UK tested the reliability of eyewitnesses and found that individuals are more willing to identify a suspect when they viewed a lineup in which the suspect was alone and had a distinguishing feature, compared with lineups where features had been digitally removed. In addition, volunteers were less able to distinguish between actual guilty suspects and innocent suspects in the unaltered lineups when these individuals shared distinctive features.

"When the suspect was the only person with the distinctive feature, this actually made people more likely to confuse who was guilty and who was innocent," said lead author Melissa Colloff in a recent statement. "That's because they weren't really using their memory of the culprit's face, they were just picking the only plausible option - the only one with the scar that they remembered from the crime video - and this made it difficult for people to tell the difference between the real culprit and an innocent suspect who had a similar feature."

To arrive at this conclusion, the team had 9,000 online participants watch a brief video of a crime. The volunteers were told to pay attention because they would be asked questions about the crime later. After viewing the video, the volunteers were then asked to look at photographs of individuals. Some of the images had been digitally altered to remove distinguishing features while others had not been manipulated. The participants were asked to select one of the photos in the lineup as the culprit or choose the option labeled “not present.” Volunteers were also rated in how confident they were in making their decision with 1 being completely uncertain and 100 being completely certain.

According to the researchers, their results have “crucial implications for the police” as they suggest that digitally altering photos to remove certain features could actually make the lineup process fairer.

Source: Colloff MF, Wade KA, Strange D. Unfair Lineups Make Witnesses More Likely to Confuse Innocent and Guilty Suspects. Psychological Science. 2016.