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Sci Justice. 2014 Jul;54(4):267-73. doi: 10.1016/j.scijus.2013.12.005. Epub 2014 Jan 11.

Does contextual information bias bitemark comparisons?

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Psychology Department, University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand. Electronic address:
Sir John Walsh Research Institute, Dunedin, New Zealand.
Psychology Department, University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand.


A growing body of research suggests that the interpretation of fingerprint evidence is open to contextual bias. While there has been suggestion in the literature that the same might apply to bitemarks - a form of identification evidence in which a degree of contextual information during the comparison phase is generally unavoidable - there have so far been no empirical studies to test this assertion. We explored dental and non-dental students' ability to state whether two bitemarks matched, while manipulating task ambiguity and the presence and emotional intensity of additional contextual information. Provision of the contextual information influenced participants' decisions on the ambiguous bitemarks. Interestingly, when participants were presented with highly emotional images and subliminally primed with the words 'same' and 'guilty', they made fewer matches relative to our control condition. Dental experience also played a role in decision-making, with dental students making more matches as the experiment progressed, regardless of context or task ambiguity. We discuss ways that this exploratory research can be extended in future studies.


Bitemarks; Contextual bias; Emotional context; Expertise; Forensic odontology; Forensic science

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