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Thompson, M. B. & Tangen, J. M. (2014). The nature of expertise in fingerprint matching: Experts can do a lot with a little. PLOS ONE.
Expert decision making often seems impressive, even miraculous. People with genuine expertise in a particular domain can perform quickly and accurately, and with little information. In the series of experiments presented here, we manipulate the amount of “information” available to a group of experts whose job it is to identify the source of crime scene fingerprints. In Experiment 1, we reduced the amount of information available to experts by inverting fingerprint pairs and adding visual noise. There was no evidence for an inversion effect—experts were just as accurate for inverted prints as they were for upright prints—but expert performance with artificially noisy prints was impressive. In Experiment 2, we separated matching and nonmatching print pairs in time. Experts were conservative, but they were still able to discriminate pairs of fingerprints that were separated by five-seconds, even though the task was quite different from their everyday experience. In Experiment 3, we separated the print pairs further in time to test the long-term memory of experts compared to novices. Long-term recognition memory for experts and novices was the same, with both performing around chance. In Experiment 4, we presented pairs of fingerprints quickly to experts and novices in a matching task. Experts were more accurate than novices, particularly for similar nonmatching pairs, and experts were generally more accurate when they had more time. It is clear that experts can match prints accurately when there is reduced visual information, reduced opportunity for direct comparison, and reduced time to engage in deliberate reasoning. These findings suggest that non-analytic processing accounts for a substantial portion of the variance in expert fingerprint matching accuracy. Our conclusion is at odds with general wisdom in fingerprint identification practice and formal training, and at odds with the claims and explanations that are offered in court during expert testimony.