Macbeth, a joystick and the “cannibal cop” case
The cannibal cop case is now in full swing and the testimony gets more grisly and nasty every day. From the “cannibal cop’s” wife’s testimony to fantasies of barbecuing a female friend, to the idea that “white girls seem the most appetizing”, the case is shocking, disturbing, and, to most of us, disgusting.
We wrote about this case when we first heard of it, and then again when the supplemental juror questionnaire came out. Now some new research got us thinking about the jurors hearing all the grisly and disturbing testimony day after day after day. There’s been a lot of writing about jurors being traumatized by hearing disturbing evidence in murder, kidnapping, rape, child sex abuse, and other violent criminal trials. We do not wish to minimize the distress that trial images, verbal testimony, and the shock of brutal acts can cause for jurors hearing evidence. But this research has possible utility in mitigating the impact of the evidence.
It’s something repeatedly found in the “disgust research” which we’ve written about before. This research though seems to apply to the sort of gruesome evidence being presented in the “cannibal cop” case. In the research, students were asked to play one of two different violent video games (one featuring violence against people and the other featuring violence against objects) and then asked to choose 4 out of 10 gift products (half of which were hygiene products). The research participants included experienced gamers and inexperienced gamers. And here is what the researchers found:
When the games included violence against people (rather than violence against things), inexperienced gamers were more distressed and they chose more hygiene products from the gift products available to them. Experienced gamers didn’t report distress regardless of which game they played.
In essence, the experienced gamers seemed to have much more immunity from the impact of violent behavior against humans than did the inexperienced gamers. The inexperienced gamers wanted to “cleanse themselves” and thus chose products [such as deodorant and body wash] that would assist them in so doing.
In the “cannibal cop” trial, jurors are being exposed to fantasies of the most violent and disgusting nature and the defendant is a NY police officer. We assume (and have to hope) that most of the jurors on the “cannibal cop” case are “inexperienced” in hearing the sorts of things they are most certainly now hearing. An interesting follow-up research series might look at the adaptive strategies that people undertake over time, when exposed to disturbing material. Would these “inexperienced” people continue to display trauma by opting for hygiene products, or would the repeated exposure cause them to become desensitized over time? What is the most effective balance of stress and comfort for jurors who are serving on cases like this? Does chronic shock (also known as ‘vicarious traumatization’) serve the prosecution or the defense? Would opportunities to ‘cleanse’ result in the “inexperienced” jurors remaining sensitive to the trauma, or help them seal it over?
It’s an intriguing idea and certainly one that wouldn’t hurt at all to test out. Can offering jurors convenient ways to wash and cleanse their hands keep trauma from gaining a permanent foothold? Is what soothes the jurors also good for your case? Big questions.
Gollwitzer, M., & Melzer, A. (2012). Macbeth and the Joystick: Evidence for moral cleansing after playing a violent video game Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48 (6), 1356-1360 DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2012.07.001