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The seductive allure of ‘seductive allure’

Wednesday, April 17, 2013
posted by Douglas Keene

frank-ritter-allureSometimes academics make the most of a clever turn of phrase. But this post isn’t about sex and it isn’t about Marilyn Monroe. Instead, it is about everyone’s favorite other topic: the CSI effect. Am I right? That is your favorite other topic, isn’t it?

Even though there have been growing indications that fear of the CSI effect is over-blown, less than a year ago the ABA published recommendations on countering the CSI effect. You may remember hearing about the research saying that even showing jurors pictures of fMRI brain scans was wildly persuasive. We’ve actually covered a lot of the varying research on neurolaw and you can review that here on the blog. Some of it is hard to believe. And much of the ‘research’ is almost certainly wrong.

This time though we have a bit of dry reality from a review of the brain imaging studies that have had the most press. The first (McCabe and Castel, 2008) essentially said that when you show people photos of fMRI scans, that information is more powerful than a bar chart showing actual data counts. The second (Weisberg, Keil, Goodstein, Rawson & Gray, 2008) essentially said that poor explanations of varying psychological phenomena were seen as more convincing when accompanied by neuroscience information that was irrelevant to the explanation.

The authors of this research review describe various issues with both studies and comment that, despite those issues, these studies have been cited over and over again as “indicative of the power of images to overwhelm our judgment”. Evidently, bad science is still good press. While they have been cited repeatedly, the current authors were able to find only one replication of the results. Otherwise, the impact of images on persuasion has been insignificant despite multiple large-scale studies.

What appears to be missing in some of the research studies is the narrative that should accompany the images. What jurors want is to know the truth. To feel convinced that there is substance they can trust. A bar chart can be nonsense– pure opinion unless it is effectively explained and the underlying data is both understood and accepted. It is a secondary representation of reality– it is not reality itself. No one on a jury understands an fMRI scan by looking at it. But it creates an impression of being a photograph, in contrast to a bar chart appearing to be a cartoon. Gee– why would anyone favor an fMRI? It isn’t the CSI effect. It’s just sensible people wanting something to believe in.

Last week a client of mine prevailed in a civil RICO and insurance fraud case against businessman who owned chiropractic clinics (Allstate v. Plambeck). Jurors concluded that he did various things that represented fraudulent billing. Including evidence related to x-rays. X-rays have the potential to be superficially understood by a layperson. In this case, what jurors understood that an x-ray that is solid white or solid black is worthless. They understood that an x-ray that shows a spine partially obscured by giant belt buckles, jewelry, or zippers was probably taken by someone with sloppy technique, and thus a lower level of professional skill. The case also involved tables reflecting the ‘quality’ of the medical records, charts depicting non-diagnostic x-rays, and other data. But nothing persuaded the jurors like the physical evidence. In this case they were able to immediately identify the problems. In most cases, the evidence needs to be taught by an effective witness using the images. But the issue isn’t one of a ‘CSI Effect’. It’s about a wish to have evidence.

Why is that happening? When we are so afraid of the CSI effect, why has the scientific debunking of an aspect of this effect gone unincorporated into our collective wisdom? The authors put forth several hypotheses. Among them, the idea that images are appealing and so we assume they are inordinately persuasive. They quote one of our favorite bloggers (Neuroskeptic) and this sort of citing is atypical for academic publications:

“There is another kind of seductive allure, probably the oldest and most dangerous of all–the allure of that which confirms what we already thought we knew.”

And that’s what we tend to think of many of the neurolaw studies we’ve written about when it comes to application in the courtroom. They are often written in ways that make you think they make intuitive sense and there is a magical abracadabra quality to them that makes us not question them much. But when you have murder defenses (or convictions) based on such foundational research that is not yet ready for application in the real world with real consequences–it’s pretty scary. And likely fits right into the allure of “that which confirms what we already thought we knew”.

Thanks to Farah and Hook for sharing something with us that we didn’t already know!

Farah, M., & Hook, C. (2013). The Seductive Allure of “Seductive Allure” Perspectives on Psychological Science, 8 (1), 88-90 DOI: 10.1177/1745691612469035


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