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“That’s your story? Seriously?”: Believability of alibis

Friday, July 19, 2013
posted by Rita Handrich

alibi-roomYou may have heard the idea that people fulfill our expectations so that if we expect accomplishment we often get it and if we expect failure, we can get that too. In research it is called ‘experimenter expectancy’ (and the reason for double-blind studies). In education it is called ‘the halo effect’. Turns out it’s true in mock investigative interviews as well. If we believe the person we are viewing is guilty, we just don’t find them believable.

This is a common problem in police investigation interviews where, when the interviewer determines the interviewee is guilty–the investigation shifts to an interrogation. The investigative interview is to gather information. The interrogation is to determine guilt. The problem with this, as pointed out by false confessions/wrongful conviction researchers, is that when we presume guilt, we tend to hear and recall only the information that points to deception and guilt. We simply pay no attention to facts that disconfirm our assumptions. It isn’t necessarily intentional. We simply look for data to confirm hypotheses.

In this study, 285 undergraduate students at a Midwestern University watched a videotaped narrative of what a young man had done for a few hours on a particular day. Some of them were told his narrative was an alibi and others were not. Further, some were told his narrative was an alibi and he was guilty (while others were told he was innocent). After viewing the videotape, participants were asked to write down as many different facts as they could recall from the videotaped alibi and to be as specific as they could. Finally, they were asked to rate how believable they found the alibi provider. The results of this research mirror what has been written about for decades in the wrongful convictions/false confessions literature.

Participants who had been told the person giving the alibi was guilty recalled less detail from the videotaped alibi, found the alibi less believable and viewed the alibi provider more negatively than those who had not been told he was guilty.

This actually makes sense to us. If you know someone to be guilty, it makes sense you wouldn’t listen as closely, wouldn’t find the person believable and see them negatively in relation to an innocent person. The issue is not when you know the person is guilty–but when you presume/assume they are guilty before you have a basis for judging the issue. And that is the difference between research with undergraduates and with real-life police officers either interviewing or interrogating an individual. The question for the real-life situation is–how can we stop that presumption of guilt from happening?

A recent civil wrongful conviction suit  we worked on was eye-opening for us. To aid us in understanding mock juror reactions to the case narrative, we completed a comprehensive review of the (voluminous) literature on the topic. It was, in a word, disturbing. And later, as we chewed peanut M&Ms and drank ridiculous amounts of coffee in the darkened observation room while mock jurors deliberated–we heard almost every theme we’d read about in the literature. While we knew, as did the mock jurors, that the man was innocent and bad things had happened during his interrogation–the mock jurors simply couldn’t understand why he would have falsely confessed to a homicide. The idea that he was young, naive, exhausted, terrified, and told it would all stop if he simply admitted he had killed the victim was raised and discarded by many of our mock jurors. Even when told of the exculpating DNA evidence and that the authorities had agreed about his innocence, some still didn’t want to believe it.

Fortunately for the wrongly convicted man, some of our mock jurors had watched a true-crime reality show called The First 48 and they excitedly educated their peers on how frightening and leading and guilt-assumptive the interrogation process can be when it goes wrong. Ultimately, more analytical heads prevailed and the jurors agreed the young teenager (now a middle-aged man) had been done wrong and there were pressures they could not imagine on him during the interview turned interrogation. The television show– almost certainly not admissible at trial– was among the most persuasive “evidence” for two jurors, and it gave them a basis for a full-throated lecture to the others. Even though what they said was correct, it was one of those scary times when extra-evidentiary information completely turned a deliberation.

So we look at this research and think it really isn’t about anyone in the real world being told someone is guilty. It’s about making that presumptive leap that changes everything. The question is how we get people, who are professionally trained to look for deception, to suspend disbelief and attempt to get to the truth rather than close the case. It’s a long-standing quagmire for the justice system. For a review of literature about strategies that actually reduce the problem in investigations, read our paper.

Olson, EA (2013). “You don’t expect me to believe that, do you?” Expectations influence recall and belief of alibi information. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 43 DOI: 10.1111/jasp.12086


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