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“Look inside yourself at the very best you there is….”

Friday, June 6, 2014
posted by Rita Handrich

empathy-9550064_lIf you’ve read us for any length of time at all, you know we love this strategy to increase empathy and reduce bias in civil cases. Today we are looking at new research relevant to criminal work that shows how empathy (and the resulting perspective-taking) drives decisions about responsibility and guilt, sentencing, and leniency.

This research isn’t so much about looking inside yourself (and ridding the biases that lurk within) as it is about seeing the view from the defendant’s perspective (and increasing your empathy for what it is like to be in that position) or from the victim’s perspective (with the same goal). The researchers paid attention to real-world issues by making several of the experiments comparable to the “perspective-taking” directives offered in a real courtroom trial. That is, the only perspective-taking directive was that in the attorney’s closing statement. The research participants were not given perspective-taking instructions prior to the beginning of the experiment.

Our attorney readers already know this, but for those who are unfamiliar, the rules at trial are clear: You cannot attempt to overtly put the jurors into the role of any party. For instance, you can’t say “What would you [juror] do if this had happened to you?” This is a violation of the bar on invoking the ‘Golden Rule’ [“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”]. So the attorney approaches the same dynamic differently, by edging close to the Golden Rule line without violating it.

Here is a sample of the perspective-taking instructions contained in the attorney closing statement (this one asking them to take the perspective of the Defendant):

“Ladies and Gentlemen of the jury: I am here today to ask you to be kind and considerate when thinking about your decision in this case. My client, who is an upstanding citizen just like you all, was wrongly accused of hitting an innocent victim, and this necessitates your consideration and kindness when making your decision about this case.”

The researchers completed four different experiments to explore the effect of perspective-taking on the view of the target. They used a case with ambiguous evidence where the Defendant was charged with vehicular manslaughter but it was unclear if his car was actually the vehicle involved in the accident and subsequent death of a child. Over the course of four experiments, they found that perspective-taking often, but not always, results in viewing the target more favorably.

Taking the perspective of a criminal defendant resulted in research participants seeing the defendant as less culpable, and thus less guilty and less likely to re-offend.

Taking the perspective of the victim of a crime increases one’s sense of the defendant’s culpability, guilt, and the likelihood they will re-offend against someone else.

Finally, taking the perspective of a defendant can result in more leniency in punishment assigned.

The researchers say that the manipulation of perspective-taking (for the defendant or the victim) is powerful in that it takes place in actual trials and it clearly elicits empathy for either the defendant or the victim. Empathy results in a lower sentence for the defendant (or a higher sentence if the empathy is elicited for the victim and their family). Perspective-taking, say the authors, is thus a double-edged sword.

“Depending on the desired outcome, it is important to, like a weapon, point it toward the target where it will do the most good.”

Skorinko, J., Laurent, S., Bountress, K., Nyein, K., & Kuckuck, D. (2014). Effects of perspective taking on courtroom decisions Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 44 (4), 303-318 DOI: 10.1111/jasp.12222

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