Teaching people about neuroscience can make them softer on crime!
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We regularly follow the neurolaw literature and about a year ago, we blogged about how judges are softer on crime when educated about the brains of psychopaths. Well. Judges are people too and a recently published study shows it isn’t just judges who are affected by neuroscience education. While the idea that flashy pictures alone can unduly influence jurors during a “his or her brain made him do it” defense presentation has been debunked, apparently a lecture on neuroscience can still influence individual ideas about punishment and the Defendant’s responsibility for their actions.
The researchers were interested in seeing if they could manipulate beliefs about free will among their participants. They began with the assumption that most of us believe in free will as opposed to determinism or fate. Then in four separate experiments with undergraduate college students, the researchers measured attitudes toward punishment for criminal behavior and then began to erode the participants beliefs in free will by educating them on neuroscience.
What they found was that as knowledge about neuroscience increased, the belief in free will decreased as did the length of sentences recommended for criminal behavior.
In other words, as participants learned more about the biological (or as the researchers labeled it, mechanistic) bases for behavior, they held the alleged criminal less responsible and believed the punishment should be less severe. The participants educated about neuroscience had less of a desire for retribution than did those who were not educated in neuroscience. From a litigation advocacy perspective, these studies have important ramifications.
If the findings are accurate, a convicted Defendant whose defense included a neuroscience education might receive in a lesser sentence.
The Prosecutor will want to focus on personal responsibility and the controversial nature of neuroscience research in order to maximize punishment decisions.
Shariff AF, Greene JD, Karremans JC, Luguri JB, Clark CJ, Schooler JW, Baumeister RF, & Vohs KD (2014). Free Will and Punishment: A Mechanistic View of Human Nature Reduces Retribution. Psychological science PMID: 24916083