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gruesome crimeJust say his brain made him do it! That is the conclusion of new research on the relationship between gruesomeness of the crime and the harshness of the sentence. In case you can’t intuit this one, the more gruesome (and disturbing) the crime, the harsher the sentence tends to be. But if the assault was merely moderately gruesome — even though it could have been deadly– there are ways to minimize punishment decisions. 

Researchers at Duke University found that “if the focus is drawn away from the mind of a perpetrator by providing biological explanations of personality instead of traits, people may not make the same social cognitive inferences”. So how did they come to that conclusion (and what does that quotation mean)?

First of all, it’s a small sample (N = 11), likely because it’s expensive and time consuming to use an MRI machine. The researchers conducted brain MRIs while the participants read a number of different vignettes about crimes either strong in violence-related disgust or weak in disgust. The idea was for the researchers to see which areas of the brain were activated while reading the vignettes (that were either disgustingly gruesome or not so much) and then to see whether the participants chose punishment less than the US Federal Sentencing Guidelines or chose the harsher recommended sentence. (We’ve written about disgust before and these researchers equate “gruesome” with “disgusting”–apparently thinking of the visceral reaction to gruesome photos or mental images elicited from written descriptions.)

Here are examples of the vignettes used:

Rob Whitley was on his lunch break. He saw his boss at the hot dog stand and approached him while taking out a pair of scissors. He stabbed his boss on the side of the neck first, and then the lower back, causing the victim serious blood loss and requiring hospitalization. (This vignette was described as high in disgust.)

John Noel was at a bar and saw his ex-girlfriend’s new lover, James. Although John was not expecting to see James there, John took out the gun he regularly carried in his back pocket and tried to shoot James, but missed. (This vignette was described as low in disgust.)

Both of these crimes (whether high or low in disgust) would be prosecutable for aggravated assault. Participants were asked to rate how morally reprehensible the act was, how severe the punishment should be, and how much they were disgusted by what they read. However, as is typical in research like this, there was another twist: The researchers added a single sentence to the end of each vignette describing the perpetrator’s personality using either personality traits or biological language. That is, “Gerald frequently proves to have an impulsive personality” versus “Terry has a gene mutation that has been associated with impulsivity” when the crime was premeditated murder.

And here is what they found:

When the perpetrator was described as having biological reasons for impulsivity (rather than as being impulsive), he was seen as being less responsible and punished less severely.

When crimes were strong in disgust, there were harsher sentences but there was no relationship between how personality was described (biological or trait description) and punishment.

Crimes weak in disgust resulted in less harsh punishment than the guidelines recommended while crimes strong in disgust were punished at the recommended level.

In other words, if the crime is pretty gruesome (and these researchers say therefore one jurors would see as disgusting) your client is likely to get the harsher sentence regardless of whether you invoke a neurolaw (his brain made him do it) sort of defense. But, if the crime isn’t gruesome and you invoke a neurolaw defense, your client may be seen as less responsible for his actions and punished less.

Ultimately, this dovetails well with what we’ve known for many years– its about what the jury focuses on. If the jury spends a lot of time talking about the crime and the injuries it caused, the defendant is in trouble. If there is a credible mediating explanation such as a neurolaw defense or other circumstantial evidence and the jury spends time talking about human behavior instead of terrifying assault, the defendant is in better shape.

Overall, it is important to remember that this is a study based on such a small sample of people (N = 11) that their results might not be verifiable, even when it makes intuitive sense. However,  it is worth remembering that according to this study, gruesomeness/disgust of the crime affects the assignment of responsibility but likely does not affect sentencing decisions.

Capestany BH, & Harris LT (2014). Disgust and biological descriptions bias logical reasoning during legal decision-making. Social Neuroscience, 9 (3), 265-277 PMID: 24571553

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credibility and smilingWomen smile more than men. Men are typically seen as more credible than women. So these researchers decided to see if there was a relationship between smiling and assessments of credibility on actual witnesses in the courtroom. 

The researchers used the Witness Credibility Scale to assess actual witnesses overall credibility. They thought that if smiling influenced observer evaluations of likability, confidence, trustworthiness and knowledge (the facets of credibility measured by the Witness Credibility Scale) then smiling could influence witness credibility. So off to the courtroom they went to collect observational data from real courtroom testimony. They observed both criminal and civil trials (including proceedings related to worker’s compensation, assault, domestic violence, drug trafficking, and capital murder) over a period of 6 months and, in total, observed 22 male and 10 female witnesses. The majority of the ratings (87.5%) were based on direct examination by the prosecution (84.4%).

There were 21 Caucasian witnesses and 11 African-American witnesses and witnesses ranged in age from 19 to 70 years. The researchers used four trained raters–two assessing the frequency of “smiling behavior” and two assessing credibility using the Witness Credibility Scale. (The credibility raters were trained to use the scale but had no awareness of the study’s hypotheses. The raters counting smiles included the principal investigator and one other person who knew the hypotheses.)

Here is what the researchers found:

Of the 32 witnesses observed, 23 smiled (71.9%) and nine (28.1%) did not.There were more women that smiled than men and although the difference between male and female smiling witnesses did not reach significance, it “trended that way” according to the researchers.

Male witnesses were seen as more trustworthy than female witnesses.

Witnesses who smiled were seen as more likable and female witnesses who smiled were significantly more likable than both smiling male witnesses and non-smiling female witnesses. Oddly, smiling female witnesses were not more likable than non-smiling male witnesses. (The researchers wonder if the smiling male witnesses were seen as behaving in a way incongruent with gender norms and thus the smiling male witnesses were less likable than the non-smiling males.)

The researchers say that, “Contrary to expectations, gender and smiling did not impact ratings of trustworthiness”. Men were found more trustworthy than women witnesses, but when women smiled, they were more likable than everyone but unsmiling men. The researchers recommend female witnesses smile during testimony since it is expected of them (by virtue of gender roles).

As with the research on female expert witnesses we covered earlier this month, there is not a lot of good news for women witnesses here but what we do know now is that women witnesses can relax a little and smile–it won’t make them more credible than stoic men but it will make the women witnesses a little more likable. And every little bit helps.

Nagle JE, Brodsky SL, & Weeter K (2014). Gender, Smiling, and Witness Credibility in Actual Trials. Behavioral sciences & the law PMID: 24634058

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Imacon Color ScannerWe often associate people who are especially trusting with gullibility, low self-esteem, and lower intellectual function. However, we seem to have it backwards according to new research (which successfully replicates the results of studies from 2010 and 2012). 

Intelligent people are more likely to trust others while those lower in intelligence are less likely to be as trusting. The authors think it is due to intelligent people being better at judging character and thus befriending those less likely to betray them. Our take is that while they may or may not be better, they appear to have more confidence in the accuracy of their impressions.

The British researchers analyzed data from the General Social Survey (a public opinion survey administered to a nationally representative sample of US adults every 1-2 years since 1972). Their study is the first to ever use GSS data to look at the relationship between generalized trust and intelligence. Ultimately, they find that intelligence and generalized trust are strongly associated and that, even after “adjusting for intelligence, generalized trust continues to be strongly associated with both self-rated health and happiness”.

Here is their primary finding:

Those with the highest verbal ability are 34% more likely to trust others than those with the lowest verbal ability.

This relationship holds for both “men and women, among both blacks and whites, among the young, the middle-aged and the old, and in all five decades since the GSS began”.

From our general perspective, that’s a pretty fabulous finding. It’s nearly universal as it holds true across gender, age, and ethnicity–as well as across the past forty-two years. We don’t know of many personality descriptor variables that do that.

From a litigation advocacy perspective, it’s a quick way of assessing intellectual function for those situations where you cannot look at educational achievement, management experience, or leadership roles. If you know you want smart jurors, you may want to ask them how trusting they are of others. Or conversely, if you need someone to trust your client beyond the immediate facts, you would do best to pick someone smart enough to keep focused on a broader reality.

Carl N, & Billari FC (2014). Generalized trust and intelligence in the United States. PLoS ONE, 9 (3) PMID: 24619035

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paranoia-240x300Not long ago we blogged about the reality that half of Americans believe in at least one public health conspiracy. The same researchers have now looked into other conspiracy theories and found similar trends: half of Americans believe at least one conspiracy theory. So. Let’s take a look at what the researchers say about the sort of personality that lies behind the acceptance of conspiracy theories.

First, you need to have a tendency to attribute the reason behind unexplained or extraordinary events to “unseen and intentional forces”.

Second, you need to also have a tendency to be attracted to “melodramatic narratives” as explanations especially those narratives that interpret historical events as a classic struggle between good and evil. (If you want to stump your friends, this sort of duality is known as a Manichean narrative.)

This time, rather than public health conspiracy theories, the researchers examined various general and ideological conspiracy theories popular among your friends and neighbors (and perhaps even you!) as sampled by a YouGov/Polimetrix survey of 1,935 individuals in 2011. Here are the conspiracy theories they assessed (and the percentage expressing a belief in them).

The US invasion of Iraq was not part of a campaign to fight terrorism, but was driven by oil companies and Jews in the US and Israel. (This was called the “Iraq War conspiracy” and was familiar to 44% of respondents and 19% agreed.)

Certain US government officials planned the attacks of September 11, 2001 because they wanted the US to go to war in the Middle East. (“Truther conspiracy” was familiar to 67% of the respondents and 19% agreed.)

President Barack Obama was not really born in the US and does not have an authentic Hawaiian birth certificate. (“Birther conspiracy” was familiar to 94% and 24% believed it.)

The current financial crisis was secretly orchestrated by a small group of Wall Street bankers to extend the power of the Federal Reserve and further their control of the world’s economy. (“Financial Crisis conspiracy” was familiar to 46% while 25% believed it.)

Vapor trails left by aircraft are actually chemical agents deliberately sprayed in a clandestine program directed by government officials. (This was called the “Chem Trails conspiracy” was familiar to 17% of respondents although only 9% believed it.)

Billionaire George Soros is behind a hidden plot to destabilize the American government, take control of the media, and put the world under his control. (The “Soros conspiracy” was familiar to 31% and 19% believed it.)

The US government is mandating the switch to compact fluorescent light bulbs because such lights make people more obedient and easier to control. (“The CFLB conspiracy” was familiar to 17% and believed by 11%.)

Overall the researchers say that 55% of the 2011 respondents believed at least one of these theories. The most popular (at 25%) was the Financial Crisis conspiracy, followed by the Birther conspiracy, which was also followed closely by the Truther, Iraq War and Soros conspiracies. The Chem Trails conspiracy theory was far behind the other conspiracies. They do not initially mention the light bulb conspiracy but it was comparably accepted to the Chem Trail conspiracy.

Later the researchers confess to having made up that CFLB theory just to see if anyone would bite. (It’s so hard to trust those conspiracy researchers although they do confide in the reader that there actually are conspiracy theories that CFLB “lights contribute to greater fatigue or may serve as a weapon to induce mercury poisoning through a massive electromagnetic pulse”.)

They remind us that large portions of the population are drawn to the Manichean-style narrative with the struggle between good and evil and that this tendency is particularly strong in “the high proportion of Americans who believe we are living in biblical end times”. The researchers seem to believe that conspiracy theories are simply part of the American experience particularly for the many of us for whom “complicated or nuanced explanations for political events are both cognitively taxing and have limited appeal”. Conspiracy theories are more exciting and engrossing and thus, we choose, in some cases, to believe them.

From a litigation advocacy perspective, it’s a good reminder (again) of how often the message you mean to send can trigger associations to something altogether different. And if in voir dire, you make a joke about an absolutely nutty conspiracy theory, keep in mind that a good number of your jurors are going to believe it, while others will be muttering to themselves on break that they had no idea that your theory was true, and still others will think you are out of your mind. This is a variation on our general advice to avoid making jokes during trial about anything or anyone but yourself. And yet, sometimes it is just irresistible…

Oliver, J., & Wood, T. (2014). Conspiracy Theories and the Paranoid Style(s) of Mass Opinion American Journal of Political Science DOI: 10.1111/ajps.12084

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jailcell2You remember the better than average effect. It’s what makes us evaluate ourselves as better than others. I’m a better driver than the average driver. I’m a better swimmer than other non-competitive swimmers. Or even, I’m a better citizen than those who, unlike me, are not in prison. Yes. “I’m in jail. They are not. But, I am more moral, more kind, more self-controlled, more compassionate, more generous, more dependable, more trustworthy, and even more honest. I am not, however, more law-abiding than those who are not in jail. Because nobody’s perfect.” 

Those are the findings of a recent study that presents perhaps the strongest evidence for the better than average effect ever. Even when you are locked up as punishment for a crime, you see yourself as better than other prisoners (even more law-abiding than other prisoners) and better than citizens who are not imprisoned on a number of desirable characteristics. If you want an example, consider the recent lengthy interview with Bernie Madoff. Bernie doesn’t claim to be a great guy, just better than the politicians and greedy co-beneficiaries of his larceny.

British researchers tested 85 convicted inmates (age ranged from 18 to 34 years with an average age of 20.4 years–no information was given on other demographic descriptors) at an English prison. They were imprisoned for a variety of offenses although the majority were crimes against people and 17.7% chose the option “prefer not to say” when asked about their offense. There was ultimately no relationship between offense committed and the inmate scores on the better than average effect.

The inmates were told they were participating in a study of self-perception. They were asked to perform three different tasks: first to rate themselves compared to the average prisoner; second to compare themselves to the average member of the community; and third to complete demographic questionnaires containing demographic information. The characteristics they were asked to rate themselves on during the first and second tasks were: being moral, being kind, being more self-controlled, more law-abiding, more compassionate, more generous, more dependable, more trustworthy and more honest.

Participants rated themselves better than the average prisoner on all of these traits.

Participants rated themselves better than the average community member on all traits except that of being law-abiding. Importantly, while the prisoners did not rate themselves as more law-abiding than the average community member, they rated themselves as equally law-abiding as the average (not imprisoned) community member.

The researchers are taken aback by this last finding and wonder if the findings “raise issues regarding the self-views of other groups who have especially poor skills or detrimental behavior habits”. For example, they ask, “Do students on academic probation believe that they have better than average academic skills? Do serial divorcees think they are better marital partners than the average spouse? Do people who overeat, smoke cigarettes, and fail to exercise think they have average or better than average health habits? If so, the prospects for people in these categories to improve their abilities and characteristics are not promising.”

From a litigation advocacy perspective, this certainly has implications for witness preparation and for how your client presents him or herself. That witness who seems to refuse to take advice might actually think they’re the best witness ever. Sometimes it’s enough to show a witness how they come across on video (so prep them with a camera and show him or her the ways they undermine themselves). If that doesn’t help and the budget permits, holding a focus group– however low-budget might be required– can make a big difference. Our stubbornness usually fades in the face of people mocking us or describing why they dislike us. It is an experience both painful and sobering.

Like the recently viral deposition videos for Justin Bieber demonstrate, most of us are not as smart and clever as we would like to imagine.

Sedikides C, Meek R, Alicke MD, & Taylor S (2014). Behind bars but above the bar: Prisoners consider themselves more prosocial than non-prisoners. The British Journal of Social Psychology PMID: 24359153

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