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Archive for the ‘Bias’ Category

genetic defenseThe growing body of research on genetic variations and their relation to crime may leave you uncertain about how to best defend your client charged with a violent crime. Do you encourage jurors to support an insanity defense by using a genetic defense or does that route backfire and leave jurors seeing your client as “different, dangerous, and likely to reoffend”? New research says it isn’t all straightforward and jurors may hear your defense in a way that biases them against your client.

Researchers in Canada conducted three experiments with a total of more than 600 participants to examine the effect a genetic defense for a violent crime might have on the listener. The researchers offered variations on a nature versus nurture defense in a (fictional) murder committed by a college student.

Specifically, one group read that the defendant had a genetic variation associated with aggression and violent tendencies (i.e., MAOA which is also nicknamed “the warrior gene”).

The second group read that the defendant had been beaten as a child by his single mother and grew up in a neighborhood populated with gangs. Both of the first two groups were told that either a genetic (i.e., nature) or environmental (i.e., nurture) background could result in a four-fold increase in the likelihood of violent behavior.

The third group (a control group) read about the murder but did not receive any information on the defendant.

The researchers spend some time explaining the concept of mens rea:

“a legal concept pertaining to one’s malicious intent and volition to commit a crime” is necessary for a conviction. Perceiving someone’s actions as being beyond their control likely leads to the perception that the perpetrator lacked mens rea”.

Here is what they found across three studies (with both online recruits and university students as participants):

The group of participants who saw the genetic explanations for the murder were more likely to see the Insanity defense and Diminished Capacity defenses as legitimate than were those in the environmental explanation condition.

Those who were in the genetic condition also saw the perpetrator as less in control over his actions and less likely to be truly intending to harm the victim—but the genetic explanation did not change their sense the perpetrator knew the potential outcome of his actions.

Overall, say the researchers, the participants believed that the genetic explanations “diminished the defendant’s agency”. In other words, they explain, “despite knowing that his actions could have killed the victim, he neither was able to control his behavior nor did he really intend to kill the victim”.

Only participants in the third study thought the genetic defense decreased criminal responsibility. However, the length of the sentences assigned did vary somewhat. Those who had genetic explanations rather than environmental explanations thought the defendant had less conscious behavioral control. At the same time though, genetic defenses resulted in more sense the defendant would reoffend than did environmental defenses and that predicted lengthier sentences (since the defendant would be dangerous).

The researchers see this as the double-edged sword of the genetic defense: Jurors may see your client as less criminally responsible but they are more concerned about recidivism and dangerousness so they will want to lock your client up for a longer time. This is complicated by whether the jurors feel that he is NGRI (not guilty by reason of insanity) or GBI (guilty but insane). A NGRI verdict ends the trial, foregoing a punishment phase, while the latter can result in sentencing.

From a litigation advocacy perspective, this dilemma reminds us of our writings on the psychopath. Telling jurors that your client is a psychopath can be very convincing as a “his brain made him do it” sort of defense. The problem is that people are (fairly enough) very frightened by violent psychopaths, and have the belief that they are not subject to rehabilitation. Punishment is necessarily lengthened as jurors want to remain safe rather than having “that animal” back out on the streets.

It’s a good reason to carefully think through the pros and cons of any defense that leads the listener to see your client as irrevocably damaged. In some cases, your task is to make your client appear to be potentially rehabilitatable so that jurors don’t throw in a lengthy sentence to keep themselves “safe”. In other cases, it is enough to try to achieve a verdict that reflects psychiatrically impairment, instead of a guilty result. If the cause of the ‘insanity’ is a treatable condition, it is a much safer strategy to pursue from a punishment standpoint, but it is also harder to convince a jury of the non-volitional cause.

Cheung BY, & Heine SJ (2015). The Double-Edged Sword of Genetic Accounts of Criminality: Causal Attributions From Genetic Ascriptions Affect Legal Decision Making. Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin PMID: 26498975


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macho nachoAccording to a new study in the journal Social Psychology, it’s because we are willing to pay more for less healthy food in macho packaging or healthier food in pretty feminine packaging. You may protest at being stereotyped in this way but, apparently it works (or food package designers wouldn’t do it) because it’s just easier for us to process cognitively.

The researchers say the packaging reflects our beliefs about gender and food preferences: women prefer to eat more healthfully than men. Evidently, men can’t be bothered with health and nutrition. They explored these beliefs in three separate studies and draw conclusions about how “packaging” can use these stereotypes to influence behavior.

In Study 1, the researchers “primed” participants with a word scramble task wherein sentences contained either masculine, feminine, or neutral words embedded in the sentences. After completing the word task (and being “primed” for either a masculine, feminine or neutral state) the participants ranked 10 foods in terms of how likely they were to eat them in the next month. The researchers then looked at whether there was a relationship between the priming condition (masculine, feminine, or neutral) and their choice of the foods they were most likely to eat.

Sure enough, the researchers found that participants exposed to masculine priming were more likely to prefer unhealthy versions of food (e.g., soda, fried chicken, movie theater popcorn, donuts, potato chips, French fries) than were those exposed to the feminine priming (who tended to prefer bananas, oatmeal, spinach, or an orange).

In Study 2, the researchers wanted to vary the way food was packaged or presented. They used the same food (a muffin) in all conditions but the muffin was either presented as low-fat (“Health Muffin”) or full-fat (“Mega Muffin”) and it was packaged in either masculine, feminine or gender-neutral packaging.

Once again, the researchers beliefs as to how participants would respond were supported. When the packaging (masculine or feminine or neutral) and health (low-fat or full-fat) matched, participants thought the product more attractive, said they were more likely to buy it, and were willing to pay more money for it than when the packaging and health did not match (e.g., feminine packaging and an unhealthy muffin or masculine packaging and a healthy muffin). Oddly, participants also thought the muffin actually tasted better when packaging and health matched. We know they didn’t really taste better since the researchers used Entenmann’s Blueberry Muffins only so they would taste the same regardless of packaging.

In Study 3, the researchers wanted to see if these preferences would remain if the appeals to gender were more explicit—they thought if the appeal was obvious, participants would react against the appeal to gender in product marketing. To test their question, they added a condition where the packaging contained a “blatantly gendered slogan: ‘the muffin for real men’”. Participants again looked at the packaging (masculine, feminine or neutral—but in this case the masculine appeal was printed on the box (in certain conditions): “The Muffin for Real Men”) and indicated how much they would be willing to pay for a box of two dozen miniature muffins. Then they filled out a few measures for the researchers that allowed the researchers to share these results.

The participants who scored highest on psychological reactivity were most likely to react against the gender appeal of the muffin for real men and otherwise the findings paralleled those in Study 2.

The researchers think subtly activated gender stereotypes about food preferences influenced the participants to prefer either masculine/less healthy or feminine/more healthy foods regardless of their gender; that when gender (as communicated via packaging) and health (low-fat or full-fat) match up, we really like that consistency. And finally—no one likes to have gender pushed on them to “bias” their decisions—even though this research clearly communicates that marketers bias our purchases with gender-based packaging on a daily basis. They think these results could well be used to help policymakers consider how “appealing to cultural beliefs can shape food choices”.

From a litigation advocacy perspective, this article is a little disturbing. We all know how powerful implicit effects are—they fly beneath the radar and we often miss them completely. And the packaging used in this study escaped conscious notice but imposed powerful notice on the unconscious to result in gender-based food preferences. So how something is “packaged” makes a big difference.

Could trial graphics benefit from being “packaged” in either a male or female appearance? What is the influence of words, images, or color palette on juror acceptance?

Should you include masculine or feminine priming words in your closing statement to attempt to influence the way jurors view your case?

Do these results suggest anything about how you might want to choose your attire in court?

The researchers conclude their work by discussing the power of cultural stereotypes to “implicitly shape food preferences”. It seems to us that those cultural stereotypes are more powerful than we often given them credit for being—especially, as this study illustrates, stereotypes around gender.

Zhu, L., Brescoll, V., Newman, G., & Uhlmann, E. (2015). Macho Nachos Social Psychology, 46 (4), 182-196 DOI: 10.1027/1864-9335/a000226


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The Motivation to Express Prejudice Scale 

Wednesday, November 18, 2015
posted by Douglas Keene

motivation to prejudiceWe hear a lot more these days about covert or “modern prejudice” than we do about plain old overt prejudice. So it’s a little surprising to see this measure but it makes sense. There are some people who do want to express prejudice and here is a scale you can use to measure their wishes to behave prejudicially.

The researchers conducted 7 separate studies with more than 6,000 participants and were able to design a measure that is reliable for scale versions targeted at Black people and gay men. Here is some of what the researchers report:

The motivation to express prejudice is an independent construct that can be measured reliably.

People who are highly motivated to express prejudice are likely to resist pressure to support organizations promoting intergroup contact.

People who are high in motivation to express prejudice may not actually consider themselves to be prejudiced. (The researchers point to survey results showing that people higher in motivation to express prejudice do not believe that opposition to same-sex marriage is “prejudice”. Instead, they may see themselves as being “realistic, virtuous or moral”. They are not ashamed and don’t view themselves as morally inferior for holding their views, they have formed or internalized justifications that provide comfort to them.

The researchers think their measure may be useful in understanding the extreme behavior of those congregating on hate websites. And here are some of the questions on the scale since we know you always are curious about them. These questions are taken from the version of the scale used to measure motivation to express prejudice against Black people. The gay men version was identical except the term “Black people” was replaced with “gay men”.

I minimize my contact with Black people in order to avoid disapproval from others.

According to my personal beliefs, I should express negative feelings about Black people.

Avoiding interactions with Black people is important to my self-concept.

My beliefs motivate me to express negative views about Black people.

It’s odd to see a scale so openly endorsing the expression of prejudice and apparently that’s why it works to measure the motivation to express prejudice. It is looking for extreme and openly expressed views, and doesn’t create the ‘false positive’ results that more subtle measures might.

People who score highly on motivation to express prejudice toward either Black people or gay men are going to avoid contact so their views will not be challengeable.

It also appears they would not respond positively to peer pressure in the deliberation room to modify their beliefs.

These are strong statements and are unlikely to be allowed in court because they would be seen as prejudicial. There are also great risks that in asking the questions you are likely to offend those who hold those views but don’t want to disclose them, and even some people who are horrified by the implication of the questions and question why you would even pose them. There are certainly other ways to assess racism and bias and prejudice though and if you are paying attention during pretrial research with African-American or gay (or seemingly gay) parties—we’d hazard a guess that you will see some intriguing reactions from mock jurors who are not paying attention to what they are saying or doing. Use those reactions to help you craft a narrative that makes your client more “like” the jurors than “not like” them.

Forscher PS, Cox WT, Graetz N, & Devine PG (2015). The motivation to express prejudice. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 109 (5), 791-812 PMID: 26479365


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this and that November 2015This is a conglomeration of articles we thought were interesting and useful but chose not to devote an entire post describing them. Think of this as a series of articles that might pique your interest and make you want to learn more. We’ll provide links so it’s easy to learn more.

Christians and Science: A new stereotype threat?

You’ve probably heard about how women reminded of how men perform better in math do more poorly on math tests than those not reminded. Or about how African-Americans perform more poorly on standardized tests when reminded they tend to do so. Studies like these have been around for the past couple of decades. But here’s a new one—at least to us. A new study says that Christians are stereotyped as being less competent in science and so they do less well on scientific tests and tasks! We wonder whether this is really a “stereotype threat” since those are typically descriptive of minority groups and Christians remain a majority group in this country. Regardless, it’s an interesting factoid.

White People Have Hardships Too

Matt Damon recently apologized for whitesplaining and Miley Cyrus ran into some trouble with Nikki Minaj recently over the same issues. White people seem to have troubles accepting how their lives are so very different due to privilege. We’ve seen this before in the professional literature but the studies keep coming with very similar findings. In this new study, Whites respond to evidence they are privileged by their race by focusing on all the hardships they endure. The study says that having (White) people “self-affirm” before they are shown evidence of privilege will result in fewer claims of hardship (due to decreases in defensiveness).

When works strikes too close to home: Suppose you have the brain of a psychopath?

This is one of those things you just can’t make up. Well, you could make it up—but no one would believe you. Let’s say you have researched the brain scans of psychopaths for more than 20 years and suddenly you look at your own brain scan and it looks like a psychopathic murderer’s brain? That is apparently what happened to Jim Fallon who then went out and discovered (at least based on a story told by his mother) a familial connection to Lizzie Borden (the famous ax murderer). Because he does what he does, Fallon went out and checked the genes and brains of relatives. He was the only one with the brain of a psychopath. It is likely that the definition of ‘normal’ is now a fragile one (at least) for Jimmy Fallon.

You too can reduce prejudice and “turn people into atheists” [if you buy a big machine]

All it apparently takes is a quick zap, aka “transcranial stimulation of the posterior medial frontal cortex”. Oh is that all? A new publication collaborated on by researchers in the US and UK shows us that if you “stimulate” the brain area linked to “responses to threats”, you can reduce prejudicial views (by about 1/3 in this study) held by the person being “stimulated”. Oddly not only does it reduce prejudice (in this study against immigrants) it also reduces religious beliefs. The researchers say that when you are challenged—you defend yourself and by stimulating the brain in this area, they lower the need for defensiveness. They make no real comment on what the reduction in religious conviction means although a writeup of the study makes it clear they’ve been accused of “turning people into atheists”. And if you are left feeling vulnerable, you will likely find this quote comforting:

“It’s worth mentioning that this technique requires a very loud, very expensive, fairly large machine operated by a technician who’s an expert, and there’s no way that I can conceive of that this kind of magnetic energy could be directed into anyone’s brain without their knowledge.”

Personally, we cannot imagine what kind of people signed up to have their brains zapped by a big, loud machine that is described as changing your brain activity— in the name of science, and not as a life-saving intervention.

Phillips, LT, & Lowery, BS (2015). The hard-knock life? Whites claim hardship in response to racial inequity. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 61, 12-18

Rios, K., Cheng, Z., Totton, R., & Shariff, A. (2015). Negative Stereotypes Cause Christians to Underperform in and Disidentify With Science Social Psychological and Personality Science, 6 (8), 959-967 DOI: 10.1177/1948550615598378


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racial bias in crosswalkApparently yes, at least according to today’s researchers. And you likely will be somewhat taken aback by just which group you choose to make wait.

Researchers wanted to study whether the pedestrian’s race had anything to do with yielding behavior of motorists at crosswalks. They tested with 173 motorists and 6 trained male pedestrian-confederates (3 Black and 3 White) in Portland, Oregon. The confederate pedestrians were all about the same age, were trained to walk in the same way/speed, were dressed identically and each was easily racially identifiable. The crossings were done across three separate months and always at non-peak hours and with only the confederate-pedestrian in the crosswalk.

“Black pedestrians were passed by twice as many cars and experienced wait times that were 32% longer than for White pedestrians.”

And let’s keep in mind that this is in Portland, Oregon. Having spent quite a bit of time in this wonderful city, one of the things that is strikingly peculiar is that drivers are almost annoyingly prone to yielding to both other drivers and pedestrians. Locals joke about it. Yet this is another study about implicit bias and how our attitudes are uncomfortably reflected in things we do (like deciding whether or not to yield to a pedestrian) on a daily basis. The researchers describe the differences in how Black and White pedestrians were treated by drivers as “stark”.

They are certainly not alone in their findings. Previous research on implicit bias has shown minorities to be medically misdiagnosed in greater numbers, have more difficulty having their resumes seriously considered for jobs, and famously more trouble hailing a taxi.

The researchers think their results reflect the experience of micro-aggressions for the Black pedestrian. One might say it really isn’t that big of a deal but if you consider the time this adds on to a stroll across town—it becomes increasingly significant.  And as an indicator of anonymous racism (failure to acknowledge the pedestrian rights—or perhaps the mere existence— of a Black pedestrian trying to cross the street), this is about far more than cars and walkers. The researchers are now doing a followup project over the next 18 months (also in Portland) to examine the relationship of race and gender in pedestrians and drivers and also examining the influence of crosswalk design and street signage on yielding behavior.

Another motivator behind this work is the disparity in pedestrian injuries and fatalities:

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports 4,735 pedestrians were killed in traffic crashes in 2013, representing 14% of all traffic fatalities.

Between 2000 and 2012, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that African-American and Hispanic males were more than twice as likely than white men to die in traffic crashes.

It is possible that, as people experience micro aggressions repeatedly, they might “force the right of way when cars are not stopping, potentially putting yourself into dangerous situations”?

From a litigation advocacy perspective, this work speaks to the need to carefully assess whether racial bias plays a role in how jurors respond to your case, and whether you, as an attorney, are prone to minimizing the needs or views of minority jurors. The research on classroom behavior (boys, as well as white people generally get called on to participate in discussions more often) supports this same pattern. In our work, we’ve found that when racial differences are present but non-salient, it can be particularly tricky to predict how racism emerges (to the detriment of the ethnic minority).

Despite popular sentiment—we clearly still have a long ways to go on how race influences us—especially when we are unaware.

Goddard, T., Kahn, K., & Adkins, A. (2015). Racial bias in driver yielding behavior at crosswalks Transportation Research Part F: Traffic Psychology and Behaviour, 33, 1-6 DOI: 10.1016/j.trf.2015.06.002


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