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drug dealMost research has not shown police to be any more observant than ordinary civilians—even though judges and juries often make assumptions that police witnesses are more reliable than civilian eyewitnesses.

New research by Dutch researchers shows that police observers were more aware of details in a drug deal near a hotel which had been recorded on video than were civilian eyewitnesses. Since police officers often write reports about witnessed incidents, the researchers wanted to examine if police reports would be more complete or more accurate than reports and identifications from civilian witnesses. The researchers used a sample of 46 civilians, 52 uniformed police officers, and 42 surveillance detectives. Each participant viewed a 15-minute video of an alleged drug transaction videotaped near a hotel and were allowed to take notes while watching. Part of the transaction took place in the hotel lobby and part in the parking lot. The videotape had time stamps throughout so participants could note the time of various events/actions on the video.

They were also given information about what was considered most relevant to the police investigation: license plates and descriptions of vehicles, identification of persons involved, time stamps, mobile phones used, descriptions of people involved, what people did/how they behaved, descriptions of objects, and relationships between individuals involved. (These categories of facts were generated by a panel of forensic experts in the Netherlands.) After viewing the video and taking whatever notes they wished to take, participants completed a 38 item questionnaire asking them to respond to the items of interest in the investigation.

While detectives and uniformed police reported significantly more investigation-relevant information about the videotaped drug transaction than civilians, the detectives were significantly more accurate than either the civilians or the police officers.

Detectives were more likely than either uniformed officers or civilians to identify the persons involved in the drug transaction from a target-present lineup but civilians were more likely to correctly identify a painting in the background of the videotape. Detectives often did not even notice the painting.

There were no differences in the accuracy of uniformed police officers and civilians in identifying the persons involved in the drug transaction.

On every lineup, whether the target was absent or present in the photographs shown, uniformed police officers made numerically (“but not significantly”) more false identifications than either detectives and civilians.

Men remembered more information about vehicles and phones than women, and women were more likely to correctly indicate that the painting was not in the target-absent lineup. (Unlike traditional lineups which show potential perpetrators against a blank wall, participants were shown photographs taken in the hotel so the painting had been removed and female participants were more likely to note its absence.) The authors note that their sample reflected the gender imbalance in the Dutch police force with 3/4 of both detectives and uniformed officers being male and most of the civilians being female.

Overall, say the researchers, the highly trained detectives were more skilled observers who gave more accurate and complete reports than either the civilians or uniformed officers and the detectives were also more able to identify the target accurately in target-present lineups. The researchers think this work gives some credence to the perception that police are better observers than civilians.

From a litigation advocacy perspective, we need to first point out that this is a relatively small sample and that it was conducted in the Netherlands. For us in the US, it still makes sense to educate jurors on how to assess the credibility of eye-witness testimony (whether by police or civilians)—at least until these results are reproduced with larger samples in this country. There is some recent research over at The Jury Expert that gives a nice model on how one can assess the credibility of eyewitness accounts.

Second, it is intriguing to note that uniformed officers were no better at observing than were civilians even when given a questionnaire asking for responses about the video and when told what information would be relevant to the investigation. That certainly begs educating jurors about how to assess credibility of various witnesses and the completeness and accuracy of the written police report.

Vredeveldt, A., Knol, J., & van Koppen, P. (2015). Observing offenders: Incident reports by surveillance detectives, uniformed police, and civilians Legal and Criminological Psychology DOI: 10.1111/lcrp.12087


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2015 conspiracy theoriesAccording to new research with a large sample from all across the United States, the answer is yes! If you have read this blog for long, you know we love a good conspiracy theorist and use their idiosyncratic associations in pretrial research to plug holes in case narratives.

The researchers briefly review the past literature on conspiracy beliefs as reflecting a desire for control of the uncontrollable. Then they wonder if “reaffirming a sense of control” could serve to decrease the strength of the (ostensibly no longer needed) belief in a conspiracy. They designed two studies and we’ll describe only the second since it was based on a US sample rather than a Dutch sample (the source for the first study).

In the second study, the researchers used an as yet unpublished dataset collected in 1999 (N = 1,256; 771 men and 479 women, 6 gender unknown; median age between 35 and 44 years, median level of education was a college degree and median household income was between $40K and $59K) as the world awaited the potentially harmful event known as the Y2K bug. If you don’t have a clear recollection of how frightened people were about this issue, this Time Magazine story describes the reality vividly. Participants were recruited from a number of internet sites (e.g., online experiment pages of several psychological societies, university websites, Yahoo (which was big in 1999) and Y2K relevant websites.

The data was collected in the last three months of 1999 and asked participants about their beliefs on the Y2K bug as well as their perceptions of the government’s trustworthiness and their beliefs in a range of “popular conspiracy theories (e.g., about the Kennedy assassination, about the cover-up of evidence for the existence of extraterrestrial life, and various others)”. One of the “various other” conspiracy beliefs was the idea that Y2K was “an evil scheme by computer programmers and businesses to make money”.

Here is some of what they found:

Lower education level was associated with stronger belief in four out of five conspiracy theories.

The more the participants trusted the government, the less likely they were to believe in four out of five conspiracy theories.

Those participants who believed in the Y2K conspiracy were also more likely to believe in four out of five other conspiracy theories.

The more threatened participants felt by the Y2K bug, the more likely they were to believe in four out of five conspiracy theories.

The researchers say that when people (in 1999) felt threatened by the Y2K bug, their beliefs in other conspiracy theories were stronger. Yet, those who felt less threatened by the Y2K bug were less likely to believe in conspiracy theories. Since this was an old dataset, we cannot tell if those who were threatened by the Y2K bug were thus more likely to believe in conspiracy theories or if those who believed in conspiracies were more likely to see Y2K as a threat. The researchers point out that when things around us are unpredictable (as in uncertainty related to economic downturns, terrorist threats, or even climate change), beliefs in conspiracy theories increase. They see their study as validating the idea that our need for control is closely coupled with our tendency to believe in conspiracy theories.

From a litigation advocacy perspective, what this says is if there are conspiracy beliefs that arise based on your case narrative, you need to address those concerns, but you also need to find ways to give jurors a sense of control so they are less afraid and less in need of their conspiracy beliefs to help them sort out what happened. The fear of the unknown will drive many anxious people toward any convenient explanation, even if it has no foundation. Reassure them, and wild conjecture diminishes.

van Prooijen, J., & Acker, M. (2015). The Influence of Control on Belief in Conspiracy Theories: Conceptual and Applied Extensions Applied Cognitive Psychology, 29 (5), 753-761 DOI: 10.1002/acp.3161


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Climate changeWe blogged recently on how to talk about climate change without eliciting automatic (knee jerk) negative reactions from listeners. Shortly before that post, we blogged about scientific consensus on climate change as a gateway belief to persuasion. So we were happy to see a wonderfully clear writeup on the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication’s survey on American beliefs about climate change over at the Sociological Images blog.

The Yale researchers asked 13,000 Americans whether they thought the climate was changing and what they thought was causing climate change (if it indeed existed). They found that responses clustered in six separate types. Here’s how Sociological Images described those types [as defined by the Yale group]:

• The Alarmed (18%) – believe climate change is happening, have already changed their behavior, and are ready to get out there and try to save the world

• The Concerned (33%) – believe it’s happening, but think it’s far off or isn’t going to affect them personally

• The Cautious (19%) – aren’t sure if it’s happening or not and are also unsure whether it’s human caused

• The Disengaged (12%) –  have heard the phrase “climate change,” but couldn’t tell you the first thing about it

• The Doubtful (11%) – are skeptical that it’s happening and, if it is, they don’t think it’s a problem and don’t think it’s human caused

• The Dismissive (7%) – do not believe in it, think it’s a hoax

What is truly wonderful is they offer an interactive map so you can see how beliefs about climate change vary by state and even by county. While some might say this shows how different our beliefs are about climate change—one commenter at the blog says it shows how similarly we (for the most part) feel on the issues. It is well worth your time to take a look at Sociological Images post of the highlights of the Yale study and then, if you want to know more, take a look at the Yale site itself for the complete writeup.


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kinsey-scaleIllustrating this post is the Kinsey Scale of Sexual Behavior. As you can see, the scale asks people to describe themselves sexually on a scale ranging from “exclusively heterosexual behavior” to “exclusively homosexual behavior”. In the wake of Caitlyn Jenner’s emergence into the public eye, there’ve been many articles about gender identity and sexual preference as people attempt to sort out how a hyper-masculine Olympian has always felt like a woman on the inside.

A well-regarded polling company ( decided to ask 1,632 adults in Britain to simply place themselves on the Kinsey scale. They made some interesting discoveries about age and sexual identity.

72% of the British public identifies as “completely heterosexual” and 4% identify as “completely homosexual” while 19% say they are somewhere in between. (Kinsey classified the in-betweeners as “bisexual in varying degrees”.) Of those in the 19% in-between group, 15% are closer to the heterosexual end, 2% place themselves directly in the middle, and 2% are closer to the homosexual end of the scale.

However, reports that “with each generation, people see their sexuality as less fixed in stone”. They say the results for 18-24 year olds are particularly striking with “43% placing themselves” in the “in between” areas and 52% placing themselves at one end or the other. In this group 46% say they are “completely heterosexual” and 6% say they are “completely homosexual”.

The authors say that people (regardless of age) now accept the idea that sexual orientation is on a continuum (60% of heterosexuals and 73% of homosexuals support this idea) rather than a completely binary choice. They see this as indicative of an increasing open-mindedness to sexuality.

The full results of the study can be seen here. In the first URL, you can see from the intensity of the comments that this entire idea remains one which inflames the senses for some people.

From a litigation advocacy perspective, this is important information of which to be aware. While Caitlyn Jenner’s very public transition has precipitated a national (and perhaps international) discussion on sexual identity and sexual orientation, the bottom line is that younger jurors may well have more fluid definitions of their individual sexual orientation. It’s one more thing to remain cognizant of as you present cases where sexual identity may or may not be an issue.


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Barry-White-at-the-Printe-008I watched the second Republican debate last week after reading two more articles on voice pitch and winning elections. Not coincidentally, I had to struggle to keep from focusing on who had the deepest voice among the candidates. We’ve written about this line of research before and tend to think of it as the Barry White or James Earl Jones effect. Deep resonant (and yes, male) voices are tied in our minds with strength, competence and leadership.

Oddly, when you (and your deep male voice) are running against a female opponent (like Carly Fiorina in the Republican debates) you won’t do as well. Researchers looked at the 2012 outcomes of the US House of Representatives elections.

When two males competed, the one with the lower voice won a larger vote share.

However, when facing female opponents, those candidates with higher voices were more successful, especially for male candidates. Why? Perhaps (says Casey Klofstad who authored both of today’s studies) a male candidate with a lower voice will be seen as too aggressive when paired against a female opponent.

Those most biased in favor of lower voices are older, well-educated and politically engaged voters (and also the most likely to vote).

In the second study, researchers asked study participants (400 men and 400 women in each of two studies) to listen to pairs of recorded voices that had been manipulated to vary only in pitch. Participants were asked to choose a voice in each pair who they believed was stronger, more competent, older, and which voice they would vote for. Again, lower pitched voices were preferred as leaders and were seen as significantly stronger and more competent.

Overall, even when you are educated, older, and politically engaged—deeper voices persuade us more unless there is a mixed gender competition and then we prefer men who have higher voices (although we may still choose the female candidate).

From a litigation advocacy perspective, this has several implications:

Voters (and therefore jurors) are not as sophisticated as they might believe themselves to be. A deep voice is more appealing to the senses and may have undue influence on our decisions as to which candidate we vote into office. Be thoughtful as you consider hiring an expert witness— does voice quality have impact on how your expert will be received?

Just as tall men are often believed to be good leaders, deep voices seem to communicate strength and competence so if you have a deep and resonant voice, use your power for good. If your expert has a deep voice, use that to your benefit.

Just because your witness or the client has a deep voice, don’t forget the importance of witness preparation. If you have that deep voice but don’t seem credible or likable to the listener—your deep voice will not help you. If, on the other hand, you are seen as credible and likable and you have a deep voice, it isn’t going to hurt you at all. If anything, it is likely to pull in your favor with jurors.

While we’ve seen studies on voice pitch before, this is the first one we’ve seen that says voice pitch actually influences election outcomes. That makes us wonder if it isn’t also influential in jury deliberations.

Klofstad, C. (2015). Candidate Voice Pitch Influences Election Outcomes Political Psychology DOI: 10.1111/pops.12280

Perceptions of Competence, Strength, and Age Influence Voters to Select Leaders with Lower-Pitched Voices. 2015 Casey A. Klofstad, Rindy C. Anderson, Stephen Nowicki. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0133779


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