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We’ve written about eyewitnesses and problems with accuracy here often. Today we have an article that tells us 242 people were wrongly identified by eyewitness testimony and served years in prison prior to being exonerated by DNA testing. Researchers at Florida Atlantic University wondered how memory in people might be altered by police use of “individual mugshots, an array of mugshots, composite sketches, and lineups” as well as subtle innuendos. Specifically, they wanted to answer this question:

Does presenting a picture along with a question like ‘is this the person who did it?’ create an association between those two things that could then cause an eyewitness to later falsely remember seeing that person doing that action?”

The researchers used 80 undergraduates (median age 19 years) and 40 “older adults” (median age 71 years) to test their question. Each participant was shown a series of videos snippets of actors doing simple actions and were then instructed to remember which actor did which task. The researchers created 84 mugshots from these video snippets and also created a series of various scenarios of the events depicted in the video snippets. Each participant was shown two mugshots: one was an actor who’d appeared in the video snippets and the other was a new, random actor (who had not been in the video snippets). They completed this task 36 times (each time choosing either one of the mugshots or neither of the mugshots as the person who had completed each task). They were also asked how confident they were in their identification on each of the 36 individual trials.

As participants looked at the mugshots, they were asked a question like “which of these people did you see watering a plant?”. After the mugshot presentations, the 40 older adults and half of the younger adults (another 40) were tested immediately to see how much they are able to recognize correctly. The remaining (40) younger adult were brought back three weeks later to be tested again. And what did the researchers find? It varied by age.

Both younger and older participants were more likely to falsely recognize events if the actors appearing in those events had also appeared in the mugshots.

For older adults, mugshot viewing meant they experienced a sense of familiarity when they saw the actor performing in the video snippets even if a different action had been asked about when they viewed the mugshots. (The researchers say this likely meant the older adults recognized the familiar face, but were unable to call up the source or reason for their familiarity.)

This finding leads the researchers to hypothesize that the viewing of mugshots itself may make a face seem familiar to the older adult.

Younger adults were more likely to falsely recognize a suspect if the mugshot of the actor was accompanied by a question about the action the actor was now seen performing in the video snippets. (The researchers think this indicates the young adults formed a specific association between the pictured actor and the queried action which caused them to falsely recall the actor performing the queried action.)

This finding leads the researchers to hypothesize that the viewing of the mugshot, when coupled with the question of whether this person committed a certain act, may leave the younger witness overly confident that they saw something they did not actually see.

The researchers indicate this is (yet another) concerning finding for eyewitness testimony. They express concern that this type of false memory can lead to a “high level of confidence, especially in younger eyewitnesses” since they firmly believe they “saw” the suspect committing the crime. And we have other data to say high confidence in an eyewitness is very persuasive to jurors. The researchers suggest strategies for eye-witness testimony also recommended in prior research.

After viewing mugshots, an eyewitness should not be asked for further identifications. For example, if there are multiple eyewitnesses, only some should be exposed to mugshots and the others can make their identification from a lineup.

If there is only one witness, they will likely be asked to identify the perpetrator in the early stages of the crime’s investigation. This means their memory could be contaminated as the investigation continues. Thus, the literature suggests, “other forensic evidence” should be used to support the witness testimony.

From a litigation advocacy perspective, it is in your best interest to carefully examine the process through which eyewitnesses have been led during the investigatory phases. When memory is so very easy to contaminate (and we know eyewitness testimony is notoriously invalid), it is important to consider educating the jurors on eyewitness errors.

The problem is (as mentioned above) that a falsely confident eyewitness can be a compelling factor in jury deliberations. And in at least 242 cases, those confident eyewitnesses were very, very wrong.

Kersten, AW, Earles, JL (2016). Feelings of familiarity and false memory for specific associations resulting from mugshot exposure. Memory and Cognition, 45(1): 93.


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And it doesn’t really matter if the expert is male or female, if they are young or old, and they can be any ethnicity! In other words, said the researchers—the variables we have read so much about (i.e., gender, age, ethnicity) are not as notable as whether someone “looks like” our stereotype of a “good scientist”. Very intriguing in the search for the “perfect expert”. The researchers completed six separate studies and we want to give you the results using their words because the findings are so very consistent across the studies.

In the first two studies, the researchers asked participants to rate actual “faces of scientists from physics (N = 108) and genetics/human genetics (N = 108) departments of 200 US universities” on attractiveness and intelligence and to say how interested they would be in hearing the scientist’s work. Here’s how they summarize their results:

In sum, scientists who appear competent, moral, and attractive are more likely to garner interest in their work; those who appear competent and moral but who are relatively unattractive and apparently unsociable create a stronger impression of doing high-quality research.

[As a digression, one of the most interesting lectures I sat through in undergrad social psychology a whole bunch of years ago described the LLAAT, or the “Looks Like an Astronaut Test”. Yes. NASA conducted a study to determine whether people’s visual impressions of astronaut candidates was actually predictive of their success in the training program. Supposedly, it was useful. I can’t locate this study anymore, so I can’t verify the study, but it seems a fair precedent for the current research. And, at 19, this struck me as very funny.]

In plain English, when you are less attractive and less socially skilled, you are seen as doing better quality research—perhaps because you fulfill our stereotypes of what a “nerd” should look like. Maybe the fact that you look like you have a very limited social life makes you a credible candidate for weekends in the library or laboratory.

In the next two studies, the participants were shown photos of scientists paired with various science news articles. “Study 3 examined whether the effects of face-based impressions were moderated by the scientist’s gender, academic discipline, and communication format (text versus video); study 4 explored the distinct contributions of facial competence and attractiveness, and the moderating influence of participant demographics.” And here is what they found:

Taken together, these studies show that facial appearance affects the public’s selection of science news stories. [While participants initially were drawn to the research of attractive scientists, they were more interested in listening to the less attractive scientists. We also want to insert here that the researchers describe the less attractive scientists as those with “interesting faces”.]

For the final two studies, “Finally, we tested the consequences of face-based impressions for the public’s appraisal of a scientist’s work. We paired articles from news websites with faces that did or did not look like good scientists.” [Helpful translation: whether they were “interesting looking” or more classically attractive.] The researchers describe their findings this way:

Research that was paired with the photo of a good scientist was judged to be higher quality, and this effect was unaffected by the scientist’s gender and discipline.

That was in Study 5. In Study 6, the trend continues. “Participants read four physics news stories, each paired with a male face from one cell of the design. They were subsequently shown the face–article pairings one at a time and asked to imagine that they had been selected to judge how much each piece of research deserved to win a prize for excellence in science.

More-competent-looking scientists were judged more deserving of the prize.” [We don’t say this often but are these researchers not just the nicest and kindest researchers ever? Not unattractive or nerdy, but “interesting looking” and “more competent looking”.] One of our favorite neuroscience bloggers, the Neuroskeptic, dubs this the ‘ugly Einstein’ effect. The Neuroskeptic is obviously not as kind as these researchers but his thoughts are (as usual) worth reading.

Here’s how the researchers describe their overall results:

People reported more interest in the research of scientists who appear competent, moral, and attractive; [so we are initially drawn to the kinds of photos you would see of models pretending to be scientists—but….] when judging whether a researcher does “good science,” people again preferred scientists who look competent and moral, but also favored less sociable and more physically unattractive individuals.

From a litigation advocacy perspective, what this says is you want an expert who “looks like” our stereotypical image of a friendly, but slightly nerdy, high school Chemistry or Physics teacher. Or someone who looks like many of the cast members from the popular TV show who illustrate this post. These are “real scientists” who do “good science” and who presumably will display substance over style. [This is feel good science for all the “interesting looking” and “competent looking” among us.]

This article also echoes what we’ve heard from mock jurors for years. They want to hear from “real people” who can speak to them without being condescending yet also teach them what they need to know. They see those witnesses as much more credible and believable than their more traditionally attractive, polished and urbane colleagues.

Gheorghiu, A., Callan, M., & Skylark, W. (2017). Facial appearance affects science communication. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1620542114

(Open access here:


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Do you want to know the future? You may want to say it all depends on which aspects of your future. Typically, while we seek information routinely to make decisions in our day-to-day lives, we don’t always want to know for sure what will happen in our futures. These researchers remind us about the story of Cassandra in Greek mythology.

“According to Greek mythology, Apollo granted Cassandra, daughter of the king of Troy, the power of foreseeing the future. Yet after his failed attempt to seduce her, he placed a curse on her so that her prophecies would never be believed. Cassandra foresaw the fall of Troy, the death of her father, the hour of her own death, and the name of her murderer. To helplessly watch the approach of future horrors became a source of endless pain, suffering, and regret of her terrible solitary knowledge.”

They also invoke Bob Dylan’s classic line from the song ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’,

“How many times can a man turn his head, pretending he just doesn’t see?”

They then summarize the research which shows us that people do not often want to know about specific results of genetic testing, or HIV tests, or even whether they are likely to become demented. What the researchers are most interested in, however, is what they call “deliberate ignorance”.

“We use the term deliberate ignorance to refer to the willful decision not to know, as opposed to the inability to access information or disinterest in the question. Deliberate ignorance can result from inaction, that is, not searching for diagnostic information, or from action, such as refusing information that someone else offers.”

In other words, when you actively choose not to know, you are willfully choosing to remain deliberately ignorant which is very different, according to the researchers, than simply not knowing—i.e., being ignorant. So the researchers did two different experiments (one in Germany and one in Spain (both with non-student populations) to see how common deliberate ignorance was and to investigate whether there was a pattern to choices to remain deliberately ignorant.

In Germany, they asked participants five positive questions and five negative questions — to ascertain in which situations the individual would choose deliberate ignorance. Here is how their sample (of more than 900 participants) responded:

Negative events:

Would you want to know today when your partner will die? No: 89.5%.

Would you want to know today from what cause your partner will die? No: 90.4%.

Would you want to know today when you will die? No: 87.7%.

Would you want to know today from what cause you will die? No: 87.3%.

Assume you are newly married. Would you want to know today whether your marriage will eventually end in divorce or not? No: 86.5%.

Positive events:

Assume you video-recorded a soccer world-champion game because you could not watch it live. While you are watching the recording, a friend enters who has already watched the game. Would you want to know from the friend how it ended (as opposed to asking not to tell)? No: 76.9%.

Would you want to know in advance what you are getting for Christmas? No: 59.6%.

Would you like to know whether there is life after death? No: 56.9%.

Assume you bought a blue sapphire for 2,000 euros during your vacation in Sri Lanka. The dealer assured you that the sapphire is genuine. Back home, you can check this, but you have no chance of lodging a complaint or returning the stone. A test would cost 50 euros. Would you have the sapphire tested to be sure whether it is genuine or not? No: 48.6%.

Assume you/your partner is pregnant. The gender of the child can be reliably determined by ultrasound. Would you want to know the gender of your child before birth? No: 40.3%.

The researchers saw this response pattern as showing “widespread deliberate ignorance” for both negative events and for positive events. They thought this inconsistent with the human desire to avoid uncertainty so they went to Spain to see if things were different there. They found the same patterns in Spain.

The researchers conclude it is common for people to choose to remain “deliberately ignorant” to avoid negative news but also to maintain the positive emotions of surprise and suspense surrounding personally important events. Cassandra, in Greek mythology, was unable to make the choice to remain deliberately ignorant. That is not the case for us—as is seen in the choices many of the German and Spanish citizens made to remain deliberately ignorant.

Additionally, the researchers found that the closer in age the participants were to the likelihood of a negative event happening (e.g., divorce, death of a partner, old-age health problems), the more likely they were to choose deliberate ignorance.

There was also an odd (and potentially useful) finding in this study. One of the questions researchers asked was what kind of insurance policies the participants had purchased. What they found was those that had purchased policies that were not mandated by the country or immediate area in which they lived, were slightly more likely to choose deliberate ignorance for future events.

From a litigation advocacy perspective, this is a good point to remember and to educate jurors on in opening statement. There are times we simply do not want to know (whether about something positive or something negative) and so we make a choice. We have all done this and it allows us to be happier before negative things happen and to enjoy the surprise inherent in good things happening. That choice does not mean we have failed to do something, it simply means we are doing what (apparently) the majority of people do and choosing not to know.

Gigerenzer G, & Garcia-Retamero R (2017). Cassandra’s regret: The psychology of not wanting to know. Psychological Review, 124 (2), 179-196 PMID: 28221086


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Resting Bitch Face’ is, in case you missed it, the condition of having a neutral facial expression that people perceive as sour, unpleasant, and generally bitchy. Long before was RBF was a thing, a woman in my graduate school class told me that professors often thought she was angry because her face carried a flat expression when she was thinking. “It’s just how my face is!” she protested. Years later, allegedly not until 2013 (although it hit the Urban Dictionary in 2011), the phrase went viral.

It is a “real thing” say scientists, is seen in the famous and the not-famous, has caused some to become depressed, is mostly attributed to women but also seen in men, and some say it reflects contemptuousness. There is support for RBF from social media (sort of), it inspires creativity and career advice, and constant social directives to ‘smile’ or ‘be kind’. There have also been multiple (tenure-seeking) scientific studies on first impressions (which includes the impressions made about RBF particularly in women). RBF even resulted in a video parodying all those direct-to-consumer medical ads.

The term has many detractors who do not think it is at all funny (for the most part) and they wonder why women are expected be always smiling and inviting. They say it is a variation on the “Smile honey!catcalls from men congregated in groups as the woman walks by. As the name would suggest, it is a sexist distinction. There are slide shows designed to show multiple other meanings for expressions deemed to be RBF. Detractors also have career advice, decry the constant focus on women expending energy to appear pleasant to everyone, have created posters, have published articles on the costs of RBF at work, and made angry comments about health professionals giving advice on avoiding the RBF expression as you mature.

From a litigation advocacy perspective, we actually rely on first impressions when doing pretrial research with mock jurors and have blogged about the importance of the first impression and strategies for being more likable a lot here. But the concept of RBF is not something we’ve discussed, and frankly, it is a dilemma. Gravity and age give all of us a more RBF facial expression. We need to disconnect the initial negative impression some jurors may have formed due to RBF. Some good advice comes from, of all places, the Business Insider:

“I’ve heard people with resting bitch face sometimes tell me that they’ll contextualize it verbally for other people. That they’ll say, “I’m not unhappy with you. I’m not displeased with the situation. I just look this way.” And that’s a really honest way to talk about this facial expression that they’re giving, because facial expressions are so critical to how we perceive what other people are telling us.”

This is just part of the video transcript on the website (with the author publicizing his new book) and this may be a good way to talk to witnesses, or parties, or yourself (if you have RBF). The message is so similar to what my friend in graduate school said to me as we first met, “That’s just how my face is”. Humanizing the party/witness with the RBF can help jurors (many of whom will have RBF themselves) reshape their first impressions of him or her.

What is instructive is that the speaker on the video has a constant grin on his face (perhaps Resting Happy Face) that makes his spoken message much less empowering than the written transcript provided under the video.

When you are testifying in court, interposing a laugh, or learning to ‘force’ a slight lift to the corners of your mouth can negate the ‘resting’ expression that may look a bit sour or unhappy.

Perhaps the best advice to give to someone who is concerned about being observed (and judged for having RBF) is just this:

So listen to me. You do not have Resting Bitch Face. You just have a face. There’s nothing wrong with it. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.


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All this week, we have focused on research about lying but there are multiple other articles we want to share with you that will not require a full post. Think of this post as an update on deception that will aid you in preparation for court (and life in general).

Small, self-serving lies change our brain and make us more likely to lie for personal gain

It really is like a slippery slope. Like much deception research these days, this project used fMRIs to scan participants brains while they lied. First they told small lies and their brain’s amygdala lit up. As they told additional lies the amygdala became less bright as their brain got used to lying. This study was published in Nature Neuroscience which is not open access but you can read a summary of the work over at Medical News Today.

Misleading ourselves to better mislead others

Scientific American recently published an article on how we can use self-deception in order to more effectively persuade others. The article describes research (soon to be published in the Journal of Economic Psychology) that was first proposed in the 1970s and focuses on how we seek information to support what we want to believe and avoid information that does not support what we want to believe. Anyone who has done any pretrial research has seen this phenomenon play out over and over again through the darkened glass of the observation room. The author quotes one of the researchers to end the article in this somewhat disturbing paragraph:

Von Hippel [one of the authors] offers two pieces of wisdom regarding self-deception: “My Machiavellian advice is this is a tool that works,” he says. “If you need to convince somebody of something, if your career or social success depends on persuasion, then the first person who needs to be [convinced] is yourself.” On the defensive side, he says, whenever anyone tries to convince you of something, think about what might be motivating that person. Even if he is not lying to you, he may be deceiving both you and himself.

Comparing fMRI and polygraphs for lie detection

You know that polygraphs are not admissible in court and that there have been many (many) questions on the utility of fMRI research on deception when we cannot really know what it means when certain areas of the brain light up. All we can say is that they light up. In this interesting research out of the University of Pennsylvania, researchers compared fMRI readings to polygraph readings and found something surprising. When neuroscience experts (who had no prior experience in lie detection) were able to use fMRI results completed by “liars”, they were much more accurate in identifying deception than were polygraph examiners looking at the same “liars”. You can read a brief news release here or a more comprehensive neuroscience blog post here.

An update on the courtroom readiness of the fMRI for lie detection

Lest you think the preceding study means fMRI is ready for a courtroom closeup—the Macarthur Foundation Research Network on Law and Neuroscience has recently released a 4-page brief summarizing the state of fMRI research and readiness to be used in courts of law. Here is what they conclude [and we quote]:

At present, many of the issues that concern the scientific community with respect to the use of fMRI for lie detection are likely to be problematic for the legal community, at least in most contexts. In fact, much of the existing research on deception has no bearing on the question that matters most to judges, lawyers, defendants, and juries, i.e., “Can fMRI-based lie detection methods provide a legally relevant answer to a specific question?”

Most scientists—including many who have reported detecting lies in the laboratory with a high degree of accuracy—agree that more and different research will need to be conducted before fMRI-based lie detection is ready for its day in court.

While the short answer is “it is not ready”—you may want to go read this for yourself and impress others with your knowledge of the specifics on why not.

Garrett N, Lazzaro SC, Ariely D, & Sharot T (2016). The brain adapts to dishonesty. Nature Neuroscience, 19 (12), 1727-1732 PMID: 27775721


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