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firesetterThere is a lot of literature on fire-setters but not, apparently, on how psychotic fire-setters differ from those who are not psychotic. As it turns out, there are some significant differences.

Researchers in The Netherlands examined the records of 124 fire-setters (30 psychotic and 94 non-psychotic) sent for pretrial forensic mental health assessments between 2000 and 2010. They were largely male (107 males and 17 females) and on average 32 years old. The researchers compared characteristics in the records and found these differences:

Psychotic fire-setters were older, more often single, more likely to set their fires alone, and more likely to be unemployed. They had a more “extensive and intensive” history of mental health care with higher levels of psychiatric admissions and were more likely to carry diagnoses of psychotic disorders. They had more problems with soft drugs (like cannabis) but showed fewer issues with alcohol. This group set fires for reasons related to their psychosis (e.g., delusions) and were more likely to set fire to their own property. They were often described as “pure fire-setters” (as in, that was all they did of a criminal nature).

Both psychotic and non-psychotic fire-setters were similar in having impulsivity and poor social skills. There were high levels of repeat fire-setting in both groups.

Non-psychotic fire-setters were more likely to have been physically abused as children and tended to set fires out of “anger and revenge or acting out and vandalism”. Non-psychotic fire-setters set fire to the property of others and were more likely to abuse hard drugs and alcohol. They most often set fires along with others and were often intoxicated when fire-setting.

The researchers are quick to point out the limits of their sample and to discuss differences between their findings and the findings in the prior literature. The differences between the two groups seem to be largely related to the mental illness in the psychotic group.

The mentally ill often do not have close relationships, and are often single and unemployed.

Those who start fires based on delusional beliefs are likely to act alone rather than with a group.

If fire-setting is triggered by delusional beliefs, it makes sense that fire-setting would be their only or primary criminal activity.

From a litigation advocacy perspective, the psychotic fire-setter needs mental health treatment and medication. If the psychosis is controlled, the fire-setting should stop when the delusions cease or are minimized. The non-psychotic fire-setter, on the other hand, tends to set fires when intoxicated and with a group of intoxicated others. This fire-setter also needs treatment for substance abuse but a jury is more likely to see this defendant as having greater responsible than the psychotic fire-setter. Treatment options for the non-psychotic fire-setter are more likely to be secondary to their criminal sentence.

Dalhuisen, L., Koenraadt, F., & Liem, M. (2015). Psychotic versus non-psychotic firesetters: similarities and differences in characteristics The Journal of Forensic Psychiatry & Psychology, 1-22 DOI: 10.1080/14789949.2015.1018927


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How big is that potential juror’s house? 

Wednesday, March 25, 2015
posted by Douglas Keene

tiny houseTiny house craze aside, could this be a secret jury selection strategy? In June 2014, the Pew Research Center published a study showing that liberals prefer small, walkable communities while conservatives prefer the more sprawling suburbs. While about half of Americans prefer urban living and half prefer rural life—the split is apparently highly partisan. So Lisa Wade of the blog Sociological Images asks the question for us: “Can you guess someone’s political preferences by the size of their house?”.

To which we would add, “or by their zip code?” It’s an intriguing idea. Say you’ve done pretrial research and have learned your case plays better to those with either more conservative or more liberal leanings. Can you quickly choose between the urban and suburban dweller with positive results for your case? If you’ve read this blog for long, you already know the answer: it probably depends. The goal of research such as this—as far as jury selection is concerned—is to reduce uncertainty. Not everyone in a big suburban house is conservative, and not everyone who lives in a smaller home in a city is liberal. But the research points out a variable that already feels familiar to all of us involved with litigation—there are pockets of conservatism and liberalism.

Not all people live in what researchers would identify as their preferred setting. You will find liberals in the country or suburbs and conservatives in the city. Career focus, phase of life issues from childcare to elder care, financial status, convenience, as well as varying attitudes, beliefs and values, all factor into one’s home address. Microtargeting strategies for advertising, political campaigning have been in use for years, identifying people by factors such as living on specific blocks within zip codes, size and value of homes, ownership of cars, membership in certain churches, and use of particular credit cards. It only makes sense that jury selection would ultimately tap into these strategies. We have been factoring them in for years.

Some of the findings can be understood in practical terms.

We tend to have greater empathy for people we come into contact with, people we feel we relate to and understand (people “like me”).

Those in racially homogeneous precincts don’t feel as able to relate to other races than those who live in mixed race areas.

People who only hang out with the affluent, or with the financially stressed, don’t identify as readily with those who live at the other end of the financial spectrum.

And we tend to gravitate toward those who we feel understand us, as neighbors, fellow church-goers, and cohorts in various other dimensions.

We like people best who are most like us.

While, under strict time and information constraints, you may choose to use broad stereotypes (and this one is at least supported by data rather than assumptions), given the opportunity, there are plenty of other clues you may want to consider in addition to rural, urban, and suburban addresses.


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light skinned black manMost of us have heard of the preference for lighter skin within the African-American community. Some of us have also heard of “colorism” in general—a bias shared by many in our culture. Recently, author Lance Hannon (a sociologist from Villanova University) used data from the 2012 American National Election Study and found that Whites in America tended to see light-skinned Blacks and Hispanics as more intelligent than those with darker skins.

The National Election Study requires interviewers to sit down in a face-to-face survey with respondents (who disclose their income and education level and take a brief vocabulary test). Hannon identified 223 Black or Hispanic respondents who were interviewed by White survey takers. The White interviewers were asked to list each individual respondent’s skin tone on a 10 point scale as well as to estimate the respondent’s intelligence on a 5-point scale ranging from “very low” to “very high”.

What he found is disturbingly consistent: “white observers will look at two identically qualified minorities and assess the lighter skinned one as more intelligent”. Other factors about the respondent simply did not seem to matter.

Specifically, regardless of the respondent’s age group, gender, income, or their vocabulary test score, those respondents the interviewer’s described as “lighter” in skin tone were seen as “more intelligent”.

Educational level of the respondent did predict the interviewer’s assessment of their intelligence, but not as strongly as the respondent’s skin tone predicted the interviewer’s estimate of their intelligence.

If this finding is supported by follow-up studies (which appears likely), it has far-reaching implications for our society. When skin tone has a larger role in estimating intellect than educational level—the tendency to equate lighter skin with higher intelligence is obviously deeply entrenched.

From a litigation advocacy perspective (and an inclusive workplace perspective), this research informs us on biases we may assume without question.

When assessing jurors for your specific case, pay more attention to education and curiosity than to skin tone in estimating intelligence.

Do the same in the workplace. When you are assessing workplace performance, set skin tone (and gender, and age, and ethnicity) aside. Focus instead on concrete behavioral indicators that deserve reward.

Just as we have “learned” to have biases against race and color, we need to “unlearn” those biases and make ourselves consciously aware of them—whether it is in the courtroom or the workplace.

Hannon, L. (2015). White Colorism Social Currents, 2 (1), 13-21 DOI: 10.1177/2329496514558628


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ResearchThis week I read several sensationalized reports of research findings from some scientists in Finland. “Classical music can help slow down the onset of dementia” and “Listening To Classical Music Could Improve Genes Responsible For Certain Brain Functions”. The articles reported that listening to a 20 minute Mozart violin concerto could stave off dementia and actually modify your gene expression. Pretty amazing. Except it isn’t entirely accurate.

There are benefits for those who already know the specific concerto—in other words, musicians or music lovers.

As for the rest of us, it won’t hurt you to listen to a concerto each day, but it probably won’t keep you from getting dementia or modify how your genes express themselves. For a small proportion of us, this is very interesting news. For the rest of us, while headlines may make it seem fascinating—it really doesn’t make a difference.

We’ve talked about this before here in relationship to the criminal defense strategy to put eyeglasses on your defendant (aka the “nerd defense”). Headlines were written to sell papers (in an earlier time) and now, to generate clicks or viewers—but not to accurately reflect actual research. In the case of the nerd defense, someone read headlines, believed them, and implemented the strategy. But, their implementation was based on a misunderstanding of the findings.

Few bother to go read the actual research to discover the incomplete reporting, reporting of insignificant results, or just totally wrong reports of findings. Yet, when you do, you find the headlines did their job—you went looking, but only to discover the interpretation by the writer was incorrect.

The problem is that we remember the headlines and often not the actual finding in the primary source (i.e., the real research article). So we think what we are doing and recommending has some scientific basis for it when it actually does not. It won’t hurt you to listen to Mozart each day for 20 minutes. But, unless you already know the Mozart work, it probably won’t keep your memory intact necessarily either. So be an analytical and critical thinker.

When someone says “research finds”, or “our research has shown”, or “this works 90% of the time”, ask for the source. And when you see a claim in the headlines that is almost too good to be true, go find the original source and see for yourself. Often the actual results will turn out to be not quite what the headlines trumpet.

Brown, M. J., Henriquez, E., & Groscup, J. (2008). The effects of eyeglasses and race on juror decisions involving a violent crime. American Journal of Forensic Psychology, 26 (2), 25-43


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Red States, Blue States and Brain States 

Wednesday, March 11, 2015
posted by Douglas Keene

red and blue brain_83860474Neurolaw interest has been building for years among those of us who work in litigation advocacy. But what about among the public—those who may serve as jurors, for example? Earlier this year, we wrote about a study done in the United Kingdom that showed citizens there were more confused than intrigued by neurolaw principles. Here is part of what we said back in January:

“The researchers identified four themes in the participant’s interviews: the brain is something in the science domain; there was significant angst that something could go wrong with the brain; there was a belief that we are all in control of our brains to some extent, and that our brains are what makes us all different and unique.They also  found that most of the interviewees believed that they would only find themselves interested in learning more about brain science if they developed a neurological illness.”

So that was in the United Kingdom. What about here in the United States? These researchers first used a small sample (N = 89) online to identify the ways the public  thought fMRI findings, for example, might be used in the legal system. A quarter (25%) said “none” (i.e., they did not think of any ways an fMRI might be used in the legal system. Slightly more than a third (34%) listed “lie detection”; 36%  mentioned it might be used in the assessment of a criminal defendant (e.g., support for an insanity case); and 2% mentioned brain injury cases. The authors indicate only a few participants mentioned topics such as addiction, juvenile justice, or brain death.

The authors thought the topics offered by the participants in their pilot study meant that when Americans are asked to think of neurolaw, most of them focus on the criminal domain. So, the researchers used a large, published poll (done through Columbia Law School) administered in 2011 to gather information from a “truly nationally representative sample”. The survey (a random-digit-dial telephone survey) resulted in a sample of 1,010 respondents all from the continental United States.

The researchers wanted to know whether attitudes toward the use of neurolaw varied based on political affiliation and based on how the use of neurolaw was described. All of these respondents were read the following during their telephone survey:

“Recently developed neuroscientific techniques allow researchers to see inside the human brain as never before.”

The researchers divided up the participants into three groups (i.e., a control group, a “prosecution” treatment group, and a “defense” treatment group).

Control group participants were asked if they approved or disapproved of legal reforms based on advances in neuroscience. Ultimately, 9% strongly disapproved and 9% strongly approved. 40% were undecided and the remainder were split between approving and disapproving. The distribution of responses was roughly normal and approval/disapproval of neurolaw was the same for Democrats as it was for Republicans and Independents.

Prosecution treatment group participants were asked if they approved or disapproved of prosecutors using neuroscientific evidence to show that criminal defendants deserved lengthy prison sentences.

Defense treatment group participants were asked if they approved or disapproved of defense attorneys using neuroscientific evidence to show that criminal defendants deserved reduced sentences.

Normally, we would not expect to see differences based on self-reported political party affiliation for reasons we’ve written about earlier. But, in this case, (which is why you should never assume) political affiliation matters!

Republicans had less approval for neurolaw when it was framed as helping the defense than when there was no framing (i.e., in the control group) or when it was framed as helping the prosecution.

Democrats did not differ in their approval for neurolaw in the three conditions.

Independents leaned toward the Republican perspective, although the results were not statistically significant. The researchers thought perhaps the Independents were “closet partisans” who tended to see issues of law and order similarly to the Republicans.

The authors summarize their findings by saying that the American public is largely undecided as to their attitudes toward neurolaw but that how neurolaw is framed (as benefitting either the prosecution or the defense or no one) matters when self-identified Republicans are assessing whether they approve or disapprove of neurolaw’s use. The researchers see this as representing the Republican’s law and order values. If neurolaw helps the defense, Republican’s don’t think it is a good thing. However, the authors also opine that neurolaw is not yet a polarizing political issue. On the other hand, neurolaw can be presented in such a way as “to excite partisan differences” if it is presented as something that will help “defendants get off easy” for their crimes.

While this may have something important to add to the neurolaw discussion, it seems likely to mirror the overall prevailing view of criminal prosecution/defense leanings more generally. Republicans generally have a more pro-prosecution view than do Democrats, so it isn’t much of a surprise that Republicans would look less favorably on a strategy that might favor defense. So it leaves open the question of whether this research is testing bias or views of neuroscience.

More broadly, this study highlights the importance of framing when asking for what appear to be standard reactions to a specific topic. While the question is not as obvious as with push polls, the same sort of reactivity appears to occur when neurolaw is described as benefitting either the prosecution or the defense—at least for Republicans.

If those skeptical about neuroscience being used by defendants  were taught that validation of neuroscience has been established through application by prosecutors, they might be more receptive to it being employed by defendants as well. They are more likely to grant credence to prosecution strategies, so in a paradoxical way, boot-strapping the defense use of neuroscience—by reframing it to be a method used by prosecutors— could raise acceptance among some who are skeptical of defendants.

Shen, F., & Gromet, D. (2015). Red States, Blue States, and Brain States: Issue Framing, Partisanship, and the Future of Neurolaw in the United States The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 658 (1), 86-101 DOI: 10.1177/0002716214555693


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