Archive for the ‘Forensic evidence’ Category
We’ve written about narcissists a fair amount here and today’s post shows us that the brains of narcissists are indeed very special—but not in a good way since they have “weakened frontostriatal connectivity”. But you probably knew that already. It’s a sort of neural disconnect, say the authors, between the self and reward. That disconnect may lead the narcissist to seek excessive reassurance from others.
Researchers from the University of Kentucky at Lexington recruited 50 undergraduate students and asked them to complete the Narcissistic Personality Index. Then they completed a specialized form of MRI with the participants: diffusion tensor imaging (a tool to measure the amount of connectivity between different brain areas). A very simplistic explanation of the technology is that it produces a spiderweb-like visualization of connections between different areas of the brain—you can literally see how much various parts of the brain are communicating.
The researchers were especially interested in an area known as the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC) which is associated with thinking about ourselves, and a second and deeper region of the brain that is associated with reward and feeling good (the ventral striatum).
Even more specifically, they were interested in what they call “the density of the white matter tracts” between the two areas. The “white matter density” would highlight the level of connectivity between these areas of the brain—or, in other words, it would tell us how much these two areas of the brain are talking to each other. How often is the individual experiencing reward and feeling good about themselves?
So, the participants who have completed a measure of narcissism are lying in the MRI machine and having the number of connections between these two areas of the brain measured. Narcissists would say they have very high self-esteem and if that were true, they would have a high number of connections between these two parts of the brain since someone with high self-esteem would internally say nice things about themselves often.
Alas for the narcissists, the specialized brain scan did not show they had strong self-esteem. Instead, the higher the participants scored on the narcissism measure, the fewer connections they had between these two areas of the brain.
The researchers considered the finding and concluded that they see this as indicative of an “internal deficit in self-reward connectivity” in narcissists. In other words, if the narcissist is not having many rewarding thoughts or feelings about the self, they may seek out praise and admiration from others. Finally, the researchers suggest that the brain’s white matter can be modified: “clinical interventions can readily alter white matter integrity”. This fact, they say, suggests another way for narcissists to feel better on their own: repeated self-affirmations. This could help the narcissist refrain from what the researchers describe as characteristic “exhibitionism and immodesty”.
While intellectually interesting, from a litigation advocacy standpoint, we don’t think anyone will be putting neural evidence of neediness on the witness stand soon. But this study still points out an important reality: narcissism may indicate neediness.
Understand what to do when faced with a narcissist (in this case, the narcissistic witness).
Draw out the narcissist in cross-examination by asking for a sharing of expertise. Let jurors see how self-involved and arrogant the narcissist is when unscripted.
Use this understanding (of narcissistic neediness) to help you interact without rancor with a narcissistic colleague, client, or supervisor.
Chester, DS Lynam, DR Powell, DK DeWall, CN 2015 Narcissism is associated with weakened frontostriatal connectivity: a DTI study. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.
Criminal psychopaths are a common topic we write about here. They are notoriously difficult to treat, but are so disturbing they make for fascinating study (and hopefully reading). Some say they are not treatable. They are highly likely to reoffend after incarceration and prison is neither a deterrent nor a punishment for many of them. So to see a research article on an actual treatment for the adult psychopath is noteworthy.
These researchers recruited 14 criminal psychopaths with long and very violent histories who were serving long-term sentences in forensic psychiatric institutions with high security regulations in Germany to take part in a neurofeedback training program. Neurofeedback involves hooking a person up to an EEG machine to monitor brain activity. The brain activity is displayed on a computer screen as a graphical object and the person involved attempts to move the graphical display by controlling their brain activity—and they are rewarded for so doing, as in a video game.
So the psychopaths had 25 training sessions (each about an hour-long) in neurofeedback spread out over about 3 months and afterwards, they demonstrated “improved control” over their brain activity and reported (in questionnaire completion) having “reduced levels of impulsivity and aggression”. Those with the most “improved control” reported larger reductions in their aggression.
The researchers say that they will need to do more research but these criminal psychopaths were able to improve their brain activity control and reported a decrease in the impulsivity and aggression that varied depending on how much they improved in their ability to control brain activity. I guess it’s comforting that they report lower aggression, but I’m not sure I’d accept the word of a psychopath on that. The researchers think it would be good to have outcome measures that were not reliant on self-reports from severely violent psychopaths and we would agree. Very, very strongly…
Let’s consider the life of the severe criminal psychopath serving a “long term sentence in forensic psychiatric institutions with high security regulations”. They must get very bored and this research presents an opportunity to have 25 hours over the course of three months away from their highly restricted routine. The sample is very small (only 14) and while they did improve in their ability to control their brain activity on an EEG monitor, that makes them completely unremarkable. It isn’t a terribly hard thing to do, it simply requires an effort. And they really have little else to do.
It’s an interesting line of inquiry though and we’ll watch for more on this one. At this point though, it is likely interesting but meaningless in the overall question of what we do with the severely violent criminal psychopath.
Konicar L, Veit R, Eisenbarth H, Barth B, Tonin P, Strehl U, & Birbaumer N (2015). Brain self-regulation in criminal psychopaths. Scientific reports, 5 PMID: 25800672
Our posts on women stalkers are often listed in internet searches that bring people to our blog. Women stalk. Women also kill. In fact, it is believed that about 16% of serial killers (about 1 in 6) are female. Although it is hard for many to see women as capable of extreme crimes like murder, the researchers whose work we feature today have no such illusions. [If you can’t wrap your brain around that notion, we suggest you spend an evening alone in your house with all of the lights turned down, and watch the film Monster, an account of the convicted female serial killer Aileen Wuornos.]
“Contrary to preconceived notions about women being incapable of these extreme crimes, the women in our study poisoned, smothered, burned, choked, shot, bludgeoned, and shot newborns, children, elderly, and ill people as well as healthy adults; most often those who knew and likely trusted them.”
This is a chilling article to read (likely because of our stereotypes of women as nurturing caregivers). The researchers used murderpedia.org to identify female serial killers and then followed up with research in newspapers, police reports, et cetera. They were able to verify every female serial killer listed in murderpedia.org as having killed in the United States between 1821 and 2014.
They ended up with a sample of 64 female serial killers who killed in the United States and were almost entirely (98.4%) born in the US as well. Here’s what female serial killers (FSKs) look like in the United States:
Most were White (55, 88.7%) with six (9.7%) being Black and one (1.6%) Latina.
They were married (54.2%), divorced (15.3%), widowed (13.5%), in long-term committed relationships (8.5%) and single (8.5%).
Some were well-educated with a third (34.6%) having college degrees, 19.2% had some college or post-high-school professional training, 15.4% were high school graduates, and 30.8% dropped out of high school.
They held a wide variety of jobs including nursing, teaching, and prostitution. Many (39.2%) worked in health-related positions (such as nursing, nurse aides, or health administration). Others (21.6%) had other direct caregiving roles (babysitter, homemaker with children). The remainder (39.2%) were employed in a wide variety of jobs ranging from “farmer, gang leader, custodian, prostitute, psychic, drug dealer, and waitress”.
On average, they were about 32 years old when they first began to kill, but the age range was from 16 to age 65 so there is considerable variation. Similarly, they had an average “killing time span” of 7.25 years but the range was from all murders being committed in a single year to murders committed over a 31-year period. The 64 FSKs in this sample averaged 6.1 victims with a range of 3-31 victims.
Nearly 40% in the sample experienced some form of mental illness, while nearly one-third (31.5%) had been either physically or sexually abused (or both) by either parents or grandparents in childhood, and by husbands or long-term partners in adulthood. Even in the absence of diagnosed mental illness, the authors report “dysfunctional personality characteristics” such as lying, manipulation or insincerity in many FSKs. It’s hard to imagine being surprised that serial killers might be insincere.
Most commonly they killed for financial gain but they also killed for power, revenge, notoriety, and excitement. Women did not generally sexually assault their victims, nor did they tend to mutilate or torture like we see with male serial killers.
Their tendency was to kill both men and women (67.3%) with some killing male victims only (20%) and others killing female victims only (12.7%).They knew all or most of their victims and, in fact, were related to most of their victims (e.g., their children, their spouse, fiancé, boyfriends, mothers, mothers-in-law, fathers, aunts, cousins, and nephews). In every case, they targeted at least one victim who had little chance of fighting back (e.g., a child, the elderly, or the infirm).
The upper class (socioeconomically) was rarely represented (4.3%) with most FSKs being middle class (55.3%) and a few less being lower class (40.4%).
Their most common method of killing was poisoning (they are four times more likely than men to drug their victims).
A summary table from the article itself shows the range of killing methods used by FSKs.
In short, women (like men) kill. But, say these researchers, women tend to kill for resources (e.g., profit, comfort, control) while men kill for sex (e.g., rape, sexual torture, mutilation).
Harrison, M., Murphy, E., Ho, L., Bowers, T., & Flaherty, C. (2015). Female serial killers in the United States: means, motives, and makings The Journal of Forensic Psychiatry & Psychology, 1-24 DOI: 10.1080/14789949.2015.1007516
We’ve seen the claims that people don’t find brain scans as alluring as they used to, but here is a study that says, “not so fast!”. It’s an oddly intriguing study involving not only invoking pretty pictures of brain function but also political affiliation and how that factors in to what one chooses to believe.
Much attention over recent years has been given to “an attack on science”, with many public figures (including elected officials) insisting that evolution is a hoax, climate science isn’t real, and vaccines are somehow more harmful than helpful. [For the record, here at the Jury Room we are big-time fans of science. I want to believe that our readers knew that already.]
Researchers discuss perceptions of “soft science” and “hard science” and the general sense that “hard science” is viewed as more reliable, accurate and precise. They describe multiple experiments showing people tend to prefer “hard science” data to data offered by those in “soft science”. The question these researchers focused on was whether “hard science” data (in this case, a brain scan) would be preferred over “soft science” data (in this case, cognitive test results). They also wondered if this preference (for “hard science” or “soft science” data) would be mediated by political orientation.
In the study (106 participants, 83 women, 23 men; ranging in age from 18 years to 47 years with an average age of 19.6 years; 77 identified as White, 17 said they were African-American, and “five or fewer” identified as Asian American, Latino/Latina or other) completed a pretest online which included two questions about their political preference (both used by the American National Election Studies).
Generally speaking, do you think of yourself as a Democrat Republican, Independent, or something else?
If you selected Democrat or Republican for the previous question, would you call yourself a strong Democrat or Republican or a not very strong Democrat or Republican?
Only those participants who identified as either Democrat or Republican were eligible to participate in the study which they were told would involve them reading about an ethics violation and then making judgments about the case.
In the study itself, participants read a one-paragraph case description about a politician elected to office in a geographically distant state who had recently been cited for three ethical violations. The paragraph informed them the ethics committee had questioned the politician’s memory and asked him to have an evaluation done on his memory to determine if memory issues would prevent him from carrying out his duties as an elected representative. Finally, the participants read that if the testing determined the politician was impaired, he would be forced to resign and the governor of the state would appoint a replacement to serve until the next election. The paragraph description concluded by saying the governor had announced that any replacement appointees would be members of the same political party as the governor.
There were (you knew this was coming) several variations in the information the participants read about the politician and his situation.
Half of the participants read that the politician tested was a Democrat and the governor of his state was a Republican. The other half read that the politician was a Republican and the governor of his state was a Democrat.
The researchers paid attention to the political identification of the participant and if the participant said they were Republican and read about a Republican politician—they were placed in a group for analysis that was labeled in-group. If, on the other hand, a Republican participant read about a Democratic politician, they were placed in a group labeled out-group for analysis purpose. (The same applied vice versa when party preference is opposite.) Further, if the participant endorsed a strong affiliation politically, they were classified in the strong political identification group and if they endorsed a weak affiliation politically, they were classified in the weak political identification group.
After reading the initial description of the situation, all participants read a two-paragraph description of an expert evaluation of the politician. The expert mentioned in this description was a “Dr. Daniel Weinberger”. The participants received differing information about how Dr. Weinberger had evaluated the politician’s cognitive function.
Half the participants read that Dr. Weinberger reviewed the politician’s medical history and gave him verbal or paper and pencil tests (commonly used by neuropsychologists).
The other half of the participants read that Dr. Weinberger reviewed the politician’s medical history and conducted an MRI of the politician’s brain. (It is important here to note that no MRI images were shown. All the participants saw were words describing the process and then, the outcome.)
The second paragraph offered a description of the results of the evaluations in ways consistent with either verbal or paper and pencil tests or an MRI. For all participants, the second paragraph ended with identical statements saying that the expert concluded the “politician was suffering from beginning-stage Alzheimer’s disease, that symptoms will continue, and the symptoms will interfere with the politician’s ability to perform his duties”.
And here are the findings:
Biologically based information (i.e., the brain MRI) was viewed more favorably (69.8% said the evidence the politician had early stage Alzheimer’s was strong and convincing) than the behaviorally based (i.e., cognitive testing) information (only 39.5% said the evidence the politician had early stage Alzheimer’s was strong and convincing).
When asked to identify the one most important reason they felt the way they did about the evidence presented, those who saw the behavioral evidence said it was subjective and perhaps unreliable or irrelevant—more than 15% said the neuropsychological testing was unreliable or irrelevant. Not a single participant who saw the biologically based evidence said the MRI evidence might be unreliable—in fact, they saw it as objective, valid and reliable. (Anyone with any knowledge of the validating research and very detailed manuals accompanying psychological tests might find this, as the researchers say, “perplexing”. Of course, those who have that knowledge base would not qualify for inclusion in this study.)
Those participants who were in political out-group assignments (that is, Republican participants who read about a Democratic politician or Democratic participants who read about a Republican politician) were more likely to discount the behavioral science evidence than those in political in-group assignments.
In short, in this study, participants saw the MRI as more reliable and relevant than the cognitive testing, and those with strong political identities discounted the cognitive testing even more than those without the strong political sense of self.
Despite the reality that Alzheimer’s would always be diagnosed with cognitive testing, and brain scans used after testing was completed to rule out other explanations for impairments identified by testing—these participants preferred the verbally described brain images of “hard science” to the low-tech paper-and-pencil tests of the neuropsychologist. It’s a finding that underscores the importance of expert testimony informing jurors of how a diagnosis is made so they know if testing was performed because of the “wow” factor of a colorful MRI or to offer a research-based assessment of brain/memory impairment.
In other words, don’t believe everything you read– jurors can still be seduced by what looks like “hard science”. Your task is to show them what scientific findings are truly backed up by years of scientific research and development.
Munro, G., & Munro, C. (2014). “Soft” Versus “Hard” Psychological Science: Biased Evaluations of Scientific Evidence That Threatens or Supports a Strongly Held Political Identity. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 36 (6), 533-543 DOI: 10.1080/01973533.2014.960080
If you think neurolaw and neuroscience are everywhere–and don’t find it particularly challenging to talk about brain science, apparently you are living in a very rarified environment. It’s hard to believe but evidently, most people do not think the exploding field of brain science is fascinating! Instead, when they think of brain science they think of things that are far removed from their daily lives and things that make them anxious. [Or bore them to tears.] For litigators this has crucial ramifications, since any body of technical information that is worth presenting to a jury requires understanding if it is to be useful.
UK scientists interviewed 48 London residents about “brain science”. They 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. Maybe… too little too late?
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. The individual quotes the researchers included however, highlight the lack of awareness of brain science or research:
“Brain research I understand, an image of, I don’t know, a monkey or a dog with like the top of their head off and electrodes and stuff on their brain.” [Male participant]
“It does conjure up images of, you know, strange men in white coats.” [Female participant]
“You just, like I say, blind people with science, don’t you. And then it becomes a subject that you just don’t understand. With me, I just switch off. I’m not understanding what you’re talking about here, so I just switch off.” [Male participant]
“Where do these people come from, that actually understand these things?” [Female participant]
The researchers highlight the reality that most people do not see “brain science” as something relevant or a part of their lives. However, if an individual developed a mental illness or a neurological condition–they believe they would have more interest in learning. Without those catalysts, however, they have little interest in pushing themselves to understand more. The researchers report the concept of “brain science” seemed foreign or “baffling” to most of those interviewed.
From a litigation advocacy perspective, this study highlights the importance of teaching the science. Whether “the science” of a specific case is patent law, high-tech and abstract concepts, or actual “brain science”–jurors need to hear it and have a sense that they understand it enough to actually make judgments on the case. Keep in mind that they are going to judge it whether it is understood or not. The question is simply whether the judgment is going to be informed by bias, by knowledge, or by a coin flip and a longing to be done with jury duty. We know from 20 years of interviewing jurors that they strongly prefer having clear understanding. And that, dear litigator, is up to you.
We have worked on cases in which animation helped jurors make sense of complex computer programming and on others where the analogy of ordering a pizza with different toppings or a hamburger with or without special sauce were used to help jurors understand different technology applications in an especially complex patent infringement case. We’ve also worked on cases where there were allegations of neurological injuries but a very normal looking Plaintiff and jurors had to “see” the injuries somehow to help them understand what had been lost.
Never lose sight of how foreign the concepts truly are, and help jurors understand so they do not have to “shut off” as one of the interviewees in this study confessed to doing. Often, our mock jurors help to make the abstract and complex both concrete and simple, or at least familiar. Just because you have been buried in a case for years and live, eat and breathe the science, doesn’t mean jurors will have a clue about what you are presenting to them. Teach them in a way that helps them relate the abstract and esoteric to their everyday lives. It empowers them to make the right call. If you don’t know how to explain it to ‘real people’, gather a group of mock jurors and ask them what makes sense, where they get lost, and what analogies are most useful to them. If you invite them to the conversation in the right way, they’ll tell you.
O’Connor, C., & Joffe, H. (2014). Social Representations of Brain Research: Exploring Public (Dis)engagement With Contemporary Neuroscience Science Communication, 36 (5), 617-645 DOI: 10.1177/1075547014549481