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Archive for the ‘NeuroLaw’ Category

danger will robinsonWhile those of you who have worked with (or lived with) functional psychopaths before may want to scream “Danger, Will Robinson!” — an international group of researchers (studying German research participants) have identified a “good psychopath” and a “bad psychopath” (when it comes to employment) and they even suggest a scale measuring sub-clinical forms of psychopathy (and earnestly tell the reader this will get around that pesky US ADA restriction against measuring psychopathy on “clinical” scales in an employment setting). They take issue with even the label psychopathy as it loosely means “disease of the soul”. We can quibble about terminology, but their results highlight factors to consider when hiring anyone.

Here’s a brief look at how they came to their conclusions and recommendations for hiring people, some of whom are likely to fall on the troubling end of a psychopathology continuum. First, they explain the differences between primary and secondary psychopathy.

Primary psychopathy, according to the researchers, is characterized by “fearless dominance” (which they describe as wanting to get your own way no matter what the consequences of your actions). Their traits, say the researchers, include “an egotistical personal style characterized by self-promotion and prioritization of one’s own needs before those of others”. Yet, primary psychopaths, they say, are often described by coworkers as helpful, cooperative and pleasant if and only if, the psychopath also had good social skills that were present in the workplace (and those social skills helped them keep their arrogance , egocentrism, and prioritization of own needs and wants over those of others at bay). Or, we imagine, as long as their views are supported by others.

Secondary psychopathy, according to the researchers, is characterized by “self-centered impulsivity”. These psychopaths, according to the researchers, lack an inner braking system and thus have no self-control—they also have no consideration for others. Their traits, say the researchers, include “behavioral impulsivity characterized by disregard for rules and responsibilities”, thrill-seeking, and blaming others for their misfortunes. Consistent with this trait description of secondary psychopaths, coworkers often characterize the secondary psychopath as destructive, not helpful to others, and weak in terms of work performance when it comes to self-disciplined behaviors such as working hard, following workplace rules, taking initiative, being considerate and cooperative, or helping others with their tasks.

By definitions embraced elsewhere, Primary psychopathy might be considered more narcissistic, while the lack of control and the heartlessness of Secondary psychopathy is more aligned with the traditional view of psychopathy.

The researchers think our tendency is to assume that all psychopaths have “the malevolent, exploitive, agentic, and callous personality traits” characterizing heinous criminal offenders. However, they say, that description is only relevant for the “clinical psychopaths” which comprise only about 1% of the entire population of psychopaths. Psychopathy, like other human traits, lies on a continuum and the researchers believe that about 10% of individuals with psychopathic traits have “subclinical” levels of psychopathy. (They do not indicate what this means about the remaining 90% of people in the pool of psychopaths—although they do conclude they do not consider “cold-heartedness” in their model since it was not statistically related to what they we’re trying to measure.)

The issue with employment, the researchers say, is not whether you have multiple (sub-clinical) psychopathic tendencies—but rather, how well your particular form of psychopathy fits with your job description (as well as, naturally, your level of social skill). They opine in their 30+ page paper that primary psychopaths can “be selfless heroes in everyday life, such as life-savers, emergency physicians, or fire-fighters” and think we should differentiate more carefully in the large class of psychopaths—both primary and secondary types.

Again, the paper has to be read with a willingness to accept their use of the term “Primary Psychopath”, which by its definition is a milder form.

The researchers used a measure of psychopathy that is able to “detect relatively mild levels of psychopathy traits in non forensic samples (the Psychopathic Personality Inventory—Revised, we’ll blog about this scale in our next post) and they mention the scale is useful for workplace settings since it measures subclinical psychopathy. (We should perhaps mention the scale has 150+ questions on it and some of them are quite odd—but more on that in our next post.)

Overall, say the researchers, the primary psychopath with good interpersonal skills is a good bet for the workplace but if they do not have good interpersonal skills, they will likely be as destructive as the secondary psychopath for workplace productivity and morale.

From a law office management perspective, we really would not recommend this sort of strategy. What they seem to intimate is that you want to find the 10% of the psychopathic population who have moderate psychopathic tendencies and then, divide them into primary and secondary psychopaths and then, figure out which of the primary psychopaths have really good social skills so their behaviors will not wreak havoc in your workplace.

Putting on our duly licensed Psychologist hats for a moment, the distinction seems to be a very slippery slope. Secondary psychopaths are trouble from the beginning. Primary psychopaths have better social skills so they can manage the day to day more successfully, but under stress they are going to create havoc, too. And we have never seen a trial team that isn’t under terrific stress. It is the nature of litigation, and stress tolerances need to be higher than average, not a potential area of weakness.

The authors put a troubling amount of faith in a psychological trait scale, when you can assess the same things by looking at work history, length of relationships, and having your own warning signs on high alert during the interview process. Use your intuition about whether someone will be a good fit. It is also risky to assume you can “get around” the Americans with Disabilities Act by using the PPI-R scale with job applicants when what you are measuring is psychopathy and resulting goodness of fit in your workplace.

And a high-functioning psychopathic attorney is just the kind of person to drag you through a lawsuit by claiming that you rejected him or her based on an ADA protected factor.

Schutte, N., Blickle, G., Frieder, R., Wihler, A., Schnitzler, F., Heupel, J., & Zettler, I. (2015). The Role of Interpersonal Influence in Counterbalancing Psychopathic Personality Trait Facets at Work Journal of Management DOI: 10.1177/0149206315607967


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Odds and EndsWe often do these combination posts when we do not want to devote an entire post to a single article but think the information is worth sharing (or simply too odd not to share). So read on and be a scintillating (or perhaps simply odd) conversationalist.

Smartphone alerts increase both inattention and hyperactivity

This is one of those titles that makes us think, “They had to do research to figure that one out?” Well, yes. Perhaps they weren’t sure about it, or perhaps they didn’t have a lock on tenure quite yet. You can read a summary over at ScienceDaily but the gist of it is that students were asked to put their phones on either silent, vibrate or ring for two weeks and to also report their symptoms of inattention and hyperactivity. As you may have guessed (hey, you too could have tenure!) those who had their phones on vibrate or ring (as opposed to silent) had more symptoms of inattention and hyperactivity. We all know what it feels like to be waiting for the phone to ring. Well, most of us anyhow.

On nasal diversity, or, Why your nose is shaped like that

You may have always thought you inherited your nose shape from your parents but that is very short-sighted thinking on your part. And while you also may have thought there was likely a gene that chooses the shape of your nose—new research shows us that as many as four genes interact to determine the ultimate shape (what these researchers describe as the “overall width and pointiness”) of your nose. There is a brief writeup on this new study looking closely at more than 6,000 noses over at NatureWorld News. If this seems like useless information, you have been reading carefully. Extra credit for anyone who can report a way to work this information into a social conversation without offending anyone!

Talk about climate change so people will listen

We’ve written about climate change before but here’s another strategy to consider. Instead of appealing to the individual—appeal to the collective (or ‘royal’) “we”. A new study in the journal Climatic Change tells us that people are willing “to donate up to 50% more cash to the cause when thinking about the problem in collective terms”. For comparison, thinking about climate change from an individual perspective produced “little to no change in behavior”. And, for reasons the researchers cannot explain, the effect seems to persist.

This actually has relevance for litigators, since it involves motivating people to action. The ‘golden rule’ bar on argument obliges attorneys not to make it relate to the lives of jurors personally, but this research suggests that you will be more successful if you argue on a broader basis (the benefit of society, et cetera) anyway.  If you cannot access the journal article itself, you can read an accurate translation over at ScienceDaily.

Sexist behavior: Can neuroscience tell us why it happens?

Christian Jarret (known to us from his long-time reign over at BPS Research Digest) is a consistently clear and accurate translator of even dense and confusing material. His recent translation of the article titled Amygdala and cingulate structure is associated with stereotype on sex-role is a good example of his ability to take incomprehensible research and make it understandable and even interesting. [Yes, we knew you were waiting on tenterhooks for this one.]

The original article is in Scientific Reports and currently is open-access but we think you’ll save a lot of time and frustration by reading Christian’s summary over at New York Magazine’s Science of Us blog! Basically he concludes that no—neuroscience isn’t able to explain sexism since there is no specific brain anatomy that points to sexist beliefs. But those who express sexist attitudes appear to be psychologically vulnerable individuals who are both fearful and competitive. [Score: Neuroscience 0, Psychology 1.]

Obradovich, N., & Guenther, S. (2016). Collective responsibility amplifies mitigation behaviors. Climatic Change DOI: 10.1007/s10584-016-1670-9


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normal brain criminal brainWe’ve written about neurolaw fairly routinely here and recently Science Magazine took a look at what they call “the growing use of neurobiological evidence in criminal trials”. In our own experiences with pretrial research, mock jurors are not often accepting of “my brain made me do it” defenses and will roll their eyes and sometimes openly mock the defense claims. This exemplifies the uphill battle that neurobiological defenses face, but they can succeed. There are increasing numbers of cases with such defenses presented in court. A recent article in the Journal of Law and Biosciences reported that in 2012 more than 250 cases involving “my brain made me do it” defenses were brought to trial and this was more than double the number of similar claims made in 2007. Science Magazine offers this case summary to illustrate:

In 2008, in El Cajon, California, 30-year-old John Nicholas Gunther bludgeoned his mother to death with a metal pipe, and then stole $1378 in cash, her credit cards, a DVD/VCR player, and some prescription painkillers. At trial, Gunther admitted to the killing, but argued that his conviction should be reduced to second-degree murder because he had not acted with premeditation. A clinical psychologist and neuropsychologist testified that two previous head traumas—one the result of an assault, the other from a drug overdose—had damaged his brain’s frontal lobes, potentially reducing Gunther’s ability to plan the murder, and causing him to act impulsively. The jury didn’t buy Gunther’s defense, however; based on other evidence (such as the fact that Gunther had previously talked about killing his mother with friends) the court concluded that he was guilty of first-degree murder, and gave him a 25-years-to-life prison sentence.

This is precisely the sort of reaction we have come to anticipate from mock jurors. You cannot “see” the impact of mental illness or head injury, so mock jurors look for evidence to support guilt despite allegations of brain injury or mental illness. Yet, as pointed out in the Farahany article in the Journal of Law and the Biosciences, the increasing use of “my brain made me do it” defenses means the defense is likely here to stay and neuroscientists need to enter the picture to help us all make sense of the defenses and to know whether the defense is legitimate or if the science cannot yet support the defense claims.

Neuroscientists should be at the forefront of this conversation—as experts in criminal courtrooms, in public presentations, through accessible writing for public audiences, or by filing amicus briefs in legal cases where neurobiological evidence is at issue. Neurobiological evidence has profound implications for some of the most significant decisions we make in law and policy. It’s time we better understand how it’s being used and start to address how it may be better used in our criminal justice system.

From a litigation advocacy perspective, we think this makes a lot of sense. When we have had cases involving illegal or grossly inappropriate behavior following a head injury, it has been very helpful for our jurors to understand the science of what areas of the brain control behavior and were damaged by some sort of trauma. Even when they do understand basic brain function though, the evidence is seen as something for which to have empathy but our mock jurors want to fall back on individual responsibility and believe the defendant should be responsible for behavior.

The implications of the tragedy (both the brain injury of the accused and the victims of their aggression) is too distressing for many people to really accept. If jurors want certainty in life, then the prospect that there are people walking the streets looking mostly normal, who are yet subject to intense, violent outbursts is too upsetting. There is a fear that if we excuse behavior based on genes or brain injuries, we can never feel safe again.

For the time being, the challenge will be to find jurors who can tolerate the uncertainty of life, and the potential that head injuries and biochemistry can turn Dr. Jekyl into Mr. Hyde. Until the defense can come up with a way to help jurors hearing “my brain made me do it” defenses feel safe excusing a defendant, the neurobiological defenses will likely continue to be largely ineffective.

Farahany, N. (2016). Neuroscience and behavioral genetics in US criminal law: an empirical analysis Journal of Law and the Biosciences DOI: 10.1093/jlb/lsv059


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sleep demonWe read a lot of articles in order to blog regularly and often find intriguing (not to mention weird, odd, esoteric, freakish) pieces of information to which we do not wish to devote an entire post—yet, also do not wish to hoard the information. At times like these, you will see a collection of the strange and wonderful tidbits that cross our path.

Sleep Paralysis’ Demons

This is a scary thing we’ve blogged about before but sort of as an aside in a post primarily about exploding head syndrome. Yes. That’s really a thing. Today though, we are focused on the horror that is sleep paralysis (made only more horrifying one might imagine, by the accompanying presence of a sleep demon). Apparently, 40% of us will suffer from sleep paralysis at some point in our lives.

“This terror-inducing experience occurs when a person on the border between wakefulness and sleep gains partial consciousness. The dreamer may perceive that a menacing, oftentimes-otherworldly intruder is in their room or bed, yet they are incapable of moving or screaming—even as the creature begins choking, crushing, raping or attacking them. Scientists believe it’s all a hallucination, but in the throes of an attack, sleep paralysis’ demons can be deeply convincing.”

A specialist on this disorder makes perhaps the biggest understatement of all time in saying this experience can be “pretty troubling”.

“It’s a pretty troubling event for at least a portion of the people who have the disorder,” says Allan Cheyne, a retired cognitive psychologist, formerly at the University of Waterloo. “They might think it was demonic possession or alien abduction, the beginnings of a stroke, incipient psychosis that’s going to get worse or that they’re never going to come out of the paralysis.”

At least if this happens to you, you will know what it is and that sleep paralysis demon is not truly real. You’re welcome.

Assassins who apparently were not reliable vendors

It can be a hard lesson to learn that one should always vet new vendors carefully. Perhaps it is an even harder lesson to learn that your spouse wants to have you killed. All’s well that ends well for the potential victim in this murder for hire story. A man paid hit men to kill his spouse and even paid them a bonus for reporting a successful kill. Then, she showed up at her own funeral and the man was unnerved to discover she was not an apparition but living and breathing. The story tells the tale of “three unusually principled hit men” and the events surrounding the failed murder plot. Her husband has been sentenced to prison for nine years in Melbourne, Australia and the woman says she is starting a new life.

A nose for criminals

You know that dogs have a terrific sense of smell and now that powerful nose is being put to work to see if someone was at the scene of a crime. Apparently dogs can get it right about 80-90% of the time and there were no false positives generated after a year of training the dogs. If the dogs erred at all, they failed to identify someone who was there—for some reason they never falsely accused anyone. Good doggie!! The study itself is open access at PLOSONE. The field of study is called the science of “odorology” and relies on the dogs powerful sense of smell and extensive training.

“It has been used in France since 2003 in police investigations to establish that an individual has been present at a crime scene. The method is based on the fact that each person has their own scent and relies on the powerful canine sense of smell (which can be 200 to 10,000 times more sensitive than that of a human being).”

How big was that spider? It was HUGE!!!

It will come as no shock to the arachnophobes among us that when you are fearful of spiders they appear to be larger to you. This was research where the scientists had participants look at photos of birds and spiders and butterflies. Only those participants who were “highly fearful” overestimated the size of the spiders compared to butterflies. The researchers, in a stunning finding, say that “perception of even a basic feature such as size is influenced by emotion”. They are hopeful their study will be useful in work with phobia treatments.

Men with beards are more likely to be sexist (and other hairy issues)

Beards keep coming up here and we dutifully write about them. In the event you missed it, back in 2011 we blogged about a study saying jurors are more likely to convict defendants with beards and this year we wrote about spotting the lumbersexual in your venire panel. Here’s a new study telling us that men with beards tend to be more sexist. The researchers hypothesized that sexist men are more likely to grow beards in order to appear more masculine and dominant. On a completely unrelated note, another study recently examined whether bald men were indeed more virile. As a public service, here is the link to that study. Finally, while we have not blogged about the virility of bald men, we have blogged about how bald men cannot help but exude confidence, masculinity, authority, and power!

Marchal S, Bregeras O, Puaux D, Gervais R, & Ferry B (2016). Rigorous Training of Dogs Leads to High Accuracy in Human Scent Matching-To-Sample Performance. PLoS ONE, 11 (2) PMID: 26863620


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forensic neuropsychologyWhether you are involved in criminal or civil litigation, before long you are likely to run into a forensic neuropsychologist and a neuropsychological exam. A new article (mostly directed at civil litigation involving adults) discusses 12 forms of bias and how to mitigate those biases. You may want to review it carefully (or have an expert witness review it carefully) prior to trial. The article is written by three practicing forensic neuropsychologists and is intended to assist both the expert witness and both sponsoring and examining attorneys. For the purposes of this blog post, which is only meant to raise your awareness of this resource, we will list the 12 forms of bias that are identified with the author’s recommendations on how to mitigate. This is an information-rich resource, so for additional background and details, please review the article itself.

Logistical and administrative biases (or how the neuropsychologist has arranged the evaluation and the sources of information upon which they rely).

Conflating clinical and forensic roles. There is a clear distinction between these roles and they should not be mixed. The authors give specific examples and describe the differences between a treating expert and a forensic neuropsychologist charged with assessing and writing a report but not with treatment or advocacy.

Financial/payment bias. The authors describe payment arrangements on a continuum from “straightforward to murky to highly biased”. They recommend a “fee for service” arrangement and offer examples of how alternate arrangements can be questioned in open court.

Referral source bias. The authors describe “Rule 26 disclosure” and how forensic neuropsychologists repeatedly retained by a specific attorney can be seen as “hired guns” by jurors. The authors describe multiple ways you can “see” a referral source bias in a testifying expert.

Self-report bias. The authors describe how some evaluators forget the importance of verifying the report of the examinee with workplace, school and family reports and prior testing to ensure the reports are accurate. They discuss secondary gain, misremembering pre and post injury events, or situation-specific amnesia.

Statistical biases (under-utilization of base rates and ignoring normal variance in test scores).

Under-utilization of base rates. Base rates are often confusing for jurors and it is important that a neuropsychologist uses them accurately even though the authors stress evidence that neuropsychologists are both unaware of base rates and under use them in their evaluations.

Ignoring normal variance in test scores. Another statistical bias is not understanding normal variance in test scores and thus making inappropriate conclusions.

Cognitive, personal and attributional biases.

Confirmation bias. This is a bias we often discuss on our blog and it is also a trap for the unwitting evaluator. Essentially, confirmation bias occurs when you use your pre-existing beliefs to support your hypotheses rather than seeking confirmation in the data.

Personal and political bias. While this may seem to be an obvious bias for the evaluator to guard against, it is commonly seen according to the authors. Additionally, they discuss a term from the psychotherapy arena: countertransference and warn against examinee characteristics “such as age, attractiveness, gender, ethnicity and socioeconomic status” that could bias the examiner either toward or against the examinee.

Group attribution error. This occurs when the examiner makes an assumption about an individual based on the belief that the “individual’s traits are representative of an entire group”. This extends far beyond race and ethnicity with examples offered of examiners who think everyone with Alzheimer’s should present in a certain fashion or everyone with head injuries should have common symptoms, or that everyone with fibromyalgia has a somatoform disorder.

Diagnosis momentum. This is the tendency for a diagnosis to be seen as unquestionably accurate as increasing numbers of people select that specific diagnosis rather than performing a complete evaluation to ensure the validity of the diagnosis of record. This could obviously have major impact on case outcome.

Good old days bias. This is a bias held by the examinee rather than the examiner that may result in self-reports that over-report the level of past function. This makes the examination of prior records imperative and its presence is often seen as a hallmark of a “psychological process that occurs post-injury”.

Overconfidence. This bias happens when an individual neuropsychologist grows sloppy in their work because they feel experienced enough to “know the truth”.

Naming biases seems to be epidemic, kind of like coming up with clever Twitter hashtags. Ultimately, the point is that people try to make sense of confusing or disruptive thoughts and feelings as quickly and effortlessly as they can, even if it requires torturing the truth. Overall, the authors acknowledge there are countless other biases that exist and this is a starting point for assessment of a forensic neuropsychological evaluation. They offer multiple strategies for the forensic evaluator to defend against biases (and thus for the attorney who wishes to examine potential sources of bias in the report). This is a useful resource to keep on hand and use to assess biases that may be present in court-ordered forensic neuropsychological reports.

Effective trial strategies for reducing biases often come from teaching jurors what the possible biases are, and how making smart and correct judgments requires ignoring or avoiding them. Warn jurors of how tempting it can be to race to conclusions, pointing out some of the pitfalls, and tipping them off that getting seduced into getting hooked into these false impressions will not only be a source of error, but for everyone who wants to be correct, it will also be a source of regret.

Richards, P., Geiger, J., & Tussey, C. (2015). The Dirty Dozen: 12 Sources of Bias in Forensic Neuropsychology with Ways to Mitigate Psychological Injury and Law, 8 (4), 265-280 DOI: 10.1007/s12207-015-9235-1


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