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democrat-republicanToday’s researchers are finding political party differences consistently on hot button issues. They simply ask if political affiliation is Republican, Democrat, or Independent, and have found it predictive. In case this paragraph is the only part of this post that you read, we hasten to add [spoiler alert!] that while on some cases it is useful to know (especially those involving tort reform issues or other politically linked controversies), there is often no predictive value related to party affiliation.

These researchers commissioned an October 2013 national survey with 2000 respondents (i.e., registered voters interviewed online) to see if Americans see science as relevant to policy making/writing. They were particularly interested in “how political attitudes, along with religious faith and education, impact views about the proper role of science in shaping public policy”. What they found was that, “most Americans view science as relevant to policy, but that their willingness to defer to science in policy matters varies considerably across issues”.

The results of this paper are complex and we are only going to focus on how they found Republicans and Democrats to be different. The survey asked about 16 different issues (with many of them being potentially divisive): embryonic stem cell research, fetus viability, global warming/climate change, gay adoption, childhood obesity and diet restrictions, AIDS prevention, birth control education, legalizing drug use, mandatory health insurance, regulation of coal production, mandatory background checks for gun permits, producing biotech food and crops, regulation of nuclear power, animal testing for medical research, mandatory childhood vaccinations, and teaching evolution and the origins of humans.

And here is what they found:

Republicans and Democrats do disagree across all 16 items surveyed with Democrats much more likely to defer to science across all 16 issues. It is not that Republicans are anti-science. It is that Democrats are very pro-science and willing to defer to scientists strongly on almost all policy issues.

Republicans and Independents have only slight differences in their responses about deference to science on policy issues. What this survey shows is that Democrats stand alone while Republicans and Independents have a more similar  perspective on scientific findings as the foundation for public policy.

What the researchers say is that identifying as Democrat is connected to a strong, pro-science stance but identifying as Republican is not indicative (at all) of being anti-science. Instead, religious beliefs and political ideology (whether you see yourself as liberal or conservative) is more important than political affiliation.

The researchers think the majority of the American public is comfortable deferring to science on public policy issues and indicate that identifying as Republican was only correlated with decreased willingness to defer to scientific opinion on gay adoption and mandatory health insurance and those decreases did not reach statistical significance.

In short, they conclude, if you want Democrats on your side, use scientific research to back up your policy positions.

From a litigation advocacy position, we see this as indicative of the importance of not making assumptions that your Republican jurors will be conservative and anti-science. While it appears you can make the assumption that Democrat jurors will be very pro-science, you cannot make the opposite assumption about Republican jurors. It is far more likely to come down to attitudes, values and beliefs—and not demographic categories like gender, race, and politics.

Blank, J., & Shaw, D. (2015). Does Partisanship Shape Attitudes toward Science and Public Policy? The Case for Ideology and Religion The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 658 (1), 18-35 DOI: 10.1177/0002716214554756


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female serial killerOur 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 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 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.

FSK post insert





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


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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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researchers lieThanks to us, you know researchers trick people into eating dog food, put them in MRI machines that just happen to have snakes in them, and do other nefarious things. But did you know they sometimes enlist your parents in their deception? It is sad, but apparently true. Although these UK and Canadian researchers did not tell the helpful parents they were being used to help researchers lie convincingly to their young adult children.

Of course you know that science—and surely social science in particular—is driven by pure and noble intentions. Never does being deceived feel so warm and fuzzy. In this case, they wanted to know if “innocent adults participants can be convinced, over the course of a few hours, that they had perpetrated crimes as serious as assault with a weapon” between the ages of 11 and 14. The participants were between the ages of 18 and 31 years so you would think they’d have no trouble recalling if something like this were true. But no! Even in a “friendly interview”, almost 3/4 of them actually believed the false memories constructed by the researchers.

As you might imagine, this research grew out of questions related to false confessions and whether, in a lab-setting, researchers could create false memories of serious criminal behavior or serious emotional trauma in young adults. The researchers cite false memories created by other researchers including “getting lost in a shopping mall, being attacked by a vicious animal,” and even (although this is hard to believe) “having tea with Prince Charles”. So the researchers wondered if they could create false memories of crime in young adults if their “caregivers” (i.e., parents) report such an event actually happened.

The researchers recruited undergraduates from a Canadian university (N = 60; 43 females; average age 20 years with age range from 18-31 years; all but five were Caucasian  and English native speakers) and asked them to allow their parents to complete “an extensive questionnaire” reporting on various emotional events in their lives between the ages of 11 and 14. The researchers wanted to be sure of three things: that the student-participant had experienced at least one highly emotional event during those years, had never been involved in a crime, and had had no police contact during adolescence.

They actually began with more than 120 students and culled down the list to those who met these three criteria. Yes, fully half of the original group apparently flunked this screener. Since you have to be asleep between 11-14 to avoid a highly emotional experience, we are left to assume that about half of the undergrads at this university had some pretty dicey behavior at a very young age! It might also explain why most of the remaining subjects were female. This really messes with my impression of gracious and polite Canadians…

The sixty students who participated in the study were told they were in a study that was examining various memory retrieval strategies and came back to the lab for three separate 40-minute interviews that occurred about a week apart. During the first interview, the researcher told the participant about two events s/he had experienced between the ages of 11 and 14. The catch was that only one of the events were true. Some of the students were told about a crime that resulted in contact with the police (such as assault, assault with a weapon, or theft). Others were told about a false event that was emotional in nature (such as a serious personal injury, an attack by a dog, or losing a large sum of money).

To ‘hook’ the students, the researchers included some details in the stories of the false events that were true and that had actually occurred between the ages of 11 and 14. None of the students remembered any of the false events having occurred. (Thank goodness! Although when they figure out their parents aided and abetted the researchers in lying to them we predict a long line at the campus counseling center.) So when they did not recall, the researchers asked them to try harder and told them that most people can remember things they do not initially recall clearly if they just use some memory strategies (like the strategy where you consider what it would feel like to engage in the false events). And try these students did!

In the second and third interviews, the participants were asked again to recall as much as possible about the two events (one untrue/false) discussed in the first interview. The students were also asked how vivid their recollection of the event was and how confident they were in their recollection of the memories.

And here are the (shocking and disturbing) results:

30 participants were told they had committed a crime as a teenager, and 21 (71%) developed a false memory of the crime. 20 were told they had assaulted someone either with or without a weapon and 11 (55%) reported elaborate stories of their interactions with the police.

Students who were told of an emotional event also formed false memories (76.7%) of that event.

The criminal false events were just as readily believed as the emotional events. Students provided roughly the same number of details and had similar levels of confidence in the memory. The researchers believe that incorporating true details into the story and having it (supposedly) corroborated by the student’s parents was instrumental in making the false event have enough familiarity that it seemed plausible. (Lots of therapy. That’s all there is to say about this. We recommend that the therapy focus on implanting false memories of the parents having been abducted and forced to invent lies about their kids.) On a positive note, the students gave more details and had more confidence in their descriptions of the true memories. And while we have fun at the creative inclusion of the parents in this research, the researchers used the true reports of the parents as a basis for creating a false story. The parents didn’t know what was to be done with the information they provided.

The researchers explain their results by saying they think the use of the context reinstatement exercise (that’s the one where you picture what it would be like to engage in the false events) was instrumental in the results. “In other words, imagined memory elements regarding what something could have been like can turn into elements of what it would have been like, which can become elements of what it was like.”

From a litigation advocacy perspective, this is but one in a long series of reasons for you to always question the accuracy of memory-related evidence. We have studied and written about this subject before as it has grave consequences for testimony and false confessions, especially when the confessional situation is stressful or is conducted by a professional interrogator. The idea that so many of these participants were led to believe in the accuracy of false memories in such a short period of time speaks volumes about how memory is malleable and modified over time.

Shaw, J., & Porter, S. (2015). Constructing Rich False Memories of Committing Crime. Psychological Science DOI: 10.1177/0956797614562862


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racial injusticeWe write a lot about racial bias here at The Jury Room and a new article from Sam Sommers and Satia Marotta is a terrific summary of how unconscious racial biases can taint the legal system. The article itself has been picked up by a number of media outlets, including ScienceDaily, Pacific Standard and blogs like The Crime Report, News.Mic, Social Science Space, Science Newsline Psychology, and more. It’s an article well worth writing about and the quality of the content is enough to publish a reprint in the upcoming February issue of The Jury Expert (where we never publish reprints, but in this case, we will).

If you click on the links in this post, you will have a good sense of what the article has to say, so we will not summarize it again here. But here are three key points taken directly from the article.

“Criminal suspects’ race affects how police confront them: Unconscious processes link Blacks and Latinos with danger. Police training and documenting outcomes (e.g., a national Justice Database) can help.

Few studies examine how race influences prosecutorial charging decisions, but evidence shows that race affects related processes (e.g., assessing juveniles, determining justifiable homicide).

Race also plays a role in court: Defendant race, victim race, and juror race all correspond to trial outcomes. Policy interventions include jury instructions regarding unconscious bias and promoting better demographic representation in juries.”

This is a terrific piece (really, go visit those URLs at the top of the post) and we’ll alert you when the February 2015 issue of The Jury Expert uploads so you can go see for yourself. We will close with another quote from the article itself that eloquently reminds us this is not just something that “other people” do:

“Addressing these disparities also requires acknowledging that all of us, regardless of personal ideology or professional oath, are susceptible to such biases, even when making life-and-death decisions.”

Sommers, S., & Marotta, S. (2014). Racial Disparities in Legal Outcomes: On Policing, Charging Decisions, and Criminal Trial Proceedings Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 1 (1), 103-111 DOI: 10.1177/2372732214548431


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